Nobody has to tell the Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team what they must face over the next two weeks.
"These are four very tough games," sophomore forward Luke Babbitt said of a four-game stretch that began Wednesday night with a disappointing 88-75 loss at UNLV. "They are going to be four good tests for us."
The final 14 minutes of the first test didn't go as planned as the Wolf Pack let a 54-42 lead slip away against the Rebels at Thomas & Mack Center.
"I thought our guys got tired," Wolf Pack coach David Carter told the media after the game. "We got tired and our defense got soft."
The Wolf Pack, now 1-1, will take on the Houston Cougars (1-0) at 8:05 p.m. Saturday at Lawlor Events Center in the second installment of this four-part test. The final two stages of this test will see the Pack play at Virginia Commonwealth on Nov. 27 and at fifth-ranked North Carolina on Nov. 29.
Carter, earlier this week, called the UNLV contest "a resume game," meaning that it was a game that could determine whether or not the Pack is considered for postseason play in March. The Houston game and the games at VCU and North Carolina, will also be on the Pack's resume for all to see this March.
"We still have a long ways to go," said Carter of the Pack's development this year.
The difference between the Rebels and the Wolf Pack was the bench.
When UNLV found itself down 54-42, the Rebels called a timeout and made wholesale changes to their lineup, replacing starters Derrick Jasper, Chace Stanback and Tre'Von Willis with reserves Justin Hawkins, Anthony Marshall and Steve Jones. The result was a 23-4 run over the next six minutes that left the Wolf Pack trailing 65-58 with eight minutes to play.
The Pack never recovered.
"Our depth was certainly a factor," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said after the game.
Depth is certainly a concern right now for the Pack. The Wolf Pack bench has scored just 20 points combined in the season's first two games against Montana State (a 75-61 win on Nov. 14) and UNLV.
"Our freshmen are going to have different roles than Luke (Babbitt) or Armon (Johnson) had when they were the WAC Freshman of the Year," Carter said earlier this year. "They won't have that kind of impact. But they will have a huge impact on our team. We're going to need everyone if we are going to challenge for a (Western Athletic Conference) championship."
The biggest contributor off the bench in the first two games has been senior Ray Kraemer. The shooting guard has scored 13 points, playing a total of 43 minutes in the two games. The rest of the bench (freshmen Marko Cukic and Keith Fuetsch, sophomore London Giles and junior Adam Carp) has scored a total of just seven points in 37 minutes combined. Freshman Patrick Nyeko has yet to see the floor in the regular season.
"Our bench is going to be a work in progress," Carter said this week.
Houston, which beat the Wolf Pack 80-79 at Lawlor Events Center in the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational in 2008, is coming off a 92-60 victory Tuesday night over Nicholls State. The Cougars, coached by Tom Penders, were led by Aubrey Coleman's 33 points and nine rebounds in 36 minutes. Houston also got 18 points from Kevin Lewis along with 14 rebounds and 10 points from Maurice McNeil in just 23 minutes.
"That is a very talented and deep team," Carter said. "We are going to have to play very well to beat them."
It might take all 11 active players to beat the Cougars. The lack of production off the bench, though, has been a big factor why the Pack has gotten tired in the second half this season.
That weariness has shown up in its lack of energy on both offense and defense in the final 20 minutes in each of its first two games. Montana State and UNLV combined to outscore the Pack 85-62 in the second half after the Pack outscored both those teams 88-64 in the first 20 minutes. The Pack is also 12-of-21 (57 percent) from 3-point range in the first half this season and just 2-of-12 (17 percent) in the second half.
"We have to learn how to finish games," said Babbitt earlier this season.