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Tough road lies ahead for Pack

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is going to get a crash course in Life on the Road in College Basketball 101 this weekend.

“Win or lose, I expect this to be a good learning experience for us,” said first-year head coach David Carter of the Wolf Pack’s games at Virginia Commonwealth on Friday (4:30 p.m.) and at North Carolina on Sunday (3:45 p.m.). “We’re going to learn a lot from this road trip.”

The Wolf Pack (2-1) will also play at Pacific in Stockton, Calif., on Dec. 5 before finally returning home to play Fresno Pacific at Lawlor Events Center on Dec. 8. This 17-day stretch, which began after a 112-99 victory over Houston at Lawlor last Saturday, is the longest the Pack will go this year between home games.

“In the past, we’ve also had big road tests in November,” said Carter, a Pack assistant under head coaches Trent Johnson and Mark Fox for 10 seasons. “I like doing that this time of year.”

The Wolf Pack has gone 2-4 on the road in November the past two seasons combined. This year they are already 0-1 after an 88-75 loss at UNLV on Nov. 18.

“This will be a good chance for us to grow up as a basketball team,” Carter said.

The Wolf Pack beat Virginia Commonwealth, 71-70, Feb. 20 at Lawlor Events Center. That was the night that Fox was ejected with 8 minutes, 20 seconds to play and the Pack trailing 60-51, leaving the team to Carter.

“That was a very emotional night,” Carter said. “I give all the credit to the guys on the floor that night for winning that game. They went out there and did the job.”

Brandon Fields hit a crucial 3-pointer and Joey Shaw drilled a couple of free throws to get the Pack comeback started against VCU. Armon Johnson gave the Pack a 68-67 lead with a jumper with 28 seconds to play.

“We changed things up a little bit,” Carter said. “We pressed a little more on defense. But, again, I give credit to the young men on the floor.”

Virginia Commonwealth (3-1), which lost point guard Eric Maynor to the NBA after last year, is led by the 6-foot-11 Larry Sanders (11.8 points, 4.8 rebounds), 6-5 Bradford Burgess (13.3 points, 7.0 rebounds), 6-2 Jay Gavin (11.3 points) and 5-11 point guard Joey Rodriguez (9.3 points). They also have a new head coach (ex-Florida assistant Shaka Smart) after Anthony Grant accepted the top job at Alabama last March.

“They do a lot of the same things,” Carter said. “They’ll press and run. They don’t have that leadership they have at point guard like they did last year (with Maynor) but they are still a very good basketball team. Larry Sanders is projected as a first-round draft pick.”

Virginia Commonwealth is 2-0 at home this year. One of the home victories at Verizon Wireless Arena was an impressive 82-69 decision over 17th-ranked Oklahoma. The Rams have held opponents to just a .39 percent success rate from the floor this season and just 19 percent from 3-point range. Something has to give Friday night since the Wolf Pack is shooting 51 percent from the floor this year and 46 percent from beyond the arc.

“They’ll get after you on defense,” Carter said.

North Carolina, which has beaten the Wolf Pack in each of the last two seasons, presents an entirely different set of challenges for the Wolf Pack. The Tar Heels (5-1), which lost to Syracuse, 87-71 on Nov. 20, are ranked 11th in the Associated Press poll and 12th in the ESPN/USA Today poll.

The Pack lost to North Carolina, 84-61, last New Year’s Eve at Lawlor Events Center and 106-70 at Chapel Hill, N.C., on Dec. 27, 2007. Carter said he still has to guard against his young team being awestruck in Chapel Hill despite the fact that three Pack players (Johnson, Fields and Ray Kraemer) have already played a game there in December 2007.

“You still have to guard against it,” Carter said. “Anytime you go to a place with so much history, whether it’s Notre Dame, North Carolina or wherever, it does have an affect on you. You just have to overcome that.”

Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson will be gone from the Tar Heel teams the Pack saw the last two seasons. This year’s North Carolina team features 6-9 senior Deon Thompson (16.8 points), 6-10 sophomore Ed Davis (12.2 points), 6-5 senior Marcus Ginyard (11.7 points) and 7-foot sophomore Tyler Zeller off the bench (11.2 points).

The Heels also have three 6-10 freshmen on the bench in twins David and Travis Wear, from Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif., and John Hensen. The Pack’s tallest players are the 6-9 Luke Babbitt and Marko Cukic.

“They will be a little different this year,” Carter said. “The last two years off the bench they came at you with a lot of speed. This year it’s a lot of size and height. But they still get up and down the court on you.”

The Pack has also shown a knack for getting up and down the court this season. The 112 points against Houston, after all, are the school’s most since they scored 117 against Northwestern State (Louisiana) on Dec. 19, 1991.

The Pack leads the Western Athletic Conference in scoring at 87.3 points a game. Fields has averaged 20 points a game, Babbitt is scoring at an 18.1 clip, Johnson is at 17.3 with a WAC-best 6.3 assists a game and Shaw is chipping in nicely with 15.3 points a game.

“It’s a work in progress right now,” Carter said. “With each game, we get in better shape physically.”

There have been some problem areas on defense. The Pack is last in the WAC in turnover margin at minus-6.67 a game and they are eighth in the nine-team league in points allowed at 82.7 a game. The Pack, though, continues to adjust to Carter’s more up-tempo attack and is still looking for someone other than Kraemer (8-of-13 from 3-point range) to contribute significant and productive minutes off the bench.

“It’s going to take some time,” Carter said. “I have to remind myself that we haven’t ever played this kind of style as long as I’ve been here (since the start of the 1999-00 season). It will take some time to get used to it, just from a conditioning standpoint.”