Pack hosts Bucknell today in NIT | NevadaAppeal.com

Pack hosts Bucknell today in NIT

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is focused, energized and determined.

Once again.

“I’m a very competitive player,” senior center Dario Hunt said. “Whenever I get the chance to play somebody else, whatever happened in the past just goes away. It’s about the here and now.”

The here is Lawlor Events Center and the now is a second round National Invitation Tournament game Sunday afternoon (noon tip-off) against the Bucknell Bison.

“We just want to win a championship,” Hunt said. “This is another chance to do that and to do something that has never been done here.”

Nobody in silver and blue is thinking about the NCAA Tournament anymore after a 68-59 victory last Wednesday night over Oral Roberts to start the NIT.

“Winning is a cure for pretty much anything,” said Hunt, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds against Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Okla.. “When you get that win everybody just feels better about themselves.”

The Wolf Pack (27-6), though, admitted this week that they had a little bit of a hangover after losing to Louisiana Tech 78-73 in the Western Athletic Conference tournament semifinals in Las Vegas nine days ago.

“It was tough after that loss,” guard Malik Story said. “But once the ball got tossed in the air (in Tulsa) it was just about getting back to playing basketball again.”

“Dario and Olek (Czyz) were kind of hanging onto the disappointment a little longer than the rest of the guys, just because they are seniors,” Pack coach David Carter said. “But that’s over. We have another opportunity now and we know we can go pretty far in this tournament.”

The Pack goal is to win another two games and get to the NIT Final Four at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 27-29. The Wolf Pack-Bucknell winner will play the Stanford-Illinois State winner on Wednesday night.

“I was pissed off,” said Czyz of the first few days after the loss to Louisiana Tech. “But that drove me to play well (at Oral Roberts). But a lot of that emotion is gone now. We can just focus on playing well now. All of that NCAA stuff is behind us.”

Czyz had 13 points and 10 rebounds against Oral Roberts, point guard Deonte Burton had a marvelous game with 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists and Story had eight points and four rebounds.

“It felt like just another road game for us,” Czyz said. “We felt very comfortable and we just got our business done.”

Adding to that comfort was an Oral Roberts man-to-man defense that the Pack exploited.

“We were just comfortable the whole game.” Czyz said. “We came into the locker room at halftime and said, ‘Wow, they are playing man defense on us.’ We knew we could just go out there and run our offense.”

“We hadn’t been manned up like that in a long, long time” Hunt said. “We were able to just go out there and run our offense just like we practice it.”

Bucknell, which upset Arizona, 65-54, in front of 8,433 fans at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., in its NIT opener, will also likely play a man defense against the Pack.

“From the tapes I’ve watched, it looks like they play man about 90 per cent of the time,” Carter said. “But we still have to be patient. There are also different types of man defense. New Mexico State plays a pressing man and we do pretty well against that. But teams that play a sagging man, we kind of stand around too much and get sluggish. When that happens we have to move bodies and move the ball and we haven’t done a good job of that this year.”

Bucknell, now 25-9, lost in the Patriot League tournament title game, 82-77, to Lehigh. Lehigh then took advantage of its automatic NCAA tournament spot and shocked Duke 75-70 on Friday. The Bison have made five NCAA tournament appearances, with the last coming just a year ago. Their shining moment in the NCAA tournament was a 64-63 upset over Kansas in 2005.

“We’ll have our hands full,” Carter said.

The Bison feature 6-foot-11 center Mike Muscala. Muscala, a junior, had 20 points and nine rebounds against Arizona and is averaging 16.8 points and 8.9 rebounds this season.

“He does remind me of (former Wolf Pack center) Nick Fazekas,” Carter said., “because he can score inside and out. He’s a very skilled big guy.”

Muscala, despite standing three inches taller than Hunt, weighs just four pounds more than the Pack center at 234 pounds.

“I just have to make him work for everything he gets,” Hunt said. “It’s more about positioning when it comes to playing a player bigger than you.”

Muscala had 30 points and 14 rebounds in the Bison’s loss to Lehigh in the Patriot League title game.

“He’s a very patient player,” Carter said. “And everything they do runs through him. We just have to keep him guessing about what we’re going to do defensively.”

Bucknell, from Lewisburg, Pa., also got 15 points from forward Joe Willman, 14 from guard Bryson Johnson, 12 points and 10 rebounds from guard Cameron Ayers and nine points from guard Bryan Cohen in the win over Arizona.

So they are not a one-man gang.

“We had a great (regular season) and nobody outside our bubble really knew about it,” said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen, who has a 71-58 record in four years with the Bison. “That (the win at Arizona) was an upset in the nation’s eyes and in the NIT selection committee’s eyes. But we go into every game thinking we could win and should win. We’re confident.”

The Wolf Pack’s confidence is also back to where it was before the loss to Louisiana Tech. The Pack is just two victories away from equaling the school record for victories in a season (the 2006-07 team went 29-5) and is four wins away from earning the school’s first postseason tournament title.

“Last year we weren’t playing in a tournament so it’s not every year you get a chance to do these things,” Story said. “Some teams are at home right now. This is the NIT. This is the closest thing to the NCAA Tournament you can get. We just want to win a championship, no matter what championship it is.”

“We have a chance of doing something special,” Hunt said.

“After that game (the loss in the WAC Tournament) we just set a new goal for ourselves,” Carter said. “And that goal is to win the NIT.”