Toughest ‘Pit’ stop should be Lawlor | NevadaAppeal.com

Toughest ‘Pit’ stop should be Lawlor

Joe Santoro
Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team has a golden opportunity to lay claim to one of the most cherished honors that any conference can offer.

The owners of the most frightening haunted house in the conference.

The Pack, which hosts Air Force on Wednesday and Fresno State on Saturday, has a chance over the next two months to turn Lawlor Events Center into the most difficult place to play in the Mountain West.

New Mexico, despite all of its clever propaganda surrounding its legendary Pit, lost all claims to the title by dropping a pair of home games to UNLV and the Wolf Pack in a span of just three days last week. The Pit will never be as welcoming to guests as a new car showroom, but when you blow a 25-point lead in the second half, like the Lobos did against the Wolf Pack on Jan. 7, well, your home gym loses a bit of its aura.

That’s why the title of toughest place to play in the Mountain West is now vacant. And it’s time for Lawlor Events Center and its fans to stand up and be counted, grab the title by the collar over these next two months, paint it silver and blue and place it next to the Fremont Cannon for safe keeping.

Why not Lawlor? Why not Pack fans? The circular cement palace that has housed the Wolf Pack since the 1983-84 season clearly deserves to be ranked among the top contenders for the title of toughest place to play in the Mountain West. The Pack is 7-0 at home this season and 23-3 since Eric Musselman became head coach before the 2015-16 season. It’s the Pack’s best home record over a 26-game stretch since it was 24-2 from Nov. 17, 2011 to Dec. 28, 2013.

Lawlor has never gotten the credit it deserves for intimidating opponents. The Pack was 60-6 at home from 2004-07, making Lawlor The Pit of the Far West. The Pack was 15-0 at Lawlor in 2003-04, winning 18 in a row at home during one stretch.

Take that, Pit.

The Mountain West, though, doesn’t know anything about all those shiny numbers from a decade or so ago. Lawlor hasn’t been all that frightening to opponents since the Pack joined the Mountain West. That 24-2 stretch the Pack once enjoyed at home a few years back? Well, coincidentally or not, it ended a mere 15 days before the Pack played its first home game as a member of the Mountain West.

Until Musselman came to town, the Pack was just 24-23 at home over its first three seasons since it jumped to the Mountain West. That’s the type of home record that can make your home gym as quiet as a mausoleum and get your coach fired, which it did to David Carter following the 2014-15 season. You had to mention about seven or eight venues in the Mountain West before you got to Lawlor when listing the toughest places to play in the conference.

That’s why this opportunity — claiming the title as the toughest place to play in the conference — is important for Lawlor and the Wolf Pack to claim right now. It’s a title, after all, that isn’t offered all that often. Sometimes it takes a miraculous 25-point comeback victory in the second half to make it available.

“If you want to become a champion you have to win your home games,” Musselman has said on numerous occasions since coming to Nevada.

The Pack have backed up their coach’s words. They haven’t lost a home game since March 5, 2016.

“We don’t lose at home,” senior Marcus Marshall said after the win over San Diego State two weeks ago.

The title of toughest place to play in the Mountain West is a meaningful one. BYU and Utah once owned it. BYU was 166-16 at home when it was a member of the Mountain West for 12 seasons and Utah was 151-38. There have been just nine undefeated home seasons by Mountain West teams since the league was created in 1999-00. BYU has five of them and Utah has two. Air Force has the other two.

When BYU and Utah left the league after the 2010-11 season that left three other original Mountain West members — San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV — to battle for the title. And the three will always remain in the conversation of which owns the toughest venue in the league. San Diego State is 221-59 at home while it has been in the Mountain West, New Mexico is 246-59 and UNLV is 254-68.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for someone new to join in the fight.

Boise State appears to be the Pack’s biggest challenge among the Mountain West’s newcomers. The Broncos (7-0 at home) are the only other team in the Mountain West this season along with the Pack who’s still unbeaten at home. But Boise’s home dominance as member of the Mountain West didn’t just start last year like the Wolf Pack’s turnaround.

The Broncos are 71-13 at home since joining the Mountain West for the start of the 2011-12 season. They’re 60-8 at Taco Bell Arena since 2012-13 and 34-3 since 2014-15. They beat the Pack and Musselman 76-57 in Boise last year and beat Carter and the Pack 78-46 in 2014-15.

