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Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack basketball ripping out hearts

Joe Santoro
For the Appeal
Nevada's Jazz Johnson swings a pass around a Santa Clara defender underneath the hoop on Wednesday.
Thomas Ranson/LVN

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is knocking opponents out in the first round. The Pack has won four games in a row by an average of 21 points. The Pack led by as much as 22 against Bowling Green, 25 against Fordham, 30 against Valparaiso and 34 in a 98-67 win over Santa Clara on Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center. The lead changed in those four games a grand total of two times combined. The Pack is taking an early lead and then burying opponents. The Pack led at the half by 10 against Fordham, 18 against both Valparaiso and Bowling Green and 24 against Santa Clara. “This is the fourth straight game where our starts have been really, really good,” coach Steve Alford said after whipping Santa Clara. “We’ve kind of taken their hearts for four straight games. And that’s not easy to do. Our guys have done a nice job of dictating how the game is going to be played early.”

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The Pack jumped out to a 32-13 lead midway through the first half against Santa Clara. It was 34-13 over Valparaiso, 25-13 over Bowling Green and 18-8 over Fordham at roughly the same point. The fast starts have not been by accident. The Pack has just been following orders. “Coach told us that we have to come out with an attitude,” senior Jazz Johnson said, “and not just jab at our opponents. We all have the attitude that we have to win games immediately.”

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The Pack has won four in a row and is 6-3 but that still pales in comparison to the 14-0 start last year and 8-0 the year before. Last year’s team, after all, didn’t lose its third game until March 2. Johnson, who has become one of the Pack’s best leaders, is well aware that this Pack team will always be compared to the last two seasons when it went 29-5 and 29-8 and went to the NCAA tournament both years. “We understand that we’re still an underdog,” Johnson said. “We’re still hungry. We still have to continue to fight. Everyone’s still looking down on us. We have to continue to get better and try to prove everyone wrong.”

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Johnson was basically just a spot-up shooter on last year’s team, playing a complementary role to scorers Cody and Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline. That has all changed this year. He is averaging 18.8 points a game, up from 11.0 a year ago and is even a better 3-point shooter, connecting at 48 percent, up from 45 percent last year. He is also a better rebounder, grabbing 3.6 a game after getting 1.8 a game last year. And he is playing just four more minutes a game this year. “I knew a lot of people were going to key on me this year,” Johnson said. “I knew I had to kind of change my game and not be just a stand-still shooter. I’ve been working on cutting (to the basket) a lot more. I just feel confident and when you are confident you play better.” Alford has been impressed with Johnson. “What I like,” Alford said, “is how he’s been leading and how he’s defended. That’s contagious.”

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Freshman Zane Meeks has shown rapid growth lately, averaging 10 points a game over his last three games after averaging 3.5 over his first six games. The 6-foot-9 forward from Prairie Village, Kansas had four threes and 16 points against Santa Clara after draining six threes in his first eight games combined. Meeks, though, says his real improvement has come on defense. “My main focus has been defense,” he said. “I’ve done a ton of film sessions with the coaches, two or three times a week, just trying to figure out everything. Everyone is taller, stronger and more athletic in college. The offense will come. I’m not worried about that. It’s defense where I have to keep working, trying to improve.”

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Meeks said he grew tremendously as a defensive player during the Wolf Pack’s three games at the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands Nov. 22-25. “Coach sat me down and said, ‘All right, here is where you are messing up and here’s where you need to correct things,’” Meeks said. “It was great for me. I was able to then go back and study film at night and the next day I had an opportunity (to work on things) and the next day I had another opportunity. The islands were incredible.”

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The Mountain West, the University of Nevada and UNLV have yet to hand down any punishments resulting from last Saturday’s brawl after UNLV’s 33-30 football victory in Reno. There is no rush to judgment, apparently, because UNLV’s season is over and the Wolf Pack won’t play again for at least another couple of weeks in a bowl game. But the punishment needs to be severe and it needs to be felt throughout both programs. Players should be suspended and maybe even kicked off the team. The Pack might also consider not playing in a bowl game this year.

Both head coaches gave a ridiculous, albeit predictable, boys will be boys and football is an emotional, competitive game sort of response to the ugliness at Mackay. That’s not leadership and maturity. That’s enabling stupid, childish behavior.

The state’s two universities and the Mountain West now need to show the maturity, leadership and intelligence that was lacking last Saturday at Mackay. Nevada, UNLV and the Mountain West must send a strong message about what they all stand for by handing down serious punishments. So, go ahead, Nevada, UNLV and the Mountain West. Take your time. Watch all the available video over and over. And get it right.