RENO — David Carter believes his Nevada Wolf Pack basketball team is one of the worst in the Mountain West heading into the 2014-15 season.
“I’d pick us eighth or ninth, too,” the Wolf Pack coach said recently. “I didn’t expect to be picked too high.”
The Wolf Pack, which finished 15-17 overall last year but third in the Mountain West at 10-8, was picked by the conference’s media to finish eighth this season in the 11-team league. Carter, who will unveil this year’s team in an exhibition game Nov. 8 at Lawlor Events Center against Cal State San Marcos, understands the reasoning behind the eighth-place prediction.
“We have a lot of unknowns,” said Carter, who has a career record of 89-75 after five seasons as the Wolf Pack head coach. “When you have a lot of unknowns you’re not expected to do very well.”
The Wolf Pack, which has finished under .500 in three of the last four seasons, lost arguably its three best players off last season’s team in seniors Deonte Burton and Jerry Evans and sophomore Cole Huff, who transferred to Creighton. Burton, the starting point guard the last four seasons, averaged a team-best 20.1 points a game last year with 4.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 38.6 minutes a game and almost never left the floor.
“Last year was hard for Deonte because we didn’t have the depth,” Carter said. “He had to log a lot of minutes. He didn’t want to average 20 points a game but he had to for us to get the success we had.”
Evans averaged 12.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in 32.1 minutes a game and Huff chipped in with 12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in 32.2 minutes a game.
“You can’t replace a guy like (Burton),” said junior Marqueze Coleman, who takes over Burton’s starting point guard role. “He’s arguably one of the greatest players on Wolf Pack history. I just want to play my game.”
The 6-foot-4 Coleman averaged 6.0 points and less than an assist a game last year. He also had twice as many turnovers as assists (34-17) and was just 9-of-35 from 3-point range.
“This (a starting role) has been a long time coming,” said Coleman, who has fully recovered from an eye injury that forced him to miss five games last year. “I haven’t been a starter since high school (Bishop Alemany in mission Hills, Calif.). I want to make the best of it.”
The lightning quick Coleman hasn’t been shy about throwing up shots the last two years. He has taken 230 shots in his 913 career minutes (for a .396 success rate) and has gotten to the free throw line for another 148 attempts (making 112). Coleman, though, has been erratic offensively with 78 turnovers and just 45 assists and has made just 10-of-45 3-pointers (.222).
Coleman, who played just 17.7 minutes a game last year, is confident he can continue the tradition of standout points guards under Carter.
“I was able to watch Deonte for the last two years,” Coleman said. “I feel like I can do it. I saw him for two years and that helped me a lot. I feel I can run the team because of who I watched.”
The last three Pack point guards (Sessions, Johnson, Burton) all started as freshmen and didn’t have to serve an apprenticeship off the bench like Coleman did.
The Wolf Pack will have just two seniors this year in shooting guard Michael Perez and center Ronnie Stevens. Perez, who averaged 11.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assist last year in 35.1 minutes game, is the Pack’s most experienced returning player by far. The Tucson, Ariz., native played two seasons (2010-11, 2011-12) at UTEP, averaging 6.5 points and 1.4 assists, before coming to Nevada.
Carter isn’t concerned about the offense.
“Defending and rebounding will be the key to our success,” Carter said. “I never worry about offense.”
Sophomore guard D.J. Fenner is expected to increase his production this year. Last year as a freshman he averaged just 2.5 points and 1.8 rebounds.
The big guys up front are junior A.J. West (6-9), sophomore Kaileb Rodriguez (6-9), Stevens and junior Lucas Stivrins (6-11). Rodriguez, a former California recruit, will be making his Wolf Pack debut this year after sitting out last season. West averaged 6.8 points and 6.8 rebounds last year with 2.3 blocks in 21 games. Stevens averaged 3.3 points and 2.6 rebounds.
last year in 19 games and Stivrins rarely came off the bench in meaningful games.
“This year we are going to stress defense,” Coleman said. “Look at San Diego State. They were the No. 1 defensive team in the Mountain West. They didn’t score that much and they won a lot of games.”
The key to this year’s Wolf Pack success just might be newcomers. Freshmen Robyn Missa (6-9), Elijah Foster (6-7) and Eric Cooper (6-3) will compete for minutes as will Rodriguez and junior Tyron Criswell.
Criswell, a 6-3 guard, averaged 20.1 points a game last year for Central Community college in Columbus, Neb. “He brings toughness to our team,” Carter said. “He brings intangibles I think we needed with his ability to score and defend.”
Missa, from Berlin, Germany, averaged 8.4 points at Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran High last year. Foster averaged 9.5 points and 11 rebounds a game last year at Rainier Beach High in Seattle. Cooper averaged 17.5 points for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a year ago.
“Nobody has stepped out and separated themselves from the bunch yet,” Carter said. “But everybody is getting better.”
“All of those guys were recruited here for a reason,” Perez said. “Each one of them is prepared to play at this level and help us win games.”
The Wolf Pack will play its first regular season game on Nov. 15 at Lawlor Events Center against Cal Poly.
“I think we have a lot of talent,” Carter said., “There are a lot of questions because we haven’t played together. But we just have to mesh together. I think we have a chance to be pretty good this year.”
Perez isn’t taking the media’s prediction of an eighth-place finish for the Pack seriously.
“It’s added motivation for us,” Perez said. “But we just take that with a grain of salt and move on. People are doubting us already. But that’s good for us.”