Basketball: Pack needs to turn it around by WAC Tournament

The Idaho Vandals gave the Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team a wake-up call on Thursday night.

The Wolf Pack, though, merely hit the snooze button on Saturday against Boise State and went back to sleep. And now the Pack's season is about to fall into a deep slumber.

"I thought we played real hard and competed at San Jose State and Hawaii," Pack coach David Carter said of road games Feb. 12 and 14. "I thought we were taking the right strides and were headed in the right direction."

He thought wrong.

After losses to Idaho (67-59) and Boise State (72-66) at Lawlor Events Center this past week the direction the Pack is headed is a first-round exit from the Western Athletic Conference Tournament on March 9.

"It's disappointing," said Carter, who is now 32-30 over the last two years as Pack head coach. "We have to find the right mental state to be able to compete every night."

That is Carter's monumental challenge right now as his roller coaster, frustrating team heads out on the road to face Louisiana Tech (March 3) and New Mexico State (March 5) to close out the regular season.

But that challenge is nothing new. A coach is always trying to get his team to compete every single night, whether they are riding a 10-game winning streak or a 10-game losing streak.

Carter's real challenge goes much deeper than that. His team is in crisis mode right now. The season is on the verge of blowing up. And Carter needs to figure out if his team has stopped listening to him.

"We always had one or two guys who were not on same page on the court," said Carter of the loss to Boise State. "Some of our guys were not attached mentally to the game plan. You have to be mentally attached to the game plan. We're not talented enough or experienced enough to overcome that.

"You have to follow the game plan. When one or two guys don't do that it hurts the whole team."

Why would a young team not follow the game plan in the most crucial games of the season? Why would a young team simply go out on the court and treat two games that could make or break the season like they were pick-up games in the park?

Well, there are only two explanations:

1. They have stopped listening to Carter.

2. They are listening to Carter but the message is not registering.

Forget explanation number one.

There's no overwhelming evidence that this team has tuned out Carter. There is no team mutiny down at Lawlor Events Center. This isn't the NBA. Carter isn't John Kuester and the Pack isn't the Detroit Pistons.

In college basketball, the head coach is president, king, CEO, father, grandfather, uncle and big brother all rolled into one do-as-I-say authority figure. The coach is the only one with the security of a million dollar contract. You ignore your coach in college basketball and the next day you are sitting in the third row behind the bench wearing your American Eagle jeans.

That leaves us with explanation number two.

The message is definitely not registering.

This young Wolf Pack team has never fully grasped the situation at hand all season. It took them almost three months to figure out how to compete on the road. And they still treat home games like they are on spring break.

The problems on the road (they are 2-12) are forgivable. All college teams struggle on the road, especially those with players who were either in high school, junior college or in limbo between one team and the next the previous year.

The real problem with this team has been at home. What we saw Thursday and Saturday night was a long time coming.

Yes, this team won nine of its 14 home games this year. But look beyond the won-loss record. That slick 9-5 home record has masked a lot of problems.

This team never developed a killer instinct at home. Instead of standing out front of their den, curling their lip and flashing their teeth like a mother wolf protecting her cubs, the Pack sat inside munching snacks while watching TV and left the front door wide open.

All season long they would get leads at home against an endless stream of mediocre-to-bad opponents and instead of stepping on their opponents' throats and putting them out of their misery, they fed them milk and cookies and nursed them back to health. Fortunately for the Pack, most of the teams they played this season at home were too mediocre or inept to take advantage of that good old, down home Nevada hospitality.

Idaho and Boise, just like Utah State in January and UNLV and Arizona State in December, though, took that milk and cookies and then raided the pantry and refrigerator for seconds.

"We didn't have energy," sophomore Malik Story said.

"We were just not prepared," junior Dario Hunt said.

"I don't know what to say," junior Olek Czyz said.

Don't look too deeply into what a college athlete says after losing a game. They are just spouting cliches and meaningless phrases to get the interview over as quickly as possible. It's a painful process for everyone involved.

But, still, they need to come up with some new cliches.

