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BLOG: Bench is Wolf Pack’s biggest question right now

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

A roller-coaster, rocky and rickety off-season has left the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team with a ton of questions on its bench as the 2009-10 season gets underway Saturday night for real against Montana State at Lawlor Events Center.

Make no mistake, nobody should analyze what happened in Tuesday night’s 90-63 exhibition victory over Chico State too closely. Exhibition games, after all, are just a way for the players to get over stage fright, shake off the rust, pick out their favorite cheerleader and see if the uniform fits properly.

And the Wolf Pack passed its opening test without breaking out the cheat sheet, building a comfortable 54-27 halftime lead, overcoming boredom in the opening minutes of the second half and strolling to the easy victory.

But there were some red flags that were raised, especially for a program that considers a postseason tournament berth a birthright after seven consecutive years of playing after the Western Athletic Conference tournament ends.

Almost all of those red flags concern a young and inexperienced bench. Don’t worry about the starters. Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson will be even better this year, Brandon Fields will move back into the starting five without a hitch and become one of the most productive players in the WAC, Dario Hunt is a special talent on the glass and sharpshooter Joey Shaw will find his role.

But who is going to come off the bench and contribute meaningful minutes? That is a question that probably won’t be answered right away as new head coach David Carter gets his feet wet.

At first glance Tuesday night, well, let’s just say it looks like the Pack bench will be a work in progress this year. The six Pack players off Carter’s bench against Chico State (Patrick Nyeko, London Giles, Keith Fuetsch, Marko Cukic, Ray Kraemer and Adam Carp) combined to score 34 points, pull down 14 rebounds, block one shot, get six steals and dish out five assists (with 10 turnovers) in 86 minutes.

Again, don’t worry about the numbers. It was an exhibition game against a team that the Pack would beat with Babbitt and Johnson on the floor with Alphie at center, Cary Groth at shooting guard and Dr. Milton Glick at small forward.

If the starters would have played their normal amount of minutes, the Pack would have scored 120 points. Also, if the bench scores 34 points every game this season, the Pack will win a ton of games. But, don’t forget, they aren’t going to get 86 minutes of playing time ever again, or at least until next year’s season-opening exhibition game.

So don’t dwell on the numbers, good or bad.

The bad: Nyeko had just one rebound and two points in 18 minutes. Giles had six turnovers in 14 minutes. Fuetsch, a 5-foot-11 guard, played with a lot of energy but took just one shot and had no assists in 11 minutes. The 6-foot-9 Cukic, another high energy guy, had four fouls in 13 minutes.

The good: Kraemer (a senior) and Carp (a junior) played like veterans are supposed to play in an exhibition game. Kraemer had 11 points (three 3’s) in 19 minutes and Carp had six rebounds and five points in 11 minutes.

But is Carter going to be comfortable with Kraemer and Carp as his top two players off the bench?

We’ll see.

First, a little history lesson:

The Pack bench was gutted in the off-season with the departure of Richie Phillips (injury), Ahyaro Phillips (breaking team rules) and Malik Cooke (personal reasons). Those three would have given Carter unlimited flexibility off the bench this year (Cooke likely would have started this year, probably pushing Shaw or Hunt to the bench, depending on the matchups).

The absence of those three (especially Cooke and Ahyaro Phillips) has left the Pack short on experience sitting next to Carter on the bench. This year’s bench features three true freshmen (Cukic, Nyeko and Fuetsch), a sophomore (Giles) and junior (Carp) who barely played last year and a senior (Kraemer) who averaged 2.5 points a game and even fewer meaningful minutes a year ago.

Another role player, 6-9 sophomore center and Douglas High grad Keith Olson, will join the team in the middle of December after transferring from Northern Arizona. But Olson has battled foot problems and hasn’t played a game in the last two years so anything he contributes will be a pleasant bonus. He’s healthy and ready to go (Dec. 19 is when he becomes eligible) so keep your fingers crossed, Pack fans.

Is there talent on the bench? Definitely. Kraemer and Fuetsch can hit a 3-pointer, Giles can spell Johnson at the point, Cukic, Carp and Olson can bang inside and the 6-foot-6, rail-thin Nyeko looks like a player who will do nothing but get better and better with every second he plays on the floor.

