New look for Pack men’s basketball | NevadaAppeal.com

New look for Pack men’s basketball

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles previewing men’s basketball teams in the Western Athletic Conference. Today, the Appeal looks at the Nevada Wolf Pack.

BY DARRELL MOODY

Appeal Sports Writer

RENO – Nevada has been a model of consistency the past four years. In that span, the Wolf Pack has made four NCAA appearances and won 25 or more games each time.

This is a new era in Wolf Pack basketball. Nick Fazekas, the three-time WAC Player of the Year is honing his craft with the Dallas Mavericks. Starters Ramon Sessions, Kyle Shiloh and Denis Ikovlev also are gone from last year’s 29-5 team.

In fact, the only starter left is Marcelus Kemp, and he’s a good one. Kemp averaged 18.5 points and 4.7 rebounds a contest, and will give Utah State’s Jaycee Carroll a run for his money for Player of the Year honors.

The only other players with starting career experience are redshirt senior forward/center Demarshay Johnson (5.0, 4.2 in 2005-06), who was academically ineligible last season, 7-foot senior David Ellis (2.2, 1.8) and junior point guard Lyndale Burleson (1.7, 0.9), who is academically ineligible the first semester of this season.

“We lost a great deal of experience from last year’s team,” Nevada coach Mark Fox said. “Nick Fazekas, arguably one of the most productive players in WAC history and certainly at Nevada.

“We have lots of inexperienced faces, and hopefully these young guys have learned because of the examples in front of them and be ready to step up. I’m looking forward to coaching this team and getting started today.”

Fox was referring to sophomores Brandon Fields (2.1, 0.9), Tyrone Hanson (1.6, 1.0), Richie Phillips (0.3, 0.5) and Matt LaGrone (0.7, 2.2), all of whom played less than 12 minutes a game as freshmen.

Don’t expect the rest of the WAC coaches to shed any tears for the defending regular-season champs.

“I don’t feel sorry for them,” Boise State’s Greg Graham said. “They will still be pretty good. They still have some good players.”

Added Hawaii coach Bob Nash, “They have a lot of young talented players that got significant playing time last year. Losing Fazekas and Sessions still hurts.”

Translation. Maybe somebody else is going to win the regular-season championship.

“Yeah it is (a challenge),” Kemp said when asked about the Pack’s projected third-place finish in both the media and coaches’ polls. “We lost a lot of players. We’re working hard every day.”

Without question, much of Nevada’s offense is expected to come from Kemp, who is going to be counted on for not only leadership, but scoring, too. He will now be the center of attention for opposing defenses.

“He’s been a terrific player for us,” Fox said of Kemp. “He did test the early NBA waters like Nick and used it the right way to impropve himself. He was very productive. He’s going to have to do it without a great frontline player in Fazekas and a great point guard in Sessions. Things will be different, and his ability to adjust will be a key to our success.

“We had so much experience, the players knew what they had to do. With younger guys, Marcelus is going to have to be more of a (vocal) leader.”

Kemp already knows that you don’t replace a Fazekas, and he knows that it will be a committee approach shared by McGee, Ellis, Johnson and LaGrone.

“We’re going to show we can play basketball (and succeed) without Nick,” Kemp said.

McGee, who averaged nearly one blocked shot for every 10 minutes he played last year, has great potential. The Pack needs him to realize even more of that potential this season. McGee averaged 3.3 a game.

“He’s physically maturing,” Fox said. “He grew a half-inch over the summer, and he still doesn’t shave. He had a great summer and worked extremely hard.

“Certainly he has to stay focused. He had some great moments, and he had moments where he kept both teams in the game.”

The next key spot is point guard.

Burleson made two starts a year ago. Don’t be stunned if Kemp is in that rotation at times. Ex-Hug star Armon Johnson, a true freshman, and Fields seem to be the frontrunners entering today’s first practice. Ex-Virginia star Curry Lynch has played there in blowouts, too.

“Armon is a talented guy,” Fox said. ‘We’re excited about his future. Armon has the advantage over Brandon. He’s used to playing with the ball in his hands. It’s going to be baptism by fire for both of them.

“Point guard is not going to be Brandon’s main position. He’s still going to play the ‘2’ guard.”

Fields said he played point guard his entire career until he was a senior in high school, and then he was switched to small forward because of his leaping ability.

“The biggest adjustment going back to point is bringing the ball up against defensive pressure,” Fields said. “I worked on my ball-handling and shooting in the off-season.

“I knew I would have to play some point (here). I’ll play wherever I’m needed.”

The shooting guard and small forward spots which are interchangeable according to Fox, are loaded with young, exciting players.

Besides Kemp and Fields, there is the 6-6 Hanson, who knocked down 10 of 14 3-point attempts last season. Also in the mix are JC transfer Ray Kraemer and freshman Malik Cooke.

Kraemer averaged 20 points and eight rebounds at Weatherford College. He didn’t play last season after injuring his shoulder.

“Malik is like Kevinn Pinkney. He started college when he was 17,” Fox said. “Malik comes from a state championship program. He understands what it takes to win.

“Ray gives us the element we need from the perimeter.”

• Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281

PACK FACTS

head coach: Mark Fox (5th season)

2006-07 record: 29-5 overall, 14-2 in conference

Lettermen returning: 9

Top player returning: Marcelus Kemp

Top newcomers: Armon Johsnon, Malik Cooke, Ray Kraemer