As far as Deonte Burton is concerned, the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season is a long way from over.
“We have a chance to turn our season around,” the point guard said Monday as the Pack prepared to meet the Wyoming Cowboys tonight (5 p.m.) in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center to open the Mountain West tournament. “This is our chance for a new start.”
If ever a team needed a new start, it’s the Wolf Pack. The Pack lost its last seven games of the regular season, 10 of its last 11 and 14 of its last 17 to finish last in its first season in the Mountain West at 12-18, 3-13.
“If we do big things in this tournament, you never know what can happen,” Burton said.
The last time the Pack went into a conference tournament with a 12-18 record, it beat Fresno State 90-80 in the Western Athletic Conference just two seasons ago.
“This is very similar,” said Burton, a freshman two years ago. “This is a different group of guys but if we go down there and play hard all 40 minutes we can be a scary team.”
The Wolf Pack is 0-2 against Wyoming this season, losing to the Cowboys 59-48 on Jan. 12 in Reno and 68-48 in Laramie, Wyo., on Feb. 13. The Pack hasn’t lost to a team three times in one season since the 2002-03 season to Tulsa.
“This is definitely a big game for us,” Burton said.
Leonard Washington, a 6-foot-7 power forward, dominated the Pack in both games this year. He had 16 points and 13 rebounds in Reno and 16 points and 12 rebounds in Laramie.
“The key is Washington,” Pack coach David Carter said. “In both games we were not able to contain him. He had the ability to take charges, to block shots, to score inside and outside. He does a real good job of playing the cat and mouse game. You never know what he’s going to do.”
Washington, though, might not be a full strength for the Pack. A nagging back injury limited him to just a combined 31 minutes in the Cowboys’ final two regular season games against Colorado State and New Mexico and he had just three points and three rebounds over the two games.
The Wolf Pack, though, is preparing as if Washington will be 100 percent.
“He can control the game inside the paint,” Carter said.
The Wolf Pack hasn’t won a game since beating Air Force in Reno, 74-69, on Feb. 9. The seven-game losing streak is the longest losing streak the Pack has ever taken into a postseason conference tournament. The Pack played in its first postseason conference tournament in 1981-82 in the Big Sky Conference.
The longest Wolf Pack losing streak heading into a postseason conference tournament before this season was four in 1993-94. The Pack won its first Big West Conference tournament game that year (68-64 over Cal State Fullerton) before losing in the second round to New Mexico State (68-67 in overtime).
“We have to find ways to score in this game,” Carter said. “In our first two games against them (Wyoming) we struggled to score. We couldn’t find any offensive rhythm. We can’t have Malik (Story) and Deonte carry us for 40 minutes. We have to get other guys to chip in.”
Carter said junior forward Jerry Evans might miss the Wyoming game with a sprained left wrist. The left-handed shooter injured the wrist against Boise State on Feb. 27 and played in the next two games against UNLV and New Mexico but sat out the final regular season game at Colorado State on Wednesday.
“We have to practice as if he’s going to miss the game,” Carter said.
“If we don’t have him, it’s a big loss because it hurts our rebounding,” Carter said.
Evans leads the Wolf Pack in rebounding at 5.9 a game.
“Right now it doesn’t look good that he’ll be able to play because without his left hand, he’s not that effective,” Carter said. “But we just have to wait and see.”
The Wolf Pack-Wyoming game is actually the play-in game for the Mountain West tournament. The winner gets to play top-seeded New Mexico (26-5) at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“We want to get in the tournament,” Burton said. “We want to beat Wyoming and get this bad taste out of our mouth.”