WAC baskeball tournament begins today in Reno | NevadaAppeal.com

WAC baskeball tournament begins today in Reno

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – Nobody has to remind the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team that it is tournament time.

Finally.

“We’ve been looking forward to this since the end of last year,” Wolf Pack first-year head coach David Carter said this week. “I think we’re ready.”

Ready or not, here it comes.

The second-seeded Wolf Pack (19-11, 11-5) will take on the seventh-seeded Idaho Vandals (15-15, 6-10) at 6 p.m today (ESPN 630AM) as the Western Athletic Conference tournament opens with four games at 11,536-seat Lawlor Events Center.

Top-seeded Utah State (25-6, 14-2) meets eighth-seeded Boise State (15-16, 5-11) in the first game today (noon) followed by fourth-seeded Louisiana Tech (22-9, 9-7) and fifth-seeded Fresno State (15-17, 7-9) at 2:30 p.m. The quarterfinal round will conclude with No. 3 seed New Mexico State (19-11, 11-5) meeting No. 6 seed San Jose State (14-16, 6-10) at 8:30 p.m.

The tournament’s championship game is 7 p.m. Saturday. The winner earns the WAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“That’s my goal since I got here,” Wolf Pack senior Joey Shaw said of the NCAA tournament. “I’m going to do everything I can to help us get there.”

“I want to go out a winner,” senior Brandon Fields said. “That’s the most important thing in my life right now.”

“It’s been too long as far as I’m concerned,” junior Armon Johnson said of the Pack’s absence from the NCAA tournament since 2007. “I definitely feel like it’s time to get back there.”

The Wolf Pack lost to Utah State at Lawlor in the WAC tournament title game, 72-62, last March as Babbitt scored eight points in 31 minutes on 3-of-12 shooting.

“We’ve had all season to motivate us,” Babbitt said. “You don’t think about it, but that game is in the back of all our minds.”

The Wolf Pack will have to win three games in three days to earn an NCAA tournament spot. It might even have to win a game or two this week to be considered for a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) or College Basketball Invitational (CBI) spot.

The Pack has been to the postseason for the past seven years. The streak started with an NIT spot in 2003 followed by four consecutive trips to the NCAAs. The Pack has lost in the first round of the CBI the past two years at Lawlor.

“It’s do or die now,” Carter said.

Babbitt said the Pack has a definite sense of urgency.

“We know it’s one loss and you’re out,” he said. “It’s exciting, but at the same time we know we have to play our best or it’s going to be over. Nobody likes that, but that’s the nature of college basketball. The best team will win Saturday night and we hope it will be us.”

The Wolf Pack is 14-1 at home this year and 2-0 against Idaho. The Pack, though, had to score six points in the final 22 seconds on Feb. 10 at Moscow, Idaho to beat the Vandals, 67-66.

Verlin’s Vandals beat the Pack 78-73 at Lawlor on Jan. 3, 2009 to open last season’s WAC regular season schedule.

“That helps us,” Verlin said. “Our guys believe they can go down there and compete at a high level.”

The Idaho-Nevada winner will meet the New Mexico State-San Jose State winner at 9 p.m. Friday (ESPN2).

“It’s win or go home and nobody wants to go home,” Shaw said.