The whole "we didn't have energy" excuse has grown old. If that is indeed true, that a bunch of 19, 20, 21 and 22-year-old athletes in the best shape of their lives on the biggest stage of their lives, cannot muster enough energy to play a college basketball game, well, alert the paramedics. This entire team must have a serious health condition.

Relax. Forget that excuse. This isn't an energy problem. It's a maturity problem.

This team just doesn't know how to compete at the Division I level.

Yes, I know, we are talking about a team that has now played 28 games. The "we're-so-young-and-inexperienced" excuse shouldn't be valid anymore. The Pack, after all, now has 13 players with 20 or more games experience at the Division I level.

Well, they are young. They are inexperienced. And they still don't know how to compete.

Competing is burying teams at home, something they never learned. Competing is winning close games on the road, something they've done just twice in 14 games. Competing is understanding that your season is on the line, something they totally disregarded this past week.

Carter, for the first time in his head coaching career, seemed angry with his team Saturday night. In the past he would always temper that anger and go out of his way to protect and coddle them. They are young and inexperienced, remember?

He's always been very aware of their fragile mental state. He had a bunch of kids this year, after all, that couldn't find Reno on a map a year ago without the help of Yahoo or Google.

On Saturday, though, he sounded like an angry and frustrated father. And he had every right to be angry and frustrated.

"I know how to prepare a team for a game," Carter said.

"That's embarrassing," he said, describing various aspects of their performance.

"That's a mystery to me," he added another time.

Carter, don't forget, helped prepare a Top 25 program here at Nevada not too long ago. He helped get a team to the Sweet 16 and four NCAA Tournaments. He helped get a team to 20 or more victories for seven consecutive seasons, a streak that will end this year without a glorious, improbable run in the postseason.

This isn't a Coach Carter problem.

Carter, though, ever-so-slightly hinted at the real problem on Saturday.

"We aren't talented enough . . . ," he began one statement.

Yes, folks, the Pack emperor might not be wearing any clothes.

It might not be about energy, youth, inexperience or the weather after all. It just might get right down to talent.

That's been the ugly elephant in the Pack room all season. Yes, they are young. Yes, they are inexperienced.

But, hello Mr. Elephant, are they talented enough to get this program back to the glory years?

As of right now, the answer to that question is not this year, not next year, not ever.

Make no mistake, they are not without talent. Nobody is saying that. But it merely seems to be a collection of complementary parts. No superstars. No future NBA lottery picks. Nobody that is going to put this program on his back and carry it to the promised land.

There is no JaVale McGee, Kirk Snyder, Nick Fazekas, Ramon Sessions, Kevinn Pinkney, Luke Babbitt or Armon Johnson. And, right now, there isn't even a collection of gritty competitors like Kyle Shiloh, Gary Hill-Thomas, Mo Charlo, Marcelus Kemp or Todd Okeson.

When you have superstar talent like McGee, Snyder, Fazekas, Pinkney, Babbitt, Johnson and Sessions, you can squeeze 20 victories out of a complementary supporting cast. That's what has happened the past three years.

This team doesn't have a floor leader like that, a guy who can do what a coach cannot do, a guy that can motivate his teammates with a mere glance into their eyes, a guy who can just take the ball and go win a game all by himself.

But you can win in college basketball without NBA talent. It's why coaches get six and seven-figure deals, remember? But you can't win without heart and determination, two things this young team has not yet learned how to master.

Right now, this team is more Brandon Fields and Joey Shaw than Mo Charlo and Kyle Shiloh. They are a bunch of guys with talent that don't know how to compete on a nightly basis.

That's why this team needs each other. This team needs everyone doing the right thing at the right time to even have a chance at being successful. There's no superstar, no leader that can mask the problems.

Carter, who saw his leaders leave for the NBA last spring, knows that better than anyone. That's why he reached his boiling point Saturday night when each time he looked out on the court he saw one or two guys acting like they were in a D-League All-Star game.

"We just have to practice hard this week and keep pushing forward," Hunt said.

Haven't they already done that all year?

"We have a lot of work to do," Carter said.

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