So circle the dates of Jan 25 (Pack at Taco Bell) and Feb. 22 (Boise at Lawlor) right now. The best home team in the Mountain West might be decided on those nights.

What will it take for Lawlor Events Center to become the most frightening haunted house in the Mountain West for opponents? Well, two things — a great basketball team and great fans.

It’s important the two go hand in hand. Utah State, when it was dominating the Western Athletic Conference, was the perfect marriage of fans and a team. The Aggies fans, with Wild Bill distracting opposing teams and the fans seemingly chanting the entire time, made the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum one of the toughest places to play in the entire nation. But while the Aggies still have great fans, their teams have struggled on the court since joining the Mountain West (nine losses at home just since the start of the 2015-16 season) and opponents aren’t as afraid of going to Logan, Utah, as they used to be.

Nobody knows how important the marriage between fans and the team can be as well as the Pack. It’s been a decade since the Pack last went to the NCAA tournament. For many of those years the fans haven’t exactly broken down Lawlor’s doors.

Even last year Musselman and his players at times have had to spend a portion of their timeouts now and then waving their hands and arms in the air, urging the fans to make noise. That has even happened this year.

But we don’t expect it to happen often, if at all, from here on out. The Pack, it seems, might be building the perfect combination of great basketball and great fans this season and is well on its way to turning Lawlor into one of the toughest venues in the nation.

And it’s all because the fans are marrying this team emotionally.

The team is 15-3 right now and seems to be hitting its stride. They backed up the crazy comeback victory at New Mexico by handing Wyoming its first home loss of the year on Saturday. The Pack, which beat San Diego State at home two weeks ago, has gone 15-2 since its opening night loss at Saint Mary’s with the two losses coming by one and two points.

That’s why it’s time now for the Pack fans to step up as much as their team has stepped up.

Look, nobody is ever going to confuse Wolf Pack fans with the Cameron Crazies at Duke, the Big Blue nation of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena or Kansas’ Rock Chalk die-hards at Allen Fieldhouse. Pack fans have never even gotten the national attention UNLV fans once got as part of the Shark Tank at Thomas & Mack Center during the Jerry Tarkanian years.

But it’s not the Pack fans’ fault. Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and even UNLV had numerous NCAA tournament and national championship season with which to cultivate and nurture their fan base. The Pack had just four and it was over quicker than it started.

And, don’t forget, nobody is ever going to confuse Lawlor with Cameron Indoor Stadium, Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena, not to mention about seven or eight dozen other Division I venues with more history, character and charm. Lawlor was a nice and modern facility when it opened in 1983 but it now has all the charm of a rundown 1970s strip mall. It’s dark and chilly and the student section is relegated to behind one basket. Duke lets its students suffocate the court. Nevada makes them sit in the shadows behind a basket. That’s why, when the Pack isn’t winning most every night, Lawlor can be as exciting as a trip to the post office.

But give Pack fans something to cheer about, like this season and late last year, and they will show up at a rundown strip mall to support their team. Wolf Pack fans have always been as underrated as any in the country. They just need a better public relations department behind them.

Pack fans and Lawlor Events Center both need a cute and catchy nickname. The Pit sounds about right for Lawlor. But that’s taken. How about The Lawlor Loonies for the fans? We’ll work on it.

When the team is winning and the place is packed, Lawlor is as intimidating as any venue in the country. It’s loud and the altitude at Lawlor seems to hit opposing teams like a ton of bricks in the chest. Lawlor, at those times, becomes sort of like a mini Pit. We saw glimpses of that last year in the College Basketball Invitational. We saw it last year at Lawlor when UNLV came to town.

There’s a good chance we’ll see it for all of the remaining seven home games this year.

Those moments last year in the CBI and against UNLV were reminiscent of the glory years from 2003-04 through 2006-07. The fans filled Lawlor those seasons, Lawlor was jumping and humming and the Pack won most every night. Nobody wanted to come to Lawlor to play the Pack from 2004-07. Ask Kansas, which went back to Allen Fieldhouse with a loss in December 2003.

That’s what it will take this season to make Lawlor the most feared venue in the Mountain West. The perfect union between a team and its fans. And we are all invited to the wedding.