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Wolf Pack to host former Big Sky rival Idaho State tonight

BY DARRELL MOODY

Nevada Appeal Sports Writer

RENO ” It would be very easy for the Nevada basketball team to look past tonight’s game with Idaho State and be thinking more about Wednesday’s game against No. 1 and undefeated North Carolina.

That would be a big mistake.

“They are a good basketball team,” said Nevada coach Mark Fox, whose team hosts the Bengals tonight at 7:05 p.m. in a nonconference basketball game at Lawlor Events Center. “They are much better than their record indicates. We haven’t even discussed the (Carolina) game.”

“They are a good team playing a good schedule,” freshman forward Luke Babbitt added. “We have to play well to win. We’re focused on the next game. That’s why we take it one game at a time.”

The Bengals, of the Big Sky Conference, may be 2-9, but their Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is 165 and Nevada’s is 168, according to realtimerpi.com. The Bengals’ strength of schedule is No. 1 in the country.

Except for a 90-55 loss at Arizona State, an 85-65 loss to BYU and a 60-41 loss to Washington State, Idaho State has been very competitive.

The Bengals beat Utah 72-68, lost by two at Big Ten power Wisconsin, 60-58, and lost by 15 at Wisconsin Green-Bay. Idaho State is 0-3 against Western Athletic Conference schools, dropping a 67-64 overtime decision at Hawaii, a 92-84 double-overtime thriller at Boise State and a 67-57 setback to Utah State at home.

“With the exception of a few halves, we’ve been a very solid basketball team all year,” said Bengals coach Joe O’Brien. “We had three early overtime losses, and all of them were games we could have won.

“We’ve been competitive for at least a half if not more in every game. Wisconsin we played to the wire. We played at Washington State without Matt Stucki. ASU shot the ball phenomenal.”

Meanwhile, Nevada, now 6-5, hopes to start a new winning streak after dropping a 75-66 decision to California last weekend in Berkeley. The Pack is striving to get better at both ends of the floor, and Fox is seeing some progress.

“I’m not sure there is anything we’re real good at (right now),” Fox said. “We’re getting better every week. We are trying to get better every week.

“We have about two thirds of our package in. We’ll add some things, but we’re not going to get to 100 percent, no way. We’re not experienced enough. We won’t have as many pieces this year.

One thing that Fox said will help Nevada’s progress is that the team can focus solely on basketball for the next few weeks. The team practiced on Christmas Eve and twice on Christmas Day.

“We’re trying to get stronger and stronger and get prepared for league play,” said sophomore guard Armon Johnson, who is coming off a 33-point effort at California and now leads the team in scoring at 15.8 per game. “It’s one of the most fun time of the year. It gives us a chance to get better.”

One of the things Fox would like to see improved on is the team’s 3-point shooting. The line was pushed back 12 inches this year, and Nevada’s results have been horrid. Nevada is eighth in the conference, shooting 28.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc. It’s shades of 2005 when Nevada was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country and still won 27 games.

“We have not shot the three as well as I’d like,” Fox said. “I’ve (charted) every 3-point shot in practice and we’re over 50 percent. We haven’t shot the ball well in games, though. We’re still adjusting. We’re shooting too far beyond the line. We don’t need to shoot an NBA 3-pointer. We can move up eight or 10 inches.”

Despite the lack of accuracy from long range, Nevada is still scoring 70 points a game thanks to Babbitt (14.8 ppg) and Johnson. Joey Shaw (9.3 ppg), Malik Cooke (8.6) and Brandon Fields (8.0) are pushing double figures.

Idaho State is led by 6-foot-5 guard Amorrow Morgan (12.7 ppg) and Stucki is next at 11.3. Center Demetrius Monroe has been solid with averages of 9.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, respectively.

“We’re trying to do the same thing (score more),” O’Brien said. “We’re trying to be better offensively. (The Wolf Pack) has a good inside-outside game (with Babbitt and Johnson). They have five or six other solid players. That’s hard to beat. Defensively, they are going to guard you.”

NOTES: Nevada leads the series 18-17. The last time the teams met was 1992, with the Wolf Pack grabbing a 105-88 win in Reno… Nevada has won 41 of its last 47 at Lawlor Events Center, including 16 of its last 20. Nevada is 4-2 at home this season … Nevada has allowed an average of 55 points a game over the last four contests.

– Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or (775) 881-1281