Wolf Pack readies for rival UNLV
For the Nevada Appeal
Nobody is going to roll a cannon off the court Wednesday night at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. Nobody is going to paint anything red or blue after the Nevada Wolf Pack and UNLV Rebels men’s basketball teams meet at 7:30 p.m. in the second game of the season for both teams.
On the surface, the game doesn’t seem to have any more hype and hoopla surrounding it than season-opening matchups against Montana State or Pittsburg State, the opponents the Pack and Rebels beat to open the season last weekend.
“No, it doesn’t have all that,” said Wolf Pack guard Brandon Fields of the historic Fremont Cannon trophy given to the winner of the Pack-Rebels football rivalry. “The cannon is cool and all that but we just look at this game as a way of getting some respect. UNLV is a good team. They beat us last year. It’s going to be a good battle.”
Fields, who will play in his 100th career game Wednesday night, scored 14 points in the Pack’s 75-61 victory over Montana State Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center. Luke Babbitt added 26 and Armon Johnson scored 16 as the Pack earned rookie head coach David Carter his first victory.
The Pack, though, expects a much tougher test on the road against the Rebels than it received against a depleted (just eight available players) Montana State team. The Wolf Pack, after all, has lost three games in a row to UNLV, including last season’s 64-57 defeat at Lawlor in early December.
“That game is always tough,” Fields said. “It is our rival school.”
“It’s going to be a hostile environment,” Johnson said. “Playing in that type of atmosphere will be good for us.”
Basketball, though, doesn’t get caught up in awarding trophies after rival games.
“Yes, it is a rivalry game,” Carter said. “It is our in-state rival. But I look at it more as a resume game. When it gets down to the end of the season and people start to ask, ‘Who did you play? Who did you beat?,’ this is one of the games you look at.”
None of the current Wolf Pack players have ever beaten UNLV. The Wolf Pack last beat the Rebels four years ago, 68-61, on Nov. 26, 2005.
“For the most part we treat this like any other game,” Johnson said. “But we all know it’s a big game. We know what it means.”
Coach Lon Kruger’s Rebels, like Carter’s Wolf Pack, are in a state of transition this year. Only two of UNLV’s five starters Wednesday (guards Oscar Bellfield and Tre’Von Willis) started on a regular basis last year. Bellfield and Willis (17 points in the 91-52 victory over Pittsburg State) will be joined in the starting lineup by guard Derrick Jasper, forward Chace Stanback and 6-foot-10 center Brice Massamba.
The Rebels, though, appear to have a deeper bench than the Pack at this point in the season. The Pack received just 14 points from its bench in the rout over Montana State, a Big Sky Conference team.
UNLV got 11 points from Justin Hawkins and 16 from Kendall Wallace off the bench against Pittsburg State, a Division II school. Guards Steve Jones and Anthony Marshall, a freshman from Mojave High in Las Vegas, and forwards Darris Santee and Matt Shaw are also expected to play important roles for the Rebels off the bench this season.
“They are very good, one through five, and they have a deep bench,” said Pack junior Armon Johnson, who is 0-2 against UNLV in his career. “They have a lot of players who can all do a lot of things.”
“They are a very tough defensive-minded team,” Carter said. “They won’t allow you easy baskets.”
Carter would like his young Wolf Pack team to do the same.
“To a certain extent, yes, especially in terms of pressure and their ability to take teams out of their offense,” Carter said.
UNLV, Carter said, will be much more athletic than Montana State.
“Their quickness will force us to focus and execute more,” Carter said. “But that’s always easier said than done. Hopefully we can handle their pressure.”
The Wolf Pack, Carter said, will stick with the same starting lineup of Babbitt at power forward, Dario Hunt at center, Joey Shaw at small forward, Johnson at the point and Fields at shooting guard. Ray Kraemer, who scored 10 points in 26 minutes, saw the most time off the bench against Montana State. Only two other Pack reserves — Marko Cukic and London Giles — saw significant minutes in the season-opener.
“I never say (the starting lineup) is set in stone,” Carter said. “I want the five guys who start to feel that they have to keep playing well to keep that role and I want my guys on the bench to keep playing hard and fighting for a starting job.”
The Wolf Pack will return to Lawlor Events to face Houston on Saturday night. The game will start an hour later than normal (8:05 p.m.).