Pack to face New Mexico State

LAS CRUCES, N.M. - Nevada coach Mark Fox continues to address two concerns - rebounding and defense - heading into Thursday's critical Western Athletic Conference game at New Mexico State.

Tip-off is 6 p.m., and the game will be televised locally on KAME.

Nevada (10-7, 2-2) needs a win to get above .500 in conference play. This is the slowest four-game start in Fox's tenure. In his previous three seasons, Nevada was 4-0, 3-1 and 4-0, respectively in its first four WAC games.

Nevada has been out-rebounded seven times this season, and is 1-6 in those games. Nevada was out-rebounded five times all of last year.

"Certainly it's a concern," Fox said during Monday's WAC teleconference. "A lot of the issues we've had to tend to lean toward our inexperience.

"You try to replace a great player and you do it by committee. We're trying to replace three great players (Nick Fazekas, Kyle Shiloh and Ramon Sessions), and we haven't done as good a job as I'd like to do."

It's no secret that the loss of Fazekas has been huge. The former 6-11 Wolf Pack star was a tremendous defensive rebounder, and used solid fundamentals, good hands and his length to dominate the glass. Brandon Fields has taken up the scoring slack left by Shiloh, but still needs to improve on his defense and ballhandling. Armon Johnson is improving each week, and is scoring the ball well.

The Pack faces a tough chore tonight on the boards. The Aggies have 7-foot Martin Iti, 6-10 Hatila Passos, 6-6 Wendell McKines, 6-9 Herb Pope and 6-7 Justin Hawkins, who went for 29 points and 11 rebounds the last time the teams met in Las Cruces. The group is exceptionally long, and will be a good test for JaVale McGee, Demarshay Johnson, Marcelus Kemp and Matt LaGrone.

Nevada allowed 95 points last weekend against Boise State, the second-highest point total of the season (Nevada allowed 104 against North Carolina). Defense is paramount in importance for Fox. Simply put, if you don't defend you don't play.

Nevada's defense has been inconsistent, which no doubt drives Fox nuts. The Pack allows 70 points per game, and New Mexico State has solid scorers in Hawkins (17.6), Jonathan Gibson (12.5), Fred Peete (12.0), Jahmar Young (11.4) and Passos (10.5). The Aggies enter the game averaging 75 points a game.

"We have, in spurts, been solid," Fox said. "Then we have spurts where it's just the opposite. We've had breakdowns of all types. Any breakdown hurts. When you have a couple of technical errors, you have disastrous consequences. We have to correct the mistakes, and play correctly for longer periods of time."

Fox said that part of the breakdowns can be traced to lack of experience, though defense is more about effort and desire than anything else.

Nevada will be facing an Aggie team that is finally at full strength. Pope was finally cleared by the NCAA last week, and Passos was reinstated recently.

"Obviously Marvin (Menzies, NMSU head coach) finally got a full roster," Fox said. "I think he's done an admirable job given the situations. They were one of the teams picked to win the conference, and we're going to have to play well to give ourselves a chance.

"They change their defenses and play full-court pressure like before. Justin Hawkins is a quiet leader and a really terrific player. Pope is a great addition. He's a super-talented freshman. The unsung hero is (Jonathan) Gibson in the backcourt."

John McMullen, New Mexico State's first-year assistant coach, expects a tough challenge from the Pack.

"Marcelus Kemp is a great player, and with the 7-footer they have (McGee), it should be a good match-up with Martin Iti and (Hatila) Passos. I think it will be a bit of a chess match."

• Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281

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