PACK: Nevada opens WAC season tonight against Hawaii | NevadaAppeal.com

PACK: Nevada opens WAC season tonight against Hawaii

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – As far as the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is concerned, the season starts tonight.

“The way we look at it, we’re 0-0,” junior center Dario Hunt said as the Pack prepared to host the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on New Year’s Eve at Lawlor Events Center (5:05 p.m., ESPNU).

“It’s a fresh start,” head coach David Carter said.

So forget the season’s first 13 games, 10 of which ended in a loss. The 3-10 start, after all, is the Pack’s worst opening to a season since the 1971-72 team coached by Jack Spencer started out 2-11 on its way to a 2-24 year. Spencer’s 1970-71 team also started 2-11 and finished 3-23.

“We scrap, we play hard, we defend,” said Carter, who now has a 24-23 record as the Wolf Pack head coach. “It’s just the little things that we’re not doing to win some of these games.”

The Hawaii game will open Western Athletic Conference play for the Pack.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Hunt, who had 21 points and 14 rebounds in the Pack’s 66-62 loss at Portland on Monday. “We still need to make a lot of improvement and we’re not happy with our record, obviously. But we’ll never give up. We’ll never stop fighting.”

That was the case on Monday as the Pack fell behind 14-2 to start the game. Portland still led 54-42 with 4:27 to go but the Pack then outscored the Pilots 20-10 over the next four minutes to cut the deficit to 64-62 with 20 seconds to play.

“It’s been frustrating, especially for a lot of the young guys who have never had a losing record before,” said sophomore guard Malik Story, who leads the Pack with 13.3 points a game. “But something great can still come out of this. It’s not over.”

The Pack, 51-8 at Lawlor Events Center in WAC regular season games since the start of the 2003-04 season, still has its entire 16-game WAC season as well as an ESPN BracketBusters game in late February on the schedule. The Pack needs to go 12-5 over those 17 games to avoid its first losing regular season since the 2000-01 team finished 10-18 but anything is possible with a new WAC season, as well as the new year, about to begin.

“We’re still improving each game,” said junior Olek Czyz, who is averaging 8.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 27 minutes a game since making his Wolf Pack debut four games ago. “We’re definitely getting close to where we should be.”

Hawaii, 9-4 overall and 0-1 in the WAC after a hard-fought 74-66 loss at Utah State on Wednesday night, has never beaten the Wolf Pack in 13 games in Reno. The Warriors, which have lost 13 road games in a row, started their 0-13 record in Northern Nevada with a 57-50 loss to the Jake Lawlor-coached Wolf Pack to end the 1946-47 season. The Pack also has beaten Hawaii in 11 of its last 13 meetings overall.

Carter, though, is well aware that past results won’t help his team tonight.

“There won’t be any easy games in the league this year,” said Carter, who led the Pack to an 11-5 record and second place in WAC play a year ago in his first season as head coach.

Hawaii, coached by former USC assistant Gib Arnold, might be the surprise team of the conference. Hawaii was picked to finish last in the nine-team WAC this season by both the league’s media and coaches.

“They seem to be very confident this year, much more confident than they’ve been in the past,” Carter said. “They are also more athletic and they have some real good shooters. I expect a tough game but all of our games with Hawaii have been tough.”

Zane Johnson scored 24 points Wednesday night (4-of-6 on 3-pointers) to lead the Warriors against Utah State. Hiram Thompson also had 13 points and nine assists at Utah State as the Warriors shot 64 percent from the floor. They fell short in their upset bid over the WAC-favorite Aggies, in part, because they were out-rebounded 32-13.

Carter said he is confident his young Wolf Pack is ready for WAC play.

“They’ve grown up a lot,” Carter said. “We’ve seen everything that we’re going to see in WAC play. So we should be ready for whatever we face. We’ve seen Top 25 teams (UNLV, Washington), we’ve seen athletic teams and we’ve seen teams that execute like Utah State.”

Hunt, the only returning starter from a year ago, wants his young teammates to know one thing about WAC games.

“Everybody knows everything about you,” Hunt said. “They know our plays, what we like to do. These games are much more intense.”

Czyz also wants his young teammates to remember one thing.

“It’s unacceptable to lose,” said Czyz, who won two state titles at Reno High and was a member of Duke’s NCAA championship team last season for two months before transferring to Nevada. “It’s supposed to hurt and it has to hurt. But you also can’t look in the rearview mirror too much. You just have to look ahead and see what’s in front of you.”