Nevada feeling good going into BracketBuster | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada feeling good going into BracketBuster

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO ” The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team hopes tonight’s ESPN BracketBuster game against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams is not a momentum buster.

“We’re feeling pretty good right now,” Wolf Pack forward Dario Hunt said. “Things are going good right now.”

The Wolf Pack, now 15-10 overall and 8-4 in the Western Athletic Conference, feels good about itself because of road victories last week against Hawaii and San Jose State after losing at home the previous week against Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State.

“Those games gave us a lot of confidence,” said Pack forward Luke Babbitt of the road conquests at San Jose and Hawaii. “We needed some wins.”

Virginia Commonwealth, now 19-8 overall and 12-4 in the Colonial Athletic Association, looks to be one of the Pack’s biggest tests of the season. The Rams have beaten solid teams this year like George Mason, Hofstra and James Madison and played Oklahoma on the road tough before losing by 11 early in the year.

“I had a lot of respect for their program before I knew we were going to play them and now I have even more respect for them,” Pack coach Mark Fox said. “They are a terrific basketball team, maybe the best team outside of (North) Carolina that will walk in here (Lawlor Events Center) this year.”

The Rams, which upset Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2007, feature a solid inside-outside combination of 6-foot-3 senior point guard Eric Maynor and 6-foot-10 sophomore power forward Larry Sanders. Maynor, whose 15-foot jumper with a second to play is the reason VCU shocked Duke two years ago in the tournament, averages 22.9 points and 5.3 assists a game. Sanders averages 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and nearly three blocks a game.

Maynor has led the Rams in scoring 20 times this year while Sanders has led them in rebounding 17 times.

“He (Maynor) is the most complete point guard we’ll see this year,” Fox said.

The job of controlling Maynor goes to Pack point guard Armon Johnson. It was Johnson’s last-second shot that stunned Hawaii last Saturday.

“I try to go out and perform my best every game,” Johnson said. “But, hopefully, he’ll bring out the best in me.”

Hunt, the Pack’s top shot blocker, is looking forward to testing himself against Sanders.

“I guess we’re just going to go out and go at each other,” the 6-8 Pack freshman said.

Virginia Commonwealth, though, is more than just Maynor and Sanders. The Rams also feature 6-8 forward Kirill Pishohalnikov, from Russia, and guards Joey Rodriguez (9.9 points) and Bradford Burgess (5.6 points). Bench players Brandon Rozell, Ed Nixon and T.J. Gwynn, all guards, give the Rams depth.

“It’s going to be a fun game,’ the Pack’s Malik Cooke said. “It’s always good to play different competition.”

“They don’t know a lot about us and we don’t know a lot about them,” Babbitt said. “We’re just excited to be able to be in this game.”

The Wolf Pack is 4-1 in BracketBuster games. Their only loss was last year at Southern Illinois, 74-49. All four wins have come at Lawlor Events Center.

“In some ways the BracketBuster has outgrown itself,” Fox said. “It might need to be tweaked a little. One thing it does, it makes the return dates tough to do.”

The Pack will play at Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond, Va., next season. The BracketBuster games were designed to give schools not in the major conferences some added exposure before the NCAA Tournament.

“The idea was terrific,” Fox said. “But it’s kind of gotten to the point where I’m not sure it provides the benefit to smaller schools that it did three or four years ago.”

The Wolf Pack, though, is just grateful for the opportunity to play another quality team in preparation for the stretch run of the WAC season. The Pack will wrap up its regular season with games at Fresno State (Feb. 26) and Boise State (March 7) and with home games against Utah State (Feb. 28) and San Jose State (March 5).

“Every game is big for us now,” Babbitt said. “We look at every game we play the same way. We just want to go out and win every game we play.”