RENO - David Carter, maybe for the first time in his 900-plus days as the Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball head coach, can allow himself to step back, take a deep breath and relax.
Finally. Yes, Northern Nevada, that huge sigh of relief you've heard coming from north Virginia Street in recent weeks came from the 44-year-old head coach. That's because the Wolf Pack team he envisioned, the team he put together and built piece by piece, is actually still in place.
"Yes, I think you can say that this is my team now, so to speak," said Carter, whose Wolf Pack will open its season with an exhibition game next tonight against Chico State.
During Carter's first two seasons as head coach it's almost as if he's had three Wolf Pack teams at any one time - one team in waiting full of transfers, red-shirts and injuries, one team on the floor, and one team that just up and left town for one on or off-the-court reason or another. It has been 900-plus days of playing the hand he's been dealt and not the hand he tried to build.
Well, those days, finally, seem to be a thing of the past. The 2011-12 Wolf Pack men's basketball team is, for better or worse, the group Carter coached, coddled, cultivated and caressed with this season in mind.
"The last two or three years we've had so much turnover," Carter said. "This is really the first year in a long time when we didn't have that turnover. I think you'll see the benefit of that this year."
It's been said that you can't really judge the performance and progress of a president until he's served his first 1,000 days in office. Well that is also true for some basketball head coaches.
"David certainly always had a firm grasp on what he wanted to do," said Pack assistant coach Doug Novsek. "But now he really feels comfortable in putting all of that that in place."
In Carter's first season as head coach he was really nothing more than a caretaker, the guy who was trusted not to mess things up. After 10 years as a trusted and loyal assistant, Carter was the obvious and easy choice to run the program after head coach Mark Fox left suddenly after the 2008-09 season for the Georgia Bulldogs.
It was an easy transition from Fox to Carter. Fox, after all, left Carter a turn-key team full of NBA prospects (Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson) and seniors (Joey Shaw, Brandon Fields, Ray Kraemer). That team didn't need a coach as much as it needed a guy to make sure the lights were turned off in the gym after everyone went home.
It all paid off in a 21-13 season and a victory in the National Invitation Tournament. In Carter's second year things changed. Almost overnight. This time the head coach stayed but almost everyone else left. Johnson and Babbitt fled for the NBA and Carter was forced to sign five recruits (Jordan Finn, Illiwa Baldwin, Deonte Burton, Derrell Conner and Kevin Panzer) in a hectic span of 19 days.
"Last year, because we had so many guys new to this level, we had to start with fundamentals," said Carter, who will pass his 1,000th day as Pack head coach during the Christmas holidays. "We had to start from the beginning with that group.
"Looking back, it's not a surprise we had some growing pains," Carter said.
Make no mistake, nobody was happy with 13-19 and the lack of a postseason tournament. But it could have been a lot worse. Any by the end of the year the Pack had a lot on which to build optimism for 2011-12.
Burton established himself as one of the top players in the WAC and was even named the Pre-season WAC Player of the Year this week by the WAC coaches. Dario Hunt became a true leader, Malik Story developed into a go-to player on offense and Olek Czyz and Jerry Evans settled into a jack-of-all-trades combination at small and power forward.
Carter even convinced talented freshmen like Finn, Jordan Burris, Devonte Elliott and Kevin Panzer to accept reserve roles and not leave the program last spring.
"I think the guys bought into what we are and what their roles are," Carter said.
That doesn't happen by accident. When the Pack roster was gutted after the 2009-10 season, Carter refused to take the easy quick-fix route. He had a plan. It was the same plan Carter and then head coach Trent Johnson came up with when they came to Nevada in the spring of 1999.
"I took a page out of Trent Johnson's book," Carter said. "Trent always would say, 'You have to have a foundation.' So when we lost a Luke and a Armon and seniors like Joey Shaw, Brandon Fields and those guys, I didn't want to panic and go get junior college players to fill the holes.
"I wanted to build that foundation of young players because that is how you build consistency. If you have that foundation every year you can deal with turnover when it comes."
This team, with its depth, experience and team-first attitude, is all the evidence you need as to why Carter was always the right choice to take over this program when Fox left.
"Everybody knows their roles now," Carter said. "I don't want to change what we established last year. Not now.
"The difference between this year's team and last year's team at this stage of the season? It's like night and day," Novsek said.
The expectations have definitely risen.
"They all have one more year of experience," Carter said. "I think they all expect more out of themselves."
Carter definitely expects more out of this team -- at both ends of the court.
"I think you'll see more of the system we want to put in place this year," Carter said. "We always like to run a little bit on offense. That won't change. Last year we had to slow things down a bit because everyone was still trying to figure out their roles."
The biggest change Pack fans might see this year, though, is on defense.
"We really haven't had a chance to play the type of defense I'd like to see just because of the type of players and teams we've had," Carter said. "But now that everybody is more comfortable with the system, you'll see more of that now."
Carter's true personality as a head coach will also likely come out this year. He has been sort of labeled as a nice-guy players' coach, sort of the antithesis of the tough-guy, demanding Johnson and Fox. But he is so much more than just a players' coach.
"All that stuff about being a players' coach is kind of overblown a bit," Novsek said. "David is the head coach. The players respect him. He treats everyone fairly. And they want to play hard for him because they want to play. David demands a lot out of his players and they know that."
They expect it.
This year he also plans on teaching them how to win.
"Everybody is excited about this year," Carter said. "We're still young but we now have the experience to be able to compete with anybody."