RENO - As far as the Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team is concerned, the Western Athletic Conference tournament has already begun.
Well, sort of.
"Yeah, kind of," freshman point guard Deonte Burton said. "I'm not sure if these games have the same quality but we definitely now have a sense of urgency."
The conference's postseason tournament, with an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament for the winner at stake, doesn't officially begin until March 9 in Las Vegas. The Pack, 11-15 overall and 7-5 in the WAC still has four games to play in the regular season, starting tonight (7:35 p.m.) at home against Idaho.
But those four games could go a long way in determining what happens March 9-12 in Las Vegas.
"We have to take it one game at a time and not look into the future," freshman guard Jerry Evans said. "We just have to prepare day by day."
The Wolf Pack, 9-3 at home this season, will wrap up its Lawlor Events Center schedule against Idaho and Saturday night against Boise State (7:35 p.m.).
"If you look at all successful teams," said senior Adam Carp, who will be honored on Senior Night on Saturday, "they take one game at a time and never look ahead. That's what we have to do."
Easy to say, not so easy to do. But the Pack, winners of seven of their last nine games, know that a single loss over these final four games could cost them a shot at a coveted second place finish in the conference.
"All that adds more spark to these games," Burton said.
Second place in the WAC is the goal. The top two seeds in the tournament get a bye into the tournament semifinals and need to win just two games in Las Vegas to get to the NCAA Tournament. Seeds 5 through 8 must win four games in four days and seeds three and four must win three games in three days.
The Wolf Pack is currently one game behind second place New Mexico State (14-13, 8-4) and a half game ahead of Boise and Idaho (both are 15-11, 7-6), who are tied for fourth and fifth.
Victories over Idaho and Boise this week would all but clinch at least a third or fourth-place finish for the Pack, avoiding a dreaded fifth-place finish.
There are six teams with five to eight WAC wins right now: New Mexico State, Nevada, Boise State, Idaho, Hawaii (15-10, 5-7) and Fresno State (13-14, 5-8). San Jose State (13-12, 3-9) and Louisiana Tech (12-16, 2-10) are fighting for the eighth and final WAC Tournament spot. Utah State (25-3, 12-1) has already clinched one of the top two seeds.
"Winning these next two games means we would separate ourselves from those teams (Idaho and Boise)," said Pack coach David Carter, whose team will play at Louisiana Tech (March 3) and at New Mexico State (March 5) in the final week of the regular season.
"It's definitely important to get these last two home games," said Burton, who had 23 points in a 72-67 loss at Idaho on Jan. 12.
This year's tournament format, which rewards teams with byes into the quarterfinals and semifinals, is new for the WAC.
"I like it," Carter said. "It rewards teams that win. The teams that have those days off have the advantage. You are rested, your legs are fresh. The more rest you get the better your chances are of winning."
"Getting second place is big," junior center Dario Hunt said. "To play two games instead of three (or four) makes it a lot easier."
The Wolf Pack has won 13 of its last 15 games against Idaho. The two Vandal victories, though, were in the last meeting between the two teams a month ago and on Jan. 3, 2009, at Lawlor Events Center (78-73). The Wolf Pack led for just three minutes in its loss at Moscow, Idaho, on Jan. 12.
"They are a very unselfish team," said Carter, who was without starting guard Jerry Evans (sprained ankle) the last time the Pack played Idaho. "They don't care who leads them in scoring and that's the sign of a good team."
Idaho is the only WAC team to beat Utah State this year (64-56 on Feb. 9). The Vandals are led by senior guard Jeff Ledbetter (11.8 points a game), 6-foot-10 sophomore Kyle Barone (11.1 points, 6.6 rebounds) and 6-8 junior Luiz Toledo (9.7 points, 4.6 rebounds). Junior guard Deremy Geiger, who averages 8.9 points a game, scored 18 against the Pack on Jan. 12.
"We have to take care of the ball against Idaho," Carter said.
And take it one possession, one game at a time.
"All the games are huge now," Carter said.