LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Nevada puts its 10-game winning streak on the line against New Mexico State tonight in what many consider the Western Athletic Conference's first major showdown of the season.
Nevada, ranked 13th in the country by USA Today and off to a 17-1 start, was picked to win the WAC by the media and coaches, and New Mexico State was No. 2 in both preseason polls.
The two coaches - Nevada's Mark Fox and NMSU's Reggie Theus - have differing opinions on the importance of the game (6:05 p.m, Channel 21) at the Pan American Center.
"I think when you look at this game, it's a very significant game," Theus said Thursday afternoon before the Aggies' practice. "It's significant for the whole thing (conference). We don't play them again until the last game of the season.
"If things go according to the way they appear to be going, this is like two games."
If Nevada wins tonight, it would have a two-game lead on the Aggies with 10 games left. That's not insurmountable, but it would be tough to catch the Pack, who are off to its best start in school history.
"It's one game, that's all it is," Fox said. "It's just as significant as tonight's (Thursday's) game was. They are all the same. They all count the same in the standings. It's a high level game, they (Nevada players) better get ready.
"We're going to play an outstanding basketball team; a terrific team. They have won 13 of their last 14."
Indeed. The Aggies are still smarting from last year's two losses to the Wolf Pack, not to mention their overtime loss at Louisiana Tech.
"What can you say about a game like that," Theus said of the overtime loss at Louisiana Tech. "We literally gave it away. One of our goals was to come off the road trip 5-0."
One of the big reasons the Aggies lost was the absence of point guard Elijah Ingram, a 44 percent 3-point shooter, in the second half and overtime. Ingram has a sore foot, and he's played only 24 minutes a game and is averaging 10 a game. He gave Nevada fits last year with his ability to penetrate and shoot the 3-pointer.
"I had to make a decision," Theus said. "It's like Fazekas' sprain; when to play him. It's a hard decision. I went with my gut instinct and didn't play him. Hopefully he'll be well rested for Saturday night. He usually responds with significant rest."
Theus said that Shaun Davis, who actually has started more than Ingram this season has filled in capably. Davis is lightning quick, and in the same mold as Fresno State's Kevin Bell.
"Shaun is playing really well," Theus said. "We are a different team without Elijah."
Again, Nevada is playing a team with a multitude of weapons. The Aggies can hurt you inside, outside and with dribble penetration, and they are doing it with a few guys that have never played against the Pack, sitting out last year after transferring from Division I schools.
Justin Hawkins, a 6-6 transfer from Utah, leads the team in scoring at 15.8 a game, and he's followed by 6-10 JC transfer Hatila Passos, who shoots 67 percent from the field and is averaging 10.7. Another four-year transfer, Fred Peete, is next at 10.6 followed by Ingram.
Returnee Tyrone Nelson, who has battled some off-court problems this year, is averaging 9.7. He hurt Nevada last season, averaging 20 a game. David Fisher, a muscular slasher is scoring at a 9.4 clip. Don't forget about 7-foot Martin Iti, a UNC-Charlotte bounceback, who averages 7.3 a game.
Theus has been gradually playing Nelson more and more. "I'm trying to make him earn it (playing time)," Theus said.
Ingram and returnee Ted Knauber are the top 3-point shooters at 44 and 45.2, respectively. Peete hits 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. With Nick Fazekas back from an ankle sprain, that creates a slight match-up problem for the Aggies. Fazekas had 36 and 24 in the two outings against NMSU last season.
Fazekas scored 20 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the Pack's 85-75 win over Fresno State. He was sluggish at the start, but gradually the ankle loosened up as the game went on.
"It's going to take some time, but I felt good out there," Fazekas said after Thursday's win. "I had the injury on my mind a little bit, but then as the game got in a flow, I was all right."
"I know he's happy to be back and our team is happy for him to be back," junior guard Marcelus Kemp said.
Kemp shook off an off night in Hawai'i to lead the Pack with 22 points against Fresno State. Kemp had 30 points in two games against the Aggies last year, and if NMSU pays too much attention to Fazekas, he could go for 30 tonight. He is shooting 43.5 from beyond the arc and 46 percent overall.
Ramon Sessions, Kyle Shiloh and Denis Ikovlev have stepped up when needed. Sessions took over in wins over Cal and Gonzaga, Shiloh played well at both ends of the floor against Hawai'i and San Jose State, and Ikovlev is coming off a career-best 18 points against FSU.
It adds up to a lot of firepower, as the rest of the WAC is finding out.
"They have one more year of experience," Theus said. "They are very confident in what they are doing during a game."