EL PASO - Nevada coach Mark Fox shrugged off talks of a rivalry with UTEP and tonight's game against the second-place Miners having WAC title implications.
"I don't know about being for the title," Fox said. "Every game is a dogfight in this league. There is still a lot of basketball to be played. I don't think this game is any more important than the other ones we have (left).
"I don't know if it's a rivalry. I think UTEP is a great team. In a rivalry there is a lot of hatred toward the other team. We don't hate them. We have a lot of respect for them. They are a great team. We're two good teams with post-season thoughts on their mind."
Doc Sadler, UTEP's first-year head coach, had his own opinions when asked about a rivalry brewing.
"Obviously, you think back to last year, and two teams tied for the league championship, and both teams have done well this year," he said. "They are a tough team, and Mark (Fox) has them playing well."
Make no mistake about it, this is a huge game.
With six conference games left, UTEP (19-5, 9-3) already has the hammer on Nevada (10-2, 17-5), having knocked off the Wolf Pack 83-80 in overtime on Jan. 13. Despite holding down first place, the Wolf Pack have yet to beat a quality opponent, and a win over the Miners would help gain the Wolf Pack some friends come selection time early next month and give them a two-game bulge.
More than any team in the conference, the Miners are potent with 6-foot-6 Omar Thomas (19.8), 6-3 point guard Fili Rivera (12.4) and Jason Williams (12.5). Center John Tofi is coming off a season-high 18 points against Fresno State. Nick Fazekas more than likely will draw that assignment, and Kevinn Pinkney is likely to see a lot of Thomas or Williams.
Rivera has had some problems with leg cramps during games. He had to leave the Tulsa game recently, and his absence was a big reason why the Golden Hurricane were able to upset the Miners.
"He had a lot more last year (cramps)," Sadler said. "I don't know for sure why. I've been listening to different people. It just happened at the wrong time."
The Miners like to run, and are scary in transition. Nevada has become a half-court team with Pinkney and Fazekas.
One thing is certain; Nevada can't afford to get off to a slow start tonight like it did against Boise State. The Broncos don't have the ability to put a team away, but UTEP definitely does.
Fox said he is unconcerned about tempo. He's worried more about his defense getting enough stops and the offense getting some baskets. Sound thinking, but one would think that the lower the score the better chance Nevada has to win.
Sadler has a healthy respect for the Wolf Pack, especially Fazekas, the leading scorer in the conference at 21.2 a game. Fazekas has been pushed and held all last year, but has put up some nice numbers. Entering the week, he was third in rebounds (8.8), fifth in field goal percentage (53.6), sixth in foul shooting (77.7) and third in blocked shots (1.62 per game).
"I don't think he doing anything different," Sadler said. "He's put up some good numbers this year. I thought he was confident player as a freshman. I've never seen Nick Fazekas get rattled.
"Last year at UTEP in a very difficult situation, you don't see a freshman come in and score 20. Based on what I've seen in person, he's been very good in every game."
What Fazekas is doing more of this year is putting the ball on the floor. It's allowed him to get to the rim more and draw more fouls.
Other players besides Fazekas and Pinkney, who have scored in double figures 17 times this year, are stepping up, and that trend needs to continue. Freshman point guard Ramon Sessions had a career-high 23 points against Boise State, and it would be a big plus if he can become a consistent double-figure scorer.
NOTES: Mo Charlo tweaked his ankle late in the Boise State game, but was able to come back and play. Fox expects him to play tonight. ... Nevada remains perfect in WAC road games, having won five straight. No team won more than five conference road games last year, and Nevada still has games left at Fresno State, Hawaii and San Jose State after tonight. ... Pinkney played in his 100th game at Nevada Thursday against Boise State. Since his arrival on campus, Nevada has won 76 games.
Darrell Moody can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 881-1281