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Small Nevada squad looking to play big; three Pack players suspended

BY DARRELL MOODY

Nevada Appeal Sports Writer

RENO ” The Nevada basketball team has been the face of the Western Athletic Conference for the past several years, and deservedly so.

The Wolf Pack has reached postseason play for six consecutive years, including four straight NCAA appearances, an NIT appearance and last year’s inaugural College Basketball Invitational. The Pack also has put together five straight 20-win seasons, another impressive accomplishment.

When Nevada coach Mark Fox greets his team today for the first official practice of the 2008-09 season, he will be surrounded by his smallest squad ever: Nevada doesn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-8 on its roster. And Fox has five new players, including four true freshman, to mesh with the seven returnees.

Conference coaches still feel that Nevada has the strongest team and voted the Pack to win the conference in the annual preseason poll.

Part of that stems from the fact that Armon Johnson, voted the preseason player of the year by WAC coaches, and Brandon Fields, a preseason second-team selection both return. Johnson averaged 11.5 points per game and Fields scored at a 12.4 clip. Both started 32 out of 33 games last year.

“We have a very young team; maybe the youngest we’ve ever had,” said Fox, whose team shared the WAC regular-season championship with New Mexico State, Utah State and Boise State last season. “We have new faces that are going to have to play. That’s OK because I anticipated that.

“We have an experienced backcourt (Armon Johnson, Fields, Ray Kraemer and Lyndale Burleson). We’re inexperienced up front. Last year we were inexperienced in the backcourt which hurt us early. We’ll shoot the ball well. Our weakness is that we don’t have a true center. We’re not as big as we’ve been.”

Those ‘new faces’ that Fox referred to earlier are exceptional. The Pack’s recruiting class was rated No. 26 in the nation by Rivals.com.

That list is short by one because Mark McLaughlin, a shooting guard from Washington, opted to enroll in a prep school back East when he was unable to be cleared to play by the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Heading the group are Luke Babbitt ” the state’s all-time leading scorer “from Galena High School, point guard London Giles from Dallas, Texas; junior college transfer Joey Shaw, who played one year at the University of Indiana for Mike Davis before transferring to Southern Idaho College when Kelvin Sampson took over for the Hoosiers; Ahyaro Phillips, a 6-8 forward from Fork Union Academy in Virginia; and 6-8 forward Dario Hunt.

Where Fox uses Babbitt is anybody’s guess, and Babbitt just wants to be on the floor.

“Luke may play a lot of positions,” Fox said. “He has a very diverse offensive game. Joey shoots the ball real well. He should be able to stretch the defenses. Ahyaro rebounds well and has good hands. he’s long and athletic.”

The only experience Nevada has up front is 6-6 Malik Cooke, who averaged 2.4 points and 2.9 rebounds while playing 11.4 minutes a contest last year. The second frontcourt player is 6-8 Richie Phillips, who played just four games last season because of a leg injury.

That gives Babbitt, Hunt and Ahyaro Phillips a chance to compete immediately for playing time.

Fox isn’t concerned about the lack of size in terms of how Nevada fares on the boards.

“We had a 7-foot center (JaVale McGee), a 6-9 power forward and then had 7-footer off the bench (David Ellis) and 6-8 (Matt LaGrone) and it was the worst rebounding team we’d had in five years,” Fox said. “I don’t think height is our No. 1 concern to being a good rebounding team.”

“There aren’t that many teams that have dominant big men,” Shaw said. “We just have to make adjustments.”

Certainly the preseason will give Fox’s squad some stern tests. The non-conference schedule includes away games at San Diego and California and home games against Southern Illinois and North Carolina. The latter game is scheduled for Jan. 31 at 7 p.m.

THREE PLAYERS SUSPENDED

Mark Fox has placed Fields, Giles and Ahyaro Phillips on suspension within team policy, according to a press release sent by Nevada sports information director Rhonda Lundin.

Fields, Giles and Phillips have been cited for misdemeanor petty larceny and released by the City of Sparks Police Department after an incident on Wednesday afternoon. The case remains under investigation.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn of this situation,” Fox said. “I do not know all of the facts right now and will not have any further comment until I have a better understanding of the situation.”

Lundin also said she had no comment on how long the suspensions could be until all the facts are known.

– Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com or (775) 881-1281