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WOLF PACK HOOPS: Red-hot Nevada hosts Portland tonight

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – What a difference a year makes.

A year ago the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team was sinking in a sea of doubt and uncertainty and innocently unaware of what dangers lurked ahead of them around the next corner. If you looked in the dictionary under “growing pains” you’d find a team photo of the 2010-11 Wolf Pack.

“A year ago we were just trying to keep their confidence high,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said. “We had lost so many games in a row and we were so young.”

The Pack lost seven games in a row last season from Nov. 15 through Dec. 6.

“We were just trying to keep everybody on the same path, making them focus on the big picture instead of today,” Carter said. “It was more of a mental challenge.”

One year ago this week the Wolf Pack was 3-9 after a 30-point loss to the Washington Huskies. This year, which already includes a three-point overtime win over the Huskies, the Pack has a chance to completely reverse its record of a year ago.

A victory over the Portland Pilots tonight (7:05 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center will leave the Pack with a 9-3 record, its best start after a dozen games since the 2006-07 team opened 12-1 (on its way to 17-1).

That fragile confidence of a year ago is no longer an issue just 12 months later.

“That comes with winning,” senior Dario Hunt said.

The suddenly streaking Pack has won five games in a row and eight of its last nine. The last time the Pack won eight-of-nine was at the tail end of the 2008-09 season under head coach Mark Fox.

“This year our focus is more on the physical,” Carter said. “The guys know and understand what to do. We don’t have to have long practices anymore. That is just a sign of a group that has been together for a year.”

It is also a sign of a team that feels it can leap tall buildings in a single bound, change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in their bare hands.

“We don’t back down from anyone,” Hunt said. “Toughness is a trait of ours.”

“We’re a lot tougher than last year,” junior Malik Story said. “Last year if something bad happened we would all kind of look around and not know what to do. This year that doesn’t happen.”

Not much has gone wrong lately for the Pack. They have outscored their opponents by an average of 9.6 points in their eight victories.

“We’re learning how to jump on teams,” said Carter, whose maturing team outscored UC Riverside by 11 in the second half in a 71-47 victory last Saturday after outscoring the Highlanders by 13 in the first half. “We’re learning how to put the hammer down on teams for 40 minutes.”

“That game against Riverside shows we can put together a whole game,” said Hunt, who was the Pack’s leading scorer last year at this time and is now fourth at 8.8 points a game behind Deonte Burton (15.2), Story (14.1) and Olek Czyz (10.5).

“We don’t always want to be in a fight for 40 minutes if we don’t have to,” Story said. “We’re learning how to put teams away.”

The Wolf Pack lost to Portland last year (Dec. 27) 66-62 in Portland to fall to 3-10 on its way to a 4-13 start. Those first 17 games were a tough learning experience for an inexperienced team that featured six freshman.

“Last year was hard for a lot of us,” said Burton, a sophomore this year. “We’ve talked about last year a lot at practice this year. Nobody wants to be the same team we were last year. We all know we have to keep working hard and get better.”

A year has also made a significant difference in the Pilots.

Portland is now 3-9 after five consecutive losses and has dropped nine of its last 10 games. The Pilots, who were 11-3 after beating the Pack last season, have played an unforgiving schedule this year, losing to Washington, Washington State, Kentucky, St. Louis and Utah.

Pilots head coach Eric Reveno, a former Stanford player (late 1980s), coached with former Wolf Pack head coach Trent Johnson while at Stanford. Johnson and Reveno were both Stanford assistants under head coach Mike Montgomery in the late 1990s and Reveno also coached at Stanford for two seasons (2004-06) when Johnson returned to Palo Alto to become the head coach.

Carter also coached under Johnson at Nevada for four seasons (1999-04).

“Their cuts and their motion on offense are the same as ours,” Carter said. “They get into their offense a little differently than we do but once they get into it, we’re basically the same. So we’re very familiar with them and they are very familiar with us.”

Portland is led by 6-foot-7 sophomore Ryan Nicholas (11.6 points, 7.1 rebounds a game). The Pilots, which lost three senior starters from a year ago (Luke Sikma, Kramer Knutson, Jared Stohl) also feature 5-10 sophomore Tim Douglas (10.5 points, 3.3 assists), 6-5 senior Nemanja Mitrovic (9.9 points) and 6-11 freshman Thomas Van der Mars (7.8 points). Mitrovic scored 22 points against the Pack last year in the Pilots’ four-point victory. Hunt had 21 points and 14 rebounds against the Pilots last December.

The Pilots, which play in the West Coast Conference, are 0-6 on the road this year after going 7-8 away from home in 2010-11 when they finished 20-12 overall and played in the CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament (they lost to Hawaii 76-64).

“We know we can’t take anything for granted,” Story said. “They are struggling right now but that only makes them more hungrier for a win on the road.”