RENO - The time has come for the Nevada Wolf Pack's bench to stand up and be counted.
"We need those guys to play with more confidence," said head coach David Carter, whose Wolf Pack (3-4) will host the South Dakota State Jackrabbits (4-5) Saturday night (7:05 p.m., 630-AM) at Lawlor Events Center.
Carter is hoping that confidence will blossom over a four-game, 12-day homestand that began against Fresno Pacific on Tuesday. The reserves did indeed respond against the NAIA Sunbirds by scoring 26 points in the easy 89-67 Pack victory.
"They played well," Carter said.
The 26-point output is a season high for the Pack bench, a group that averaged just 10.8 points a game over the first six games.
"When you play at home the kids feel more comfortable and confident," Carter said. "It's important for those guys to get their confidence level up and get ready to play when we start (Western Athletic Conference) games (in January)."
The Wolf Pack's next three games (after Saturday the Pack will play Eastern Washington on Dec. 17 and Wagner on Dec. 19) are all at home and all against teams that should allow Carter to give his reserves plenty of minutes.
"It's important to get those guys in the game," Carter said.
That's just fine with the starters. The Pack starters -- Luke Babbitt, Armon Johnson, Joey Shaw, Brandon Fields and Dario Hunt -- have played 78 percent of the team's 1,400 minutes so far this season. Last year's starters played 68 percent of the time.
Babbitt and Johnson, rarely left the floor in the first six games.
Babbitt played 228 out of a possible 240 minutes through the sixth game. The sophomore, who averaged 32.6 minutes as a freshman, played 118 out of a possible 120 minutes over the three games heading into Tuesday, including two 40-minute marathons on the road against Virginia Commonwealth and Pacific.
Johnson, who averaged 31.7 minutes over his first two seasons at Nevada, played 220 minutes over the first six games. He combined with Babbitt to play 79 of a possible 80 minutes against Pacific in a 61-58 Pack loss last Saturday.
Dario Hunt, who has battled foul trouble, is the only starter to average under 30 minutes a game so far. Last year, for example, just Babbitt and Johnson averaged over 30 minutes a game. Johnson and Marcellus Kemp were the only starters to average more than 30 minutes a game in 2007-08. That's why this current four-game home stretch is important, if only to give the starters some much-needed rest.
"It's enjoyable to see everybody get out there and show what they can do," Johnson said.
The Pack bench combined to play a season-high 90 minutes against Fresno Pacific. That is double their previous high of 45 minutes in a season-opening 75-61 victory over Montana State. Five reserves -- Patrick Nyeko (17 minutes played), Adam Carp (11), Keith Fuetsch (8), Mark Cukic (18), London Giles (16) -- each set personal season highs for minutes played on Tuesday. Three of them (Fuetsch, Carp, Nyeko) played more minutes on Tuesday than they had all season combined.
"I've just been working hard everyday in practice, trying to learn as much as I can," said Nyeko, a freshman who made his Wolf Pack debut against Fresno Pacific. Fuetsch, a freshman from Bishop Manogue, played in just his second game of the year against the Sunbirds.
Carter has readily admitted that his bench is a huge question mark this season. The reserves, after all, consisted of three freshmen (Cukic, Nyeko, Fuetsch), a sophomore (Giles) that played just 104 minutes as a freshman, another sophomore (Keith Olson) that hadn't played since his senior year in high school because of injuries, a junior (Carp) that had played just 33 minutes combined his first two seasons and a senior (Ray Kraemer) who averaged 7.4 minutes a game during his career.
"We know we're going to need our bench later in the season," Carter said recently. "We need to get them ready."
A year ago the bench was a Pack strength with instant offense from Fields and Shaw. The two combined to score 10 or more points in a game off the bench 19 times. Fields scored 15 or more points eight times and Shaw did it four times. This year's bench has just two 10-point games, both by Kraemer.
Fields and Shaw combined to help last year's bench score 30 percent of the Pack's 2,400 points. This year's bench has scored just 16 percent (91-of-558) of the team's points so far.
Comparing this year's bench to last year's reserves, though, might be a bit unfair. Fields, after all, was a starter in 2007-08 and Shaw came to the Pack from the Big Ten (Indiana). Last year's bench also had Ahyaro Phillips (three starts), Kraemer and even Hunt, who was relegated to the bench for seven games.
A better comparison between benches, at least offensively, might be this year's group to the 2007-08 team. That year's bench featured defensive-minded players Lyndale Burleson, David Ellis and Matt LaGrone as well as a young Kraemer and Malik Cooke. The bench two years ago scored just 19 percent of the Pack's points and combined to score six points or fewer in a game eight times, including two games (both against Idaho) when it failed to score a single point. In two other games, against California and Boise State, it scored a grand total of two points.
But the 2007-08 team didn't need points from its bench, not with starters Johnson, Kemp, Fields, JaVale McGee and Demarshay Johnson. That bench was there to supply defense and intensity and they did it well.
This year's bench is still looking for an identity at both ends of the floor. The goal is for that identity to start to develop over the next three games.
"We're not as good as we know we can be right now," Babbitt said recently. "But that's a good thing. We don't want to be at our best at this point in the season. We always want to keep improving."