Still, we’re talking about the 2009-10 season. Kraemer and Carp are sure things. The Pack knows what it can expect out of those two — an occasion 3-pointer (Kraemer), some boards (Carp), all-out hustle, great attitude. There is always a spot on any team’s bench for guys like Kraemer and Carp.

It’s the other five guys (Olson included) who are the big reasons why, as we stand now, this has to be the Pack’s most question-filled bench since the program jumped into the national spotlight six years ago. Again, it’s not about talent. It’s all about meaningful experience at the D-I level, which none of them have.

The Pack, for much of this decade, has always had a solid bench.

The 2003-04 team had Jermaine Washington, Sean Paul, Kyle Shiloh and Marcellus Kemp playing meaningful minutes off the bench. The next year the bench featured regular contributions from Chad Bell, David Ellis and Mo Charlo.

The 2005-06 bench had Lyndale Burleson, Denis Ikovlev and Ellis playing important minutes. The following year (2006-07), the best in school history at 29-5, reserves JaVale McGee, Ellis, Fields, Burleson and Matt LaGrone were the first names coach Mark Fox called off the bench. The 2007-08 team had Burleson, Ellis, Cooke and LaGrone as the top players off the bench. And last year it was Fields, Shaw, Kraemer, Ahyaro Phillips, with Richie Phillips, Carp and Giles around if needed.

You can also add Curry Lynch, Tyrone Hansen, and Seth Taylor to the depth the bench enjoyed at various times over the last six years. Yes, the Pack bench had a bench. That’s how you go to the postseason every year.

In each of the past six years, there was always a steady, reliable veteran ready to play important minutes off the bench, guys who could step into the starting lineup if needed: Burleson, Kemp, Ellis, Bell, Fields, Charlo, Shiloh, Ikovlev and Washington as well as youngsters with a world of talent like McGee, Cooke and LaGrone.

Also, don’t forget, a bunch of those bench players the past six years were really starters-in-waiting, guys like Burleson, Ikovlev, McGee, Kemp, Shiloh and Washington. Another player, DeMarshay Johnson, was in and out of the starting lineup for a couple years.

Are there any future starters on this year’s bench? That’s what we’re going to find out as the season progresses.

There’s no question that the five starters can get this team to 18 or so wins this year. But it will take the bench to get them to the magic number of 20-plus wins and another postseason party.

How important is the bench?

We’ll, like we said, the starters alone will get this team in the neighborhood of 20 wins, especially with a not-so-scary home non-league schedule. Babbitt and Johnson can play huge minutes, no question. The two rarely get into foul trouble so there really isn’t a need for a backup point guard (Giles) or power forward other than to let Babbitt and Johnson towel off and get a drink of water.

Fields and Hunt can also play big minutes and will likely be two of the more productive players in the WAC this year. So a backup shooting guard and center (Hunt is really a power forward) aren’t life-or-death concerns. And Shaw, who has been inconsistent in his college career, will likely settle into a nice, reliable role on most nights, shooting threes and running the floor. How high his minutes will increase will depend on how well he plays defense.

Cukic, who will likely frustrate opposing big men with his extremely active motor, and Olson will be important when the Pack plays a team with size. The last thing the Pack wants is for Babbitt to play with his back to the basket for 35 minutes again and bang players that are five inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. That’s where Cukic and Olson come in. They have to limit the black-and-blue bruises on Babbitt’s body, crash the boards and keep opposing teams from dominating inside.

Can they do that? Again, we’ll see.

The biggest question surrounding this bench is whether or not anyone can come into a game and supply instant offense and breathe life into the team, both offensively (like Fields and Shaw last year) and defensively (like Burleson, LaGrone, Ellis, Shiloh, Bell and others in the past).

We’ll see.

• Joe Santoro writes about sports in his Daily Fodder blog. Go to nevadaappeal.com, click on the opinion tab and then blogs. His Friday Fodder column appears each week in Sierra Nevada Media Group newspapers including the Nevada Appeal.