Joe Santoro: No matter what happens, Pack have had a successful seson
For the Nevada Appeal
This Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season is already a success.
Yes, the Wolf Pack can certainly win the Western Athletic Conference tournament this week starting Thursday at Lawlor Events Center and earn its first NCAA tournament spot in three years.
But that would be like adding another fancy app to their already loaded cell phone.
The Pack, which plays Idaho at 6 p.m. to open the WAC postseason party on Thursday, is 19-11 this year. They are 14-1 at home.
That qualifies as a successful season. Everything else that comes this team’s way this week and beyond is icing on their basketball cake.
Still, Wolf Pack players and head coach David Carter were put in an uncomfortable and uncalled for position by the media after Saturday night’s 79-68 Senior Night feel-good victory over Louisiana Tech. They were asked if they had to win the WAC tournament to prevent this season from being labeled a failure.
Last time I looked, this wasn’t North Carolina. This isn’t Duke, Ohio State, Florida, Kentucky, Kansas or any other college basketball factory that tosses 19-win seasons back into the lake and then goes out the next day to buy a new fishing boat and pole.
This is Nevada, where 19-win seasons should be cherished. Let’s not forget that this is just the 17th time in 98 seasons of basketball that the Pack has won at least 19 games.
A 19-win season should scream success.
Make no mistake, a loss this week in the WAC tournament will be disappointing. A loss to anyone not named Utah State will be a bit stunning.
But disappointment is not failure.
Not even close.
If you label this season a failure then you are also saying that handing David Carter the head coaching keys might have been a mistake. You are saying that Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson underachieved this year. You are saying that Brandon Fields and Joey Shaw wasted their senior year.
You are saying that this team vastly underachieved.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Carter deserved to be named WAC Coach of the Year (Utah State’s Stew Morrill won the award on Sunday).
Carter, one of the smartest, likeable, composed, evenhanded, fair and honorable men you’ll ever find on a college basketball bench, had arguably the best rookie season of any head coach in Pack history. Mark Fox won more games (25) his first year but he was handed a program that went to the Sweet 16 just the year before.
Let’s also not forget what Carter had to navigate through and around immediately after taking over the Pack last spring.
The first thing he had to do was quiet everyone’s fears that the sky was falling after Fox shocked the world by going to Georgia.
In the next few weeks he had to deal with a frightening incident involving some of his players and a gun. The fallout of that ugliness was that one of their most talented and pivotal players was kicked off the team.
At the same time, another one of his players — his best defensive player, by the way — told Carter that he was leaving the program. You stick Ahyaro Phillips and Malik Cooke on this year’s Pack team and, well, nobody would look at you sideways if you did indeed toss a 19-win season back into the lake.
But Carter, who resembled the captain of the Titanic at some scary moments last spring, didn’t have Phillips, Cooke and a couple other recruits that left the program at his disposal this year. He was left with a team with two stars, three inconsistent talents, a sixth man who had averaged seven minutes, one bucket and one rebound a game over his career and a bunch of young kids that will make sure to get Babbitt’s and Johnson’s autograph before they leave for the NBA.
The Wolf Pack has played the bulk of this season with five players that spend less time on the court each game than the kids who come out of the stands and dance with the cheerleaders during a timeout.
That leaves seven serviceable guys. One of those guys averages one foul every four minutes.
That leaves six guys Carter can reasonably count on every night. Let’s just say he’s fortunate he doesn’t have any hair on his head to pull out.
Yes, you can argue the Pack has the two best players in the league. NBA scouts would likely toss Fresno’s Paul George into that mix but you get the idea. Johnson and Babbitt are special.
Babbitt was named the WAC Player of the Year on Sunday. Johnson, who should have been on the First Team All-WAC with Babbitt, somehow was stuck on the Second Team. It’s been a pleasure watching these two young men ply their craft. Seeing those two kids cut down the nets Saturday night could even bring a tear to an old sportswriter’s eye.
But the Pack is certainly not the deepest team in the league. You can argue that they are in the bottom third as far as depth is concerned. If the Wolf Pack basketball team was a used car lot, there would be two Ferraris, two loaded SUV’s that don’t get great gas mileage, a couple Toyotas that need a tuneup once a month, a beat up minivan, an old school bus up on cement blocks and a bunch of vehicles that not even an old, sentimental sportswriter would drive.
Carter was the perfect coach for this team. I’m not sure that Fox, a very good college coach, could have squeezed any more than 19 wins out of this team at this point with his mass substitutions and step-by-step, do-as-you’re-told, leave your creativity on the AAU court offense.
Let’s not forget that this Pack team doesn’t have a true center, doesn’t have a bench, doesn’t have a reliable backup point guard or small forward and rarely has more than two guys who are hitting their shots on a given night.
And, oh yeah, there’s no great rebounder on the roster and defense is something that only occurs when the opposing team botches a layup, misses a wide-open 3-pointer or throws the ball into the band.
Dario Hunt was named to the All-WAC Defensive Team but he’s a work in progress at best. He’ll get much better.
Carter doesn’t have anyone on his bench that he can use to send a message to a underachieving starter. The five starters never had a fear of losing their jobs. As far as the starters were concerned, it was the Bill Clinton years and everyone was making more money than they could spend. All that usually leads to are periods of satisfaction and complacency. We saw it repeatedly this year.
This Pack team doesn’t have any defensive grinders, guys who can give you 20-25 minutes of solid defense, get under the skin of opposing scorers. It doesn’t have a Lyndale Burleson, a Mo Charlo, a Kyle Shiloh, a Jermaine Washington, a Kevinn Pinkney, a Gary Hill-Thomas, a Jerry Petty, a Corey Jackson, a Malik Cooke.
This is also a young team. It is also (don’t tell anyone) a transition year. A rebuilding year. Next year, if everyone comes back that is eligible to do so, could be a super year. But that’s next year.
That’s why 19 wins is a solid year for this Pack team. Not great. Not amazing. Solid. And solid is nowhere close to failure. If Babbitt and Johnson are seen cutting down the nets on Saturday night then you can start to think amazing and great.
It could happen. But they definitely don’t deserve the pressure of thinking that it is necessary to validate their worth.
Right now, today, this second, this is a year that this Pack team, with all of its flaws, should be proud of.
They certainly don’t deserve to feel that they will have to walk around town as failures should they lose a game this week.