RENO - The Nevada Wolf Pack's undergraduate classes in Mountain West basketball have begun.
"It's going to take a while to get to know these new teams," Wolf Pack head coach David Carter said Friday afternoon.
The Wolf Pack's first lesson in Mountain West hoops didn't go as well as Carter would have liked Wednesday night at Air force. The Falcons' Mike Fitzgerald (30 points) and Todd Fletcher (18) combined for 48 points in a convincing 78-65 win over the Pack. Fitzgerald and Fletcher were averaging just 16 points per game combined going into the game.
"He had a great night," said Carter of Fitzgerald.
It was an almost perfect night. Fitzgerald made 9-of-10 shots from the field (4-of-5 from 3-point range) and was 8-8 from the free throw line.
"When we did our scouting report before the game he wasn't one of the guys we thought could score that many points," Carter said.
The Pack got a tough lesson in Mountain West basketball.
"We're not really familiar with a lot of these teams yet," said Carter, whose Wolf Pack spent the past 12 seasons in the Western Athletic Conference. "They (Air Force) did some things we weren't ready for in the second half and we had a lot of breakdowns, giving their guys a lot of open shots. It's going to take time to get used to how these teams play at home and on the road."
The Pack will play another team they aren't all that familiar with on Saturday afternoon (3 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center. The Wyoming Cowboys will come to Reno with a 13-1 record and a No. 25 ranking in the USA Today Coaches' Poll.
"They are very disciplined and know their roles very well," said Carter of Wyoming. "They use an 8-man rotation and their defense is very good."
Wyoming lost its Mountain West opener 63-61 to Boise State on a buzzer-beating 3 pointer by the Broncos' Jeff Elorriaga. The Cowboys, though, still allow just 55.2 points a game.
"They don't gamble a lot on defense," Carter said. "They don't give up driving lanes so you have to score over them."
Wyoming is led by 6-foot-7 Leonard Washington, who is averaging 14.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and two blocks a game. Washington is eighth in the Mountain West in scoring, fifth in rebounding and first in blocked shots. Derrious Gilmore, a 5-10 guard, is averaging 12.1 points and 3.1 assists and 6-8 Larry Nance Jr. chips in with 10.7 points and 6.9 rebounds (eighth in the conference).
The Pack might get a break because Wyoming will likely be without shooting guard Luke Martinez (14.5 points a game). Martinez, who has missed the last two games with a broken hand, is 12th in scoring in the Mountain West, second in steals (2.1 a game) and fourth in 3-point percentage (.422).
Carter called the game against Wyoming a "mandatory" win for the Pack.
"You have to win your home games," Carter said. "You always want to protect your home but it's even more important in this league because everybody is so good at home. And we don't want to start 0-2 (in league play).
Carter said it is not too early in the season to have a must-win game.
"If that's extra pressure on the guys, so be it," Carter said. "This is a game we have to get."
Wolf Pack senior guard Malik Story had arguably his worst game in his three-year Pack career at Air force. Story, who is averaging 15.9 points a game, was 1-of-7 from the floor (1-of-6 on threes) and scored just three points. Point guard Deonte Burton had 21 points but it wasn't nearly enough to compensate for Story's off night.
Carter, though, is wishing his Wolf Pack wouldn't rely on Burton and Story to supply the bulk of the offense most every night.
"That's been the biggest question mark," Carter said. "We need more production out of the other guys. We can't just rely on Malik and Deonte to carry us. So the other guys have to be more aggressive."
Jordan Burris, Jerry Evans, Devonte Elliott and Kevin Panzer are averaging just 27 points a game combined. Carter said another part-time starter, Cole Huff (5.9 points a game), might not play against Wyoming because of a sore knee.
"Those other guys have to come out with a more aggressive attitude," Carter said. "We need them to contribute more. This is a big game for us."