Carter may be losing locker room
February 20, 2014
Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .
It is much too early to line Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball coach David Carter up in front of a firing squad. But it is not too early to find out where the bullets are stored. Carter's Wolf Pack is, once again, in its annual late-season free fall. The team has lost five games in a row with the fifth loss coming to one of the worst teams (San Jose State) in the nation at home. The Pack is seemingly headed to its third losing season in the last four under Carter. That is the most losing seasons by any Wolf Pack coach since Jim Padgett had four from 1972-76. Padgett gets a little bit of a pass because he was handed a dreadful program that had six losing seasons in a row. Carter took over a program that had eight consecutive winning seasons and had been to seven straight postseason tournaments. The last four regular season games and the Mountain West tournament will determine if Carter is coaching while wearing a blindfold and smoking a cigarette next year.
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Could the Wolf Pack athletic department justify firing Carter after this year? All they have to do is point out those three losing seasons in the last four. The team has also underachieved in the conference tournament every year under Carter. But the warning signs run much deeper than just on-court performance. Last year there were not-so-quiet whispers that Carter was verbally abusive to his team and that is the reason why four juniors (Kevin Panzer, Devonte Elliott, Jordan Burris and Jordan Finn) left the team. Players heading into their senior years just don't leave a program for no reason. After the loss to San Jose State Carter questioned his players' courage, work ethic and threatened to leave some of them home this weekend when they go to Air Force. We like his get-tough attitude but modern day players don't like it. Last year's team quit on Carter (by his own admission) and this year's team is about to do the same thing, if they haven't already.
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Carter will not get fired after this season. He has three years remaining on his contract and it would cost the Pack nearly a million dollars to buy him out this off-season. The Wolf Pack athletic department — which is basically nothing more than a mediocre marketing department — simply doesn't care enough about winning to spend a million dollars to do it. Carter was given a five-year extension after he went 28-7 with an incredibly weak schedule in 2011-12. He was given the extension by Cary Groth, the athletic director who hired him. Groth is the same A.D., by the way, who tried during her entire tenure at Nevada to run legendary coaches Chris Ault and Gary Powers out of town because, well, she didn't hire them. She treated Carter like he just coached a team to the Sweet 16 instead of backing up a 26-win regular season with a choke in the Western Athletic Conference tournament. Carter deserved an extension after 2011-12. But five years?
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Carter's greatest sin as a coach is that he coaches the life out of his team and the fun out of the game. He's a control freak like Trent Johnson and Mark Fox before him. The difference is that Johnson and Fox had more talent to work with. But their teams also underachieved every year in the postseason after 2003-04. This Wolf Pack team is playing scared right now and has lost all its confidence. They walk the ball up the floor and pass it around the perimeter until someone musters up enough courage to shoot. Nobody is having fun. They are thinking too much out on the floor, frightened to make a mistake and are playing like robots. They play with one eye on the ball and the other eye on Carter for fear that he will pull them off the floor. Carter needs to back off, trust that some of his coaching has actually sunk in and let his team have a little fun. What do they have to lose?
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The Wolf Pack can still salvage this season. There are four games remaining in the regular season (at Air Force and Boise State and home against UNLV and New Mexico) and at least one in the Mountain West tournament. But it's up to the players to fix the problems. All of the issues with this team are located above the shoulders. They are fighting themselves mentally. That's why it is up to seniors Deonte Burton and Jerry Evans to take control of this team and not allow what happened last year (eight season-ending losses in a row) happen this year. This team could lose its last 10 games of the year, something that hasn't happened at Nevada since the 1971-72 team lost its last 16. This team, in theory, is too talented for that to happen. If there is any fight remaining in the Pack locker room it has to come out on Saturday at Air Force. A win at Air Force will alleviate a lot of the pressure. And then anything is possible. The gut feeling here is that the Pack will indeed come out fighting on Saturday and win a knockout. And then they will go toe to toe with Boise, New Mexico and UNLV and win at least one of those games. But, then again, we thought it was impossible to lose to San Jose State anywhere, let alone at home.
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Carter, a former point guard, and Burton will forever be joined at the hip. Burton was the jewel in Carter's first full recruiting class and has carried the program the last four years. If Carter is indeed shown the door after this year or next, his biggest failure will be that he didn't maximize the team's success during Burton's career. Burton will likely leave Nevada with three losing seasons on his resume. That's not Burton's fault. Carter never surrounded him with enough talent. Imagine a 4×100 relay team with Burton running the first leg and handing the baton off to Chris Christie, John Goodman and Chris Farley.
That's the Pack for much of the last four years. Carter has spent four seasons putting Burton through a grueling and tedious point guard school and has forgotten about simply letting Burton win games. It's time to let Burton just go out and win games.
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Make no mistake, this is not a bad basketball team. Burton is a once-a-generation type of player. Evans, Cole Huff and Michael Perez are solid, multi-talented players. A.J. West, if he can get Carter's voice out of his head, can be a difference maker in the paint. Marqueze Coleman and D.J. Fenner can be a burst of energy off the bench. Even Carter admits this team's problems are all mental. And when a team has mental problems it's usually because the coach is driving them crazy. Carter needs to get out of his players' heads and just allow his players to go out and play some ball, like they did growing up on the playground as kids.