It didn’t take long for A.J. West to make his presence felt in Northern Nevada.
“I always knew I could do it,” the 6-foot-9 Wolf Pack junior said this week. “I heard people doubt me and all that. But I knew I would come out and have a good impact on this team.”
West, who missed 11 games while the NCAA was investigating his eligibility, seemingly has turned the Wolf Pack season around in just four games. The Wolf Pack, which will play at UNLV tonight (6:15 p.m.) and host Utah State on Saturday (5:05 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center, has gone 3-1 with West in uniform to improve to 7-8 overall and 2-0 in the Mountain West.
“He is a very important part of what we’re trying to do,” said Wolf Pack coach David Carter, whose team went just 4-7 without West. “He brings that toughness, that swagger. It’s contagious.”
The entire Pack roster appears to have contracted a dose of A.J. West fever.
“We’re a different team with him,” point guard Deonte Burton said.
West’s minutes and production have increased in each of his four games. The 230-pounder has averaged 13.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in the last two victories against Mountain West foes San Jose State and Wyoming. He has made 15-of-24 shots from the field (63 percent) for the season and has six blocks and two steals.
“I haven’t even reached my top level yet,” the confident Brooklyn, N.Y. native said. “I still have a long way to go.”
West, who led the nation’s junior college players last season in blocks (5.1 a game) at Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y., has transformed the Pack on the defensive end of the floor. The Pack has allowed 65 points a game with West over the last four games after surrendering 80.1 the first 11 games without him.
“We’re a much better defensive team now,” said guard Marqueze Coleman, who will return to the floor at UNLV after missing the last five games with an eye injury.
“He does a great job of protecting the basket,” Burton said.
West has also contributed on the offensive end with 13 offensive rebounds and 9.3 points a game despite averaging just 26 minutes a game.
“He is very good around the basket,” Carter said.
West couldn’t be happier with his decision to come to the Wolf Pack.
“I grew up in the east and just wanted to get away from there as far as I could,” West said. “I got tired of the east coast. I wanted to get away from the cold. Unfortunately, nobody told me it got cold in Reno. But after I came here, I just knew this place felt like home.”
The Rebels are just 10-5 overall and 1-1 in the Mountain West after a stunning loss at home to Air Force last Saturday. But UNLV also hasn’t lost to the Wolf Pack since Nov. 26, 2005, winning eight in a row against their northern rivals. Carter is 0-5 in his head coaching career against UNLV.
“Playing against a team like that just makes me hungrier,” West said.
West will likely be going up against a pair of eastern-born players in Khem Birch (6-9 from Montreal) and Roscoe Smith (6-8 from Baltimore). Smith is averaging 12.5 points and 12.7 rebounds in his first year at UNLV after transferring from Connecticut. Birch is averaging 11.7 points and 9.9 rebounds as well as 3.8 blocks a game.
“I can’t wait to go out and play against those guys,” West said. “I want to play tough, hard-nosed defense on them.”
“He (West) has to play smart and stay out of foul trouble,” Carter said.
The Rebels were 25-10 last year but lost center Anthony Bennett (the first pick in the NBA draft by Cleveland), point guard Anthony Marshall, forward Mike Moser as well as Katin Reinhadt and Justin Hawkins off that team. Las Vegas native Kevin Olekaibe, though, has added some scoring punch to the Rebels this year at 10.9 points a game after transferring from Fresno State last spring. Bryce Dejean-Jones, a 6-5 guard from southern California and a former Burton summer league teammate, is averaging 14.4 points and 3.6 assists. Last year Dejean-Jones averaged 10.3 points and 4.4 rebounds in his first year at UNLV after transferring from USC.
‘They’ve struggled a little bit so far because they are young and inexperienced at some positions,” Carter said. “We match-up better with them this year because of our experience at point guard. But they are very talented. They can beat anybody on a given night.”
The Wolf Pack has won two straight for the first time since the middle of November.
“I think we can surprise a lot of people, said Coleman, who had cataract surgery after getting poked in the eye by teammate Ali Fall in an October practice and also by a California Golden Bear player in Berkeley on Dec. 10.
“I think we can be MWC (Mountain West) champs,” West said. “We’re a whole new team now with a whole new attitude. Our ceiling is so high. We can compete with any team.”
Carter is a bit more reserved in his excitement, especially with key Mountain West games against UNLV, Utah State and Boise State (Jan. 14 at home) over the next week.
“We’ve won only two games (in league play),” Carter said. “We can’t get two excited over two wins. We have to act like we’ve been here before.”
Las Vegas is one place the Pack has been before without much success, losing 31-of-37 games in Las Vegas over the last five-plus decades.
“I love playing there,” Burton said. “There’s nothing like it. Their fans scream at you and talk a lot. I love dunking the ball on them or hitting a 3-pointer and then staring at their student section for two seconds before getting back on defense. It’s a lot of fun.”