David Carter is going to have a simple message for his Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team this week.
"I'm going to tell them, listen up, we didn't make the NCAA Tournament like we wanted," the Wolf Pack coach said Saturday. "And that is disappointing. But we still have a lot to play for. So let's refocus and get back to work. We still have a chance to have a great season and we still have a chance to be a champion."
The Wolf Pack, which lost in the semifinals of the Western Athletic Conference tournament last Friday at Lawlor Events Center to New Mexico State (80-79), learned Sunday that its season will indeed be extended.
The Pack (20-12) will play in the National Invitation Tournament on Wednesday (5:05 p.m., PT) against the Wichita State Shockers (25-9) at Wichita's Koch Arena. The Wichita State-Nevada winner will play the winner of Wednesday's Rhode Island-Northwestern game. Wichita State is seeded third, Rhode Island is seeded second, the Pack is sixth and Northwestern is 7th. The No. 1 seed in the Pack's bracket is Virginia Tech.
The Pack's game at Wichita State will not be nationally televised but can be heard in northern Nevada on 630-AM.
Carter said he will remind his team that a berth in the 32-team NIT is something to be proud of and not just a consolation prize for missing out on the NCAA tournament.
"I look at this like it's a college football bowl game," Carter said. "It's a reward for a job well done. We have a chance to be a champion and end our season on a winning note."
The Wolf Pack should relish another game and the opportunity to get the bad taste of the New Mexico State loss out of their mouths. The Pack led 79-78 before the Aggies' Jahmar Young hit a clutch 12-footer for the game-winner with 3.8 seconds to play.
"We didn't play smart down the stretch," Carter said. "Turnovers hurt us. There was a rebound (with 35 seconds to play) we could have gotten that could have put us in a great position to win. There were a lot of little things we could have done that would have prevented that loss."
The loss to the Aggies, a team the Pack had beaten 100-92 just eight days before at Lawlor, stung even more because it was at home. The Pack had won 14-of-15 games at Lawlor before facing New Mexico State.
"We were playing real well, especially at home," Carter said. ""We felt real good. Nobody expected to lose."
Carter said he thought his team felt a little extra pressure down the stretch against the Aggies. New Mexico State went on to upset Utah State, 69-63, in the WAC title game on Saturday night at Lawlor. Both Utah State and New Mexico State are No. 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
"It had been a while since we were down at home late in a game like that," Carter said. "So I called a couple timeouts for us to get our composure back. But I still think we were pressing a little bit, trying to make things happen."
The Wolf Pack, which will leave Reno for Wichita on Tuesday, has played in the postseason the last two seasons at home in the College Basketball Invitational, losing two close games to Houston (80-70) in 2008 and UTEP (79-77) last year.
Getting away from Lawlor, from the pressure of playing in front of the home fans and away from the site of their latest disappointing loss, Carter said, might be a good thing for his team.
"Playing at home can add a lot of pressure on you," Carter said. "You want to do well in front of your fans. We love playing at home and in front of our fans but going on the road right now might allow us to refocus again and get ready to make a nice run."
The Wolf Pack could return to Lawlor for a second round game sometime this weekend. The quarterfinal round of the NIT, also at campus sites, will be March 23, 24. The semifinals (March 30) and championship game (April 1) will be at New York's Madison Square Garden.
This will be the Wolf Pack's fourth appearance in the NIT. The Pack, led by Mike Gray, Edgar Jones and Johnny High, beat Oregon State (62-61) and lost to Texas A&M (67-64) in the 1979 NIT.
The Faron Hand, Jimmy Caroll and Paul Culbertson-led Pack in 1997 beat Jerry Tarkanian's Fresno State Bulldogs (97-86) and lost in front of 11,275 fans at Lawlor to a Nebraska (78-68) team that featured Tyronn Lue and Mikki Moore.
The 2003 Wolf Pack with Kirk Snyder lost in the NIT to Bobby Knight and Texas Tech (66-54) in Lubbock, Texas. That 2003 team, though, used its NIT experience as a springboard to greatness the next year, advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Gaining valuable tournament experience, Carter said, is the greatest benefit of playing in the NIT or CBI.
"I can give them (his players) a lot of examples of teams doing well in the NIT and CBI one year and getting to the NCAA Tournament the next," Carter said. "We played UTEP last year in the CBI and now they are in the NCAA this year. That has happened a lot. This is very valuable experience."
Wichita State poses a tough test for the Wolf Pack, a team that is 5-10 away from home.
The Shockers lost in the title game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, 67-52, to Northern Iowa on March 7. The well-rested Shockers are also 17-0 at home this year (31-4 over the last two years) and have won 25 games in a row at the 10,506-seat Koch Arena. Wichita State also averages 10,405 fans for each home game.
The Shockers, though, also had NCAA Tournament dreams that fell short.
"This is kind of a letdown to play in anything less than the NCAA tournament," forward J.T. Durley told the Wichita Eagle recently. "But we'll play somewhere, anywhere we can play."
"We didn't take care of business like we needed to during the season," center Garrett Stutz told the Eagle.
The Wolf Pack played one MWC team this year, losing at Missouri State (62-60) in a BracketBusters game on Feb. 20. Wichita State beat Missouri State three times this year with a pair of two-point victories in the regular season and a 10-point win in the first round of the MWC tournament in St. Louis.
"They are a very talented and well-coached team," Carter said.
The Shockers, who won 16 of their first 18 games, don't overpower teams with their offensive firepower. Their leading scorer, 5-foot-11 guard Clevin Hannah, averages just 12.1 points a game. Guard (6-4) Toure Murry (11.9 points) and the 6-7 Durley (11.2) are the only other Shockers in double figures.
The Wolf Pack, in contrast, has three players (Luke Babbitt at 22.1, Armon Johnson at 15.8 and Brandon Fields at 14.2) that average more than Hannah.
Wichita State, though, allows opponents just 61.4 points a game and has five players that average 3.9 rebounds or more per game. Stutz, a 7-footer, averages 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds mainly coming off the bench this year. Gabe Blair (6-8) pulls down 4.6 boards, Durley averages 4.9 and Murry is very active on the glass with 5.0 a game.
Wichita State also features 6-2 freshman guard Demetric Williams, a graduate of Cheyenne High in Las Vegas. Williams, like the Pack's Babbitt, played for the Las Vegas Prospects AAU summer team. He is averaging 3.6 points in limited time this year.
The Shockers, who have made 10 appearances in the NIT (the first in 1954 and the last in 2005), also played in the CBI last year, beating Buffalo and losing to Stanford.
The NIT began in 1938 as a six-team tournament. The field increased to eight teams in 1941, 12 teams in 1949, 14 teams in 1965, 16 teams in 1968, 24 teams in 1979, 32 teams in 1980 and 40 in 2002. It has been at its current 32-team field since 2007.
"We're excited to be playing in the NIT," Carter said. "This is a nice reward. Our team has accomplished a lot this season.
"We can now play five more games and win 25 games this year. That would be a pretty special season."