Wednesday, January 23, 2008 Updated: February 1, 1:26 AM ET
Youth, inexperience contribute to Wolf Pack's struggles
By Kyle Whelliston Special to ESPN.com
RENO, Nev. -- Capping a 14-5 run that closed a seven-point first-half deficit against Boise State on Saturday night, Nevada freshman guard Armon Johnson slashed lengthwise into the lane, then delivered a swooping, running layup that barely eluded the halftime buzzer.
Mark Fox is searching for consistency from his young Pack.
A boisterous home crowd, more than 10,000 strong, exploded into full-throated cheers and applause. So did the Wolf Pack players, who leaped off the bench to meet Johnson on the floor, yelling and chest-bumping.
Happy, screaming, capacity crowds at the Lawlor Center aren't anything out of the ordinary. The Wolf Pack have dominated the Western Athletic Conference in recent years, with four consecutive seasons of 25 or more wins, a string of four straight WAC regular-season championships and a quartet of Big Dance tickets. Nevada's era of excellence has included three single-digit NCAA seeds and four tournament wins, so the fans in Reno have had no problem finding things to shout about.
What's unfamiliar, however, is the level of emotion displayed on the court this season. In the recent past, Nevada was a cold, calculating, stone-faced team, building a reputation of playing short on intensity and long on killer instinct. There often was so little outward emotion that some observers believed the Wolf Pack simply didn't care about playing basketball. Truth was, the players simply were saving their celebrations for the inevitable championships.
But this year, suddenly with a young and inexperienced team, a fifth straight championship is not quite so assured. With four new starters, the Wolf Pack are 10-7 overall and 2-2 in the conference. And on Saturday, they received a painful lesson about emotion's cruel and double-edged sword.
Over the course of the game's final hour, the visiting Broncos calmly buried their hosts in open jumpers and 3's, pulling away for a 95-80 final. The fans spent the second half stunned and silent -- too stunned to even chant "Eat 'em up, eat 'em up, let's go pack" along with the cheerleaders. Long before time expired, the Lawlor Center stands were a vast expanse of dark blue seatbacks, a virtual ghost town.
"We had a lot of intensity and emotion in the first half," a shell-shocked Johnson said after the game. "Everything was going our way. But then, we came out dead when the second half started. I don't know why."
According to fourth-year head coach Mark Fox, the young team with eight freshmen and sophomores just hasn't learned the Nevada way quite yet.
"You can't be a really good team just playing off emotion," Fox explained in a carefully measured statement delivered softly and slowly. "You have to have it at certain times, but it can't be what you depend on. You have to depend on other things; you have to be proficient and skillful on both ends of the floor. In the end, that's what determines who wins and loses."
Fox's 2006-07 team, a squad much more in line with his personality, smashed the school's single-season victory mark with 29 wins, a figure that included a first-round NCAA win over Creighton as the South Region's No. 7 seed. But when the run ended at the hands of Memphis two days later, the team lost two key components to graduation. Nevada's all-time scoring leader, Nick Fazekas, a 6-11 inside-outside threat who was named WAC Player of the Year three times, ran out of eligibility, as did dynamic combo guard and defensive stopper Kyle Shiloh. Then, sure-handed point guard Ramon Sessions declared for the NBA draft a year early (he has ended up playing with fellow second-round pick Fazekas on the D-League's Tulsa 66ers). And if it weren't for several disappointing spring workouts, current leading scorer Marcelus Kemp also would have gone to the pros after his junior season.
As a result, the Wolf Pack came into the 2007-08 campaign with precious little repeat production. Aside from Kemp's 18.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, the seven returning players brought back only 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. And the team has played inconsistently, as any green team would. So far this season, impressive road wins at Hawaii and Northern Iowa have been interspersed with bad losses to San Jose State and Pacific.
"We've been a really up-and-down crew," Fox said. "Results-wise and emotionally. But we lost so much from last year's team we lost a point guard we didn't think we were going to lose, and we lost a two-guard, Shiloh, who might have been our most complete player. In Nick Fazekas, we lost the most productive player in this school's history. Now, we have inexperienced guys trying to fill huge shoes, and we've been really inconsistent."
JaVale McGee has been the Pack's most improved player this season.
The man attempting to fill Fazekas' shoes at the center position is 7-foot sophomore JaVale McGee, a player with intriguing basketball bloodlines (his mother, Pamela, a former USC player, was a key member of the NCAA women's basketball championship teams in 1983 and 1984). On the 2006-07 NCAA team that rarely needed its bench, McGee was the top-scoring reserve, with a scant 3.3 points and only 10 minutes per contest. But in 2007-08, post-Fazekas, he has returned as a rangy threat, averaging 12.7 points in 27 minutes, and has shown an uncanny knack for glass-kissing shots from nearly every angle.
"He worked really hard in the offseason; he's unquestionably a much better player than he was last year," Fox said. "He's just learning, though, hasn't started shaving yet still growing and filling out, learning to play major minutes in a major role. He might be the most talented guy on our team; he has the chance of being an unbelievable player for us."
And perhaps the next generation's Shiloh is emerging in the person of Brandon Fields, a 6-4 sophomore who is averaging 11.9 points, 2.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 40 percent 3-point shooting in his increased minutes. During his freshman season last year, fans could be forgiven for blinking and missing his 2.1 points in eight minutes per game.
"Fields is an athletic kid, deceiving speed, very good shooter," Fox said. "He's another kid who played single-digit minutes last year; now he's been asked to play a major role. It's a freshman-sophomore backcourt, and we're going to have our growing pains."
But Fox has experience coaching young Nevada teams. After four years as the Wolf Pack's associate head coach under Trent Johnson, Fox inherited the program during the 2004 offseason when Johnson parlayed Nevada's third-round NCAA success into the head coaching job at Stanford. Then, Kirk Snyder, the star guard on that Sweet 16 team, left after his junior season for the NBA.
"We had a freshman point and a sophomore two-guard in 2005," Fox said. "But we also had Fazekas and [Kevinn] Pinkney, two forwards who were on a Sweet 16 team, who were returning starters. We had experience up front, and these guys don't have that available."
Fox isn't trying to rush the process, though.
"I have absolute patience," he said. "I realize what we lost. It'd be unfair of me to expect this group to do what the last group did. We just have to go through this and try to get better every week. Hopefully by the conference tournament, we'll be good enough to make a run."
In the meantime, the rest of the WAC is enjoying every opportunity to take advantage of the Pack's rebuilding period.
"Since I've been here, the past three years, we've never won at Nevada," said Boise State forward Tyler Tiedeman, who scored 27 points Saturday, including 13 in the 22-5 second-half run that broke open the game. "They've been the top dogs in the WAC conference for a long time, and you always know they're going to have a good team. They made a run at us, but we kept our composure. We shut the crowd up, and they started leaving."
And while Fox continues his attempts to teach his young squad the quiet arts of composure and checked emotion, his program's transition coincides with a general downturn in the conference's fortunes. The WAC as a whole is in a low cycle, with a disappointing conference RPI of 19 and a nonconference record of 51-59. For the second time since 1983, the conference tournament will yield just one bid, and Nevada's drive for a fifth consecutive trip to the Big Dance will come down to that tourney, where it has lost twice in the past three years but earned at-large consideration both times.
"Let's not kid ourselves," Fox said. "The WAC is getting one team into the NCAA Tournament this year. Just one. There's no team in our league, us or anyone else, that has any kind of nonconference résumé. As for us, we have a bunch of young kids who are still learning how to play the right way. We're going to have some painful losses like tonight. It's not a fun process, but we're simply in the process of growing up."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.