Wolf Pack looking to bring home NIT title | NevadaAppeal.com

Wolf Pack looking to bring home NIT title

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

RENO – The Nevada Wolf Pack is certainly warming up to the idea of playing in the National Invitation Tournament.

“You would have thought we had just won a WAC (Western Athletic Conference) championship,” said senior Brandon Fields of the Wolf Pack’s reaction to beating Wichita State 74-70 on Wednesday in the first round of the NIT. “We were all going around celebrating. It felt real good.”

Beating Wichita State meant David Carter joined Jim Carey, Pat Foster and Mark Fox as the only Pack coaches in history to win their first postseason tournament game.

“It was a pretty chaotic locker room,” Carter said. “We hadn’t won a postseason game (since the 2007 NCAA tournament) so you have to embrace something like that. It was a big accomplishment for our team and for me also.”

The Wolf Pack (21-12), which will play at Rhode Island (24-9) at 3 p.m. Monday (ESPNU, 630-AM) in the second round of the NIT, has finally gotten over its disappointment of losing in the semifinals of the WAC tournament to New Mexico State (80-70).

“That’s behind us,” Carter said. “You have to move on. That’s over.”

When asked if the win at Wichita State gave the Pack its swagger back, Armon Johnson answered quickly, “Our swagger didn’t go anywhere.”

The Wolf Pack is just two victories away from playing in the NIT semifinals at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The Nevada-Rhode Island winner will play the winner of the Connecticut-Virginia Tech game.

“Winning at Wichita helps our confidence,” said Luke Babbitt, who became the Pack’s all-time single-season scoring leader (729 points) with 23 points at Wichita State. “Winning on the road is the toughest thing to do in college basketball. And we’re the only team this year to go into Wichita State and win (the Shockers were 17-0 at home). That was a good trip for us.”

The trip to Kingston, R.I. will be the farthest east the Pack has ever traveled for a game within the United States.

“I think I’ll probably just sleep on the plane most of the way,” Johnson said.

The Wolf Pack is 6-10 away from Lawlor Events Center. Rhode Island is 14-2 at their 7,657-seat Thomas M. Ryan Center.

“We’ve played in a lot of tough environments this year,” said Babbitt, who has made 24 consecutive free throws, just four short of Todd Okeson’s school record (28 in a row) set in 2003-04. “We played at North Carolina, Virginia Commonwealth, Utah State, Missouri State, Wichita State, UNLV. So we’re used to it.”

The win at Wichita State, though, was the Pack’s first this season at any of the places Babbitt mentioned.

“Wichita State was 17-0 at home,” Fields said. “We now know we can win on the road. We have the confidence to win anywhere now.”

“Our guys have learned how to win on the road,” Carter said.

They’ve also learned that this season didn’t end in the WAC tournament.

“It was tough at first because we all had our sights set on the NCAA tournament.” Babbitt said. “But don’t think that we all don’t want this (a NIT championship) pretty badly.”

“I’m going to put it all out there with everything I have because every game could be my last game,” Fields said.

Rhode Island, which beat Northwestern 76-64 to open the NIT, presents a different challenge for the Pack compared to Wichita State. The Rams, Carter said, “are very very explosive.”

“They remind me of New Mexico State,” Carter added. “They are very athletic.”

The Rams, of the Atlantic 10 Conference, are led by starters Keith Cothran (14.2 points a game), Delroy James (12.4), Lamonte Ulmer (12.0), Will Martell (7.6) and Marquis Jones (5.8). Those five have started all but two of the Rams’ 33 games this year. Nevada’s starters Babbitt, Johnson, Joey Shaw, Fields and Dario Hunt) have started all but one of the Pack’s 33 games.

The Wolf Pack shoots the ball better from the field (.484-.449), from 3-point range (.367-.336) and from the free throw line (.725-.699) than the Rams. The Pack also rebounds better (36.7 per game to the Rams’ 34.8) and holds opponents to a lower shooting percentage .440-.470.

“We really don’t have anything to lose,” Babbitt said. “A lot of the pressure is off since we didn’t get to the NCAA tournament. So we’re just going to go out there and play as hard as we can.”