RENO — Deonte Burton has already noticed a big difference in this year’s Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team compared to last year.
“In my four years here I’ve never seen a team buy into what the coaches are saying so much like this year,” the Wolf Pack’s senior point guard said. “All of the guys are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
The Wolf Pack, which will open its regular season tonight (7:05 p.m.) against the Pacific Tigers at Lawlor Events Center, learned a big lesson from last year. The Pack lost its final eight games in 2012-13 and finished with a 12-19 overall record and in last place in the Mountain West.
“We talked about last season last spring,” head coach David Carter said. “The guys know what we need to do. It’s about buying in, doing what the coaches want you to do and not being selfish. When the team wins, everybody wins.”
The Wolf Pack features eight new players, though two of them won’t likely play against Pacific. Forward Chris Brown has been suffering from an illness the past month and A.J. West’s eligibility is being investigated by the NCAA. Everyone else, Carter said, should be available to meet the Tigers, a team the Wolf Pack lost to 78-72 last season in overtime in Stockton, Calif.
Carter added that sophomore guard Marqueze Coleman and freshman guard Stelios Papafloratos, who both missed Monday’s 98-57 exhibition victory over Montana Tech, also will play. Coleman sprained his ankle in practice last Saturday and Papafloratos has been out with an illness.
“Everybody has to play this year,” Carter smiled. “We have to develop depth.”
First, though, the Pack has to find a productive starting lineup, something they never really found last season. Burton and fellow guards Michael Perez, Jerry Evans and Coleman are expected to play a major role this season as are forwards Cole Huff and Ali Fall, especially with the absence of Brown and West.
Sophomore Lucas Stivrins, a thin 6-foot-11, 212-pound forward, also made a case for serious playing time this season by scoring nine points in 20 minutes against Montana Tech. Stivrins, though, pulled down just one rebound and rebounding, Carter has said repeatedly since the end of last year, will be a priority this year.
“We are looking for consistency, rebounding and defense,” said Carter, now in his fifth year as head coach.
Burton, who considered leaving the program after his junior year for the NBA, says this year’s Wolf Pack will be an equal opportunity basketball team.
“Everyone is so unselfish,” Burton said. “We all share the ball. There won’t be the same leading scorer every night. You’ll see a lot of camaraderie out there and a lot of good team chemistry on the floor.”
Pacific, of the West Coast Conference, finished 22-13 last season and qualified for the NCAA Tournament. The 15th-seeded Tigers lost to Miami 78-49 in the first round. Long-time Pacific coach Bob Thomason retired after the season and was replaced by assistant Ron Verlin.
“They run the same system, the same style,” Carter said. “They won’t make many mistakes and they take advantage of your mistakes. It will be a good test for us.”
The Tigers lost some scoring off last year’s team, namely Lorenzo McCloud (11.1 points a game), Travis Fulton (9.4) and Colin Beatty (5.9). McCloud scored 24 points in Pacific’s win over the Pack last year and Beatty had 14. Returning this year for the Tigers, though, are 6-7 senior Ross Rivera (7.6 points a game last year) and 6-2 senior Sama Taku (8.1).
“They are very physical and very disciplined,” Carter said.
Former North Valleys High player Aaron Short is a backup guard for Pacific. The 6-3 junior averaged 15.2 points a game and had 53 3-pointers last year for Cabrillo College. He scored three points and had six rebounds on Sunday in a 76-52 exhibition victory over Montana Tech in Stockton.
“He has very good athletic ability and can get to the basket,” said Carter of Short.
The Wolf Pack, Carter said, will be a work in progress over the first month or so of the season.
“I will learn more about this team after every game,” he said. “Probably by the ninth or 10th game I’ll have a pretty good idea of what we can do.”
“The guys saw what happened in the past and we all want to do better this year,” Burton said. “Last year is always in my head. This is my last year. I don’t want to go out like last year.”