Nevada men’s hoops deeper than ever
Appeal Sports Writer
RENO – The San Francisco 49ers, in their heyday, were a team that considered anything short of playing for the NFC Championship game or the Super Bowl a failure.
Has the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season reached that mindset after two straight Western Athletic Conference regular-season titles, a WAC post-season title and two straight trips to the NCAA tournament?
Not at all, according to coach Mark Fox, who guided the Pack to a 25-7 overall record, the regular-season Western Athletic Conference title and a second straight NCAA appearance last season.
“We’re not caught up in the expectations of others,” said Fox, whose team starts official practice tonight. “I don’t think the team is either. We have a set of goals for our team. I don’t list specific things.
“You can’t approach it that way. College rosters can change from year to year. These are young men, not men. We’re going to try and be our best. I expect us to work hard, and if that happens, good things should follow.”
Fox can say what he wants, but he knows that big things are expected of this team which lost only two players, Kevinn Pinkney and Jermaine Washington, from last year’s squad. The Pack was a unanimous preseason pick by the media to win the league, and eight of the nine coaches agreed with the writers.
“One of the hardest things in athletics is to win a championship when everybody says you are going to,” Fox said. “It’s a great challenge to have. You still have to play the games.”
Both 6-11 forward Nick Fazekas, the reigning WAC Player of the Year, and 6-3 point guard Ramon Sessions know that all too well.
“I would be disappointed if we’re not playing for the championship this year,” Fazekas said. “I was disappointed not to be playing for the WAC post-season title last year, and that’s the way it should be. I was disappointed when we lost to Boise State.”
“We have a target on our back,” Sessions said. “People are going to come at us night in and night out. We are going to have to bring our A game. We can’t take a night off.”
The challenge to repeat is huge. With the schedule that Nevada has, winning 25 games will be extremely difficult. Every team on Nevada’s nonconference road schedule made it to the postseason last year (either NCAA or NIT) – Vermont, Kansas, St. Mary’s, UOP, UCLA and UNLV – and Louisiana-Lafayette is the lone home opponent that reached the post-season.
“The scheduling process has become more difficult each of the last few years. The final product of those efforts this season yields a very difficult nonconference schedule,” Fox said. “I think we have accomplished our goal of creating the strength of schedule wanted by the postseason committees.”
Fox has always been a firm believer that you learn from adversity, and with that nonconference schedule, there is bound to be some adversity.
‘You have to learn how to deal with it, and hopefully it will help us,” Fox said.
This year’s team is much more versatile and athletic, will shoot the 3-ball better and more importantly has much-needed depth. This team could be deeper than the Pack was two years ago when it reached the Sweet 16.
Part of that depth was created with the addition of redshirt guards Lyndale Burleson (academically ineligible) and Marcelus Kemp (injury redshirt), and through the recruitment of small forward Denis Ikovlev and power forward Demarshay Johnson, both JC transfers.
“We’re two-deep everywhere,” Fox said. “We needed depth, and now we have it. We have the ability to play many different ways. We can go big with three 7-footers (Fazekas, Chad Bell and David Ellis), we can play fast and we can go small. On our trip to Italy, we played all three of our point guards (Kyle Shiloh, Sessions and Lyndale Burleson) at the same time.”
The big question surrounding the Pack is how to replace Pinkney and Washington. The former was the true leader of last year’s team, and he was the team’s best front-line defensive player. The latter a great rebounder and perimeter defender.
“I don’t know if you replace a Kevinn Pinkney,” Fox said. “He was so good in so many ways. He did so many things that never showed up in a boxscore.”
“It will effect us,” Fazekas said. “He was really a leader. He could loosen up the lockerroom and on the court he did it all.”
When you talk about doing it all, especially at the offensive end, you start with Fazekas, who averaged 20.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He’s bulked up to 230 pounds which should make it easier to deal with the constant pounding teams try to give him, and Fox will try to rest him more this year.
“In the end, he was playing 32 or 33 minutes,” Fox said. “I’d like to keep it around 29 or 30. He’s always got two guys hanging on him every night.”
That’s fine with Fazekas, who said playing for Team USA in a Under-21 world tournament has made him a better player because he was working out against the elite players in the country.
Fox said any improvements with Fazekas would be subtle because he’s already so skilled.
“He’s going to be a better player, but his numbers might not be as good because he has better players around him.”
Fazekas makes no bones about it. He wants to score, and he has the capability to score points in bunches no matter how many minutes he plays. He scored in double digits all 32 games and scored 20 or more 18 times.
“I don’t have to put up the same numbers,” he said. “I want to be the go-to guy. I want to be the guy that puts us over the top.”
Fazekas is joined in the frontcourt by Bell (3.0 points, 2.8 rebounds), Ellis (1.6, 1.4) and Johnson, a two-time all-state JC player.
Bell has already stepped into Pinkney’s shoes as a vocal leader. Whether he can fill his shoes on the court is a big question mark.
“Chad was a 15-minute guy last year,” Fox said. “I think he’s ready to play significant minutes. David Ellis is an improved player and he’s worked hard in the offseason. Demarshay is very long. He can block shots. He has great athleticism. He’ll allow Nick to get more rest.”
Mo Charlo starts at small forward. The 6-7 senior came on strong in the second half of the year. He averaged 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. He was probably the Pack’s most versatile player with the ability to play anywhere from the point guard to a power forward.
“He wasn’t great early, but he finished strong, and I hope that continues into this season,” Fox said. “He was a typical JC player. It’s not an easy transition. He went up and down early.”
Ikovlev will be counted on to give Charlo an occasional rest, and his 3-point shooting will help immensely.
“We wanted to add a shooter,” Fox said. “With Marcelus healthy, we have two guys that can help us in that area.”
A year ago, the Pack were thin at guard. Now, it’s the deepest position on the team with Sessions (9.0, 3.8), Shiloh (5.3, 2.0), Kemp, Burleson, Seth Taylor (2.5, 1.1) and Curry Lynch (0.2, 0.2).
Sessions figures to start at the point, backed by Burleson and Shiloh. Kemp, Taylor , Shiloh and Lynch are the shooting guards. Sessions was the WAC Freshman of the Year last season, and came up big for the Pack.
“Ramon was unbelievable for us last year,” Fox said. “He has the ability to play without fear of making a mistake. He’s shooting the ball real well.
“Kyle can play the 1, 2 or 3 spots. He can play lots of places. He’s a great defender and he’s a better shooter than he realizes. He did a lot of great things for this team last year. He played well for this team. Lyndale will just play the point. I’m sure he’ll have some rust from not playing any games last year. Don’t count out Seth Taylor. He hit some key baskets against UTEP and against Rice he made two long jump shots. Marcelus is 100 percent now. He’s not required to wear a brace anymore.”