There is still a huge void in Deonte Burton’s college basketball career.
“I had goals coming in and I’ve reached some of them,” the Nevada Wolf Pack senior point guard said this week. “But there is still one I haven’t reached and that’s the NCAA Tournament.”
Burton and the Wolf Pack must win three games in three days this week in the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. The Wolf Pack, 15-16 overall, is the No. 3 seed and will face the winner of Wednesday’s San Jose State-Boise State game on Thursday night (8:30 p.m.) at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I’d feel like something was missing my whole career if I didn’t get to the NCAA Tournament,” said Burton, who was named to the Mountain West All-Conference First Team this week. “I’d be heartbroken.”
The Wolf Pack will likely have to upset two Top 25 teams this week — No. 8 San Diego State (27-3) and No. 20 New Mexico (24-6) — to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. San Diego State (27-3), the top seed in this week’s tournament, and second-seeded New Mexico (24-6) are the only teams in the Mountain West with fewer than a dozen losses and the only teams that likely do not have to win at least two games this week and likely three to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolf Pack, which has not beaten a Top 25 team since it beat No. 2 Gonzaga in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, insists it will play each game this week with a sense of urgency.
“Each game can be your last,” Wolf Pack senior Jerry Evans said. “Teams are going to put their best foot forward and give it all they have.”
“Tournament play is so crazy,” Burton said. “Anything can happen. I know the season is winding down. It’s going to be tough for me to say I’m done, that I‘m never going to play for the University of Nevada anymore.”
Burton is hoping to join Nick Fazekas and Marcelus Kemp as the only Pack players (out of 10) who have scored 1,500 or more career points and played in at least one NCAA Tournament. Burton, who has 2,080 points, is second in scoring in Pack history behind only Fazekas (2,464).
“There’s no pressure,” said Evans, who needs just 22 points to become the 25th player in school history with 1,000 or more points. “We just have to go out and play. I feel we’re all on the right page. We can do something special. We’ve shown we can play with the best of the best.”
But they haven’t beaten the best. The Pack is 0-7 against both San Diego State and New Mexico combined over the last two seasons. They are also the only team among the top six seeds this week that did not beat either New Mexico or San Diego State this year.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the season right now,” sophomore Cole Huff said. “Teams are going to have to beat us for us to lose the game. We’re not going to give it away.”
The Wolf Pack, which beat UNLV, 76-72, on Saturday at Lawlor Events Center to close out the regular season, has never won a Mountain West tournament game. They lost to Wyoming, 85-81, in last year’s tournament in their first year in the league.
“It’s totally different this year,” Huff said. “Last year we were on a losing streak (eight straight to finish the year). This year we have momentum on our side.”
The Wolf Pack has won its last two games and three of its last four. Only San Diego State, which has won four in a row, is hotter than the Wolf Pack right now.
“There’s a different feeling than last year,” Evans said.
The Wolf Pack has played in 30 conference tournaments over the last 32 seasons and has won just four of them. The Pack, which has a 32-26 record in conference tournament play, won the Big Sky Tournament in 1984 and 1985 and won the Western Athletic Conference Tournament in 2004 and 2006.
The 1983-84 season, when the Pack won the Big Sky tourney title under coach Sonny Allen, seems to have the most similarities to this season. The Pack went into that tournament with just a 14-13 record. They started that season 1-5 and 8-10 and ended up going to the school’s first NCAA Tournament. This year’s Wolf Pack team started 5-8, was still struggling at 12-15 just two weeks ago and is still a game under .500.
The 1983-84 team lost to Montana on Feb. 18, 1984 for its third loss in a row and then didn’t lose again until the NCAA Tournament (to Washington). This year’s Pack team was beaten by San Jose State (66-64), also on Feb. 18, and seems to have turned its season around since that stunning loss.
“This shows the team chemistry we have,” Evans said. “We let a few games slip away but we kept fighting. We took all the criticism and used it as fuel.”
San Jose State finished 1-17 in conference play.
“Everyone thought we had given up after that loss (to San Jose State),” Burton said. “Everyone thought we were putting our heads down. It wasn’t the case. We regrouped and figured out what we have to do.”
Carter, who is 3-4 in conference tournaments as Pack head coach and has never won more than one tournament game in any one year, called the loss to San Jose State the defining moment of the season.
“We could have gone in the tank,” Carter said. “That game was embarrassing.”
Colorado State (16-15) will meet Utah State (17-13) at 2 p.m. on Wednesday followed by Air Force (12-17) against Fresno State (16-15) at 4:30 p.m. and San Jose State (7-23) against Boise State (19-12) at 7 p.m. as the Mountain West kicks off its 15th postseason tournament.
San Diego State, which features Mountain West Player of the Year Xavier Thames and Coach of the Year Steve Fisher, will meet the Colorado State-Utah State winner on Thursday at noon followed by UNLV (19-12) against Wyoming (18-13) at 2:30 p.m.
New Mexico, which placed forward Cameron Bairstow and guard Kendall Williams on the Mountain West First Team, takes on the Air Force-Fresno State winner at 6 p.m. on Thursday followed by the Wolf Pack against the San Jose State-Boise State winner at 8:30 p.m.
San Diego State won the Mountain West regular season title on Saturday by rallying from a 41-25 deficit with 12 minutes to go to beat New Mexico 51-48. Thames had 23 points and five steals.
The Mountain West Tournament has been won by either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed 10 times in the last 14 years. The tournament has been at the Thomas & Mack Center every year except 2004-06 when it was in Denver.
A No. 3 seed has won the Mountain West Tournament just once (Utah in 2004) and has gotten to the title game three other times (UNLV in 2002, 2010, 2013). New Mexico, which could face the Wolf Pack on Friday at 8:30 p.m., has won the last two tournaments.
Just six different schools have won the previous 14 Mountain West tournaments. San Diego State has four championships, UNLV and New Mexico each have three, Utah won two titles and Colorado State and BYU each won one.
None of the five former WAC teams — Nevada, Fresno State, Boise State, San Jose State and Utah State — that have joined the Mountain West over the last three seasons have ever won a Mountain West tournament game. Boise State is 0-2 in the tournament, Nevada and Fresno State are both 0-1 while this will be the first postseason tournament experience in the Mountain West for both San Jose State and Utah State.
The Wolf Pack has won as many as three games in a row just once this year when they won four in a row Jan. 1-11. The Pack is just 7-7 in conference tournament games since winning the 2006 WAC title.
“It’s going to be a challenge to win three games in three nights,” Carter said. “But I have a lot of confidence no matter who we play. We’re a better team than our record shows.”