Santoro: Lawlor the land of the free (throw)

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball players, coaches and fans are turning into Pavlov’s dog this season at Lawlor Events Center. Each time they hear a whistle they start to salivate in anticipation of receiving yet another tasty treat. The Pavlovs, dressed as basketball referees, blow a whistle, a Pack player walks to the free throw line and the opposing team runs and hides under the couch like a 2-year-old Pomeranian on the Fourth of July.

The Pack is 14-0 at Lawlor Events Center and the biggest reason for the perfection seems to be all of the Pavlovs on the court. The Wolf Pack is 270-of-340 from the free throw line this year at Lawlor Events Center while their opponents are just 159-of-219. That’s like giving the home team nine innings to score runs and the visitors seven. It is also an average advantage each game of 17.1 successful free throws to 11.4.

In a 77-66 win over Fresno State on Feb. 10 the Pack had a 23-8 edge in successful free throws. In a 72-52 win over Air Force on Feb. 3 it was 24-5. In an 80-69 win over Colorado State on Jan. 4 it was 21-9. This past Tuesday night, in a 66-51 win over San Jose State, the edge was 12-1. The Wolf Pack has made more free throws than its opponent in 13-of-14 home games (Utah State on Jan. 13 was the exception).


Are the officials favoring the Pack at Lawlor? Of course they are. Most every home team gets favorable treatment by the referees. It’s just the nature of college basketball. Some Mountain West arenas (namely New Mexico, Boise State, Utah State, San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV and Nevada) are famous for it.

Nobody is suggesting the Pack hasn’t deserved the favorable whistles at home. We’re just saying that maybe, just maybe, they haven’t deserved them all like most Mountain West teams at home. The Wolf Pack’s style of playing, after all, does lead to more whistles. Getting the official to blow his whistle is a Pack priority. Point guard Kenan Blackshear attacks the basket, center Will Baker dominates the paint and freshman Darrion Williams outhustles everybody.

But when the Pack is away from the Lawlor the big advantage at the line mysteriously disappears. Pack opponents actually have gone to the line more (273-261) than the Pack outside of Lawlor. The Pack still has had a slight points edge from the line (209-197) away from Lawlor because they are simply better at shooting free throws. Credit all the practice they get at home. So when they get, on average, nine more free throw attempts in a game like they do at home, it is significant.


We are looking at the best free throw shooting team in the history of Wolf Pack basketball. The Pack is 479-of-601 from the line for a success rate of .797. The school record is .756 in 2006-07. Jarod Lucas is 122-of-142 (.859), Kenan Blackshear is 114-of-147 (.776), Will Baker is 84-of-99 (.848), Darrion Williams is 29-of-35 (.829) and Tre Coleman is 30-of-40 (.750). Those are the starters. Sixth man Nick Davidson is 63-of-76 (.829). You can’t foul any of them and feel good about it.


Luke Babbitt (.893 for his two-year career) is the most efficient free throw shooter in Pack history. He made a school record 199 free throws alone in 2009-10. Jimmy Carroll was at .881 (126-of-143) for his two seasons at Nevada. Grant Sherfield, who left the program after last season for Oklahoma, was 245-of-284 in his two seasons at Nevada for a success rate of .863. Deonte Burton lived at the line in his four seasons with a school-record 620-of-826 (.751). Jordan Caroline was 456-of-709 in just three seasons. So, yes, this Pack team this year didn’t invent the art of getting to the line and making free throws.


The Wolf Pack, 21-7 overall and 11-4 in the Mountain West, has just three regular season games remaining. The Pack plays at Fresno State on Friday and Wyoming on Monday and closes the regular season at home against UNLV on March 4. Three victories would guarantee a trip to the NCAA Tournament as well as tremendous momentum going into the Mountain West tournament. But one victory might get the job done.

The only thing right now that seemingly would prevent the Pack from going to its first NCAA tournament since 2018-19 would be three losses to close the regular season followed by a loss in its first Mountain West tournament game. The Mountain West, right now, is projected by most experts and computers, to get four teams in the tournament with San Diego State, Boise State and Utah State joining the Pack. But Utah State is likely still on the bubble.

New Mexico’s tournament hopes are on life support but they could be revived with a hot finish. Keep in mind the Wolf Pack has never gotten to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection with fewer than 24 wins (24-6 in 2004-05). The 2011-12 team won 28 games and didn’t get an invite.


What, exactly, is the reason behind all the interest in where Derek Carr ends up? Nobody seemed to care about Carr when he was the Las Vegas Raiders’ quarterback. The Raiders couldn’t even wait to the end of the year to get rid of him. Now Carr is suddenly important.

Sports media, sad to say, is broken beyond repair. It’s Entertainment Tonight meets TMZ meets a Kardashian dinner party meets Twitter. This media obsession with quarterbacks is enough to make a fan go into a darkness retreat for four months, let alone four days. Aaron Rodgers goes into a darkness retreat and the nation holds its breath. Tom Brady retires and we all feel a void in our lives. Peyton Manning goes on any show and we all giggle like he’s entertaining. Tony Romo predicts a play and we act like he’s Einstein. Troy Aikman grunts something about the Cowboys and our hearts skip a beat.

It won’t be long before all the top college quarterbacks at big schools are being given $10 million a year in endorsement deals. NFL quarterbacks will soon be making $100 million a year. And nobody will question it or raise a red flag that the nation is crumbling. Carr is just an average quarterback that will likely always play on average teams. He’s just not that interesting.


Wolf Pack coach Steve Alford might be on his way to the NCAA Tournament this year but former Wolf Pack head coaches Eric Musselman (Arkansas), Mark Fox (California), Trent Johnson (Cal State Northridge) and David Carter (Loyola Marymount) could be headed to the NIT, home for the spring and summer or maybe retirement.

Musselman, who has gone to two Elite Eights the last two years, is just 19-9 right now with the Razorbacks and on the NCAA bubble. Fox’s Golden Bears are one of the worst teams in the nation at 3-24. He is now 38-82 in four years at Cal and it is a wonder how he hasn’t already been fired. Johnson, whose son Terry (a Reno High graduate) is one of his assistants, is 6-22 at Northridge this season. Carter, an assistant coach at Marymount, is 18-11 with Marymount and will need to win the West Coast Conference tournament to go to the NCAA Tournament.


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