After a down year in 2010-11, a slow and stumbling start had many of us, myself included, bored, frustrated, and longing for the “good ol’ days.” Now the 9-3 Pack has roared back, and each with each win announces collectively and convincingly, “This is your team…”
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The Hickory High School gym rocked and rolled, the passion of the tiny student body churning heat in the middle of the cold early winter plains of Indiana. The band plays, and six student-athletes enter from the locker room to the call of their names. Each is draped in Hickory’s gold-and-red warm-ups, and as they smoothly run through a textbook lay-up drill, the student decibel level rises. The demonstration ends, and each of the six line up shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the students in the bleachers.
Then the chants begin. ”We want Jimmy! We want Jimmy! We want Jimmy!”
Jimmy is Jimmy Chitwood, the town’s blue-chip hoops prodigy who has elected to spend his senior year buried in the books rather than burying jumpers. The students embrace Jimmy, and none of these six, as the hometown hero. The glow on their faces slowly fades and their enthusiasm recedes.
New head coach Norman Dale frowns on the sideline, then springs to half-court, where the iconic silver microphone of the Sock Hop era stands. He quickly quiets the crowd with a stern message:
I would hope you would support who we are and not who we are not.
Amid the abrupt silence, Coach Dale points back at his team. ”These six individuals have made a choice to work; a choice to sacrifice, to put themselves on the line for twenty-three nights in the next four months. To represent you, this high school. That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect.”
The scene is from the 1986 classic Hoosiers, with the indomitable Gene Hackman in the role of Coach Dale. Dare I say that it is virtually identical to a speech that David Carter might have given at half-court at Lawlor some time in November.
Last night the Wolf Pack added its ninth win, improving to 9-3 overall, with a convincing 78-60 rout of the Portland Pilots. In a revenge win for Portland’s 66-62 win at the Chiles Center, senior Dario Hunt finished with a double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds in 27 minutes), joining Olek Czyz (15), Jerry Evans Jr. (11) and Malik Story (10) in double-figures. The Pack also benefited from the scoring contributions of an improved Devonte Elliott (7), Kevin Panzer (6), Keith Feutsch (5), and Jordan Finn (5).
Notably absent from that mix is our own Jimmy Chitwood. Deonte Burton ran into early foul trouble and finished with twice as many fouls (4) as points (2) in a mere 13 minutes of play.
Virtually anybody who has followed the Pack during the “Carter Administration” knows that Deonte is the cornerstone of this basketball team. We have hammered this point ad nauseum right here on Silver and Blue. But even without Burton’s mean of 14.1 points and 4.3 assists in 30 minutes of play, his teammates were able to plug the gaps and sustain an 18-point blowout at home.
That, of course, is the key difference between this version of Nevada basketball and the version we grew accustomed to in the Johnson and Fox eras. Those teams were largely stacked with NBA-level talent whose presence controlled the tempo of the game. From Kirk Snyder to Luke Babbitt, every Nevada squad between 2002 and 2010 featured at least one player who would eventually dawn an NBA jersey. While Deonte Burton is likely headed in the same direction, he is still only a sophomore…and has off nights like last night that remind us that his dynamic performances against UNLV and Washington are indications of potential with the surface barely scraped.
This team can’t simply ride Deonte every night. Then again, when your rotation is 10 players deep, you don’t have to.
“I think it’s the deepest bench,” Carter observed on the Pack’s overall depth. ”Since I’ve been here, I think it’s the deepest team, 1-10.”
And that, my friends, is the reason it’s taken so long for the fruits of Carter’s labor to surface. While Nevada fans had come to anticipate and expect reloading over rebuilding, Carter and his staff began constructing a unit out of transfers (like Story and Czyz) solid role players (like Hunt and Evans), blue chip freshmen (like Burton) and a whole slew of supporting cast mates who could easily start for a plurality of high-level Division I programs. With only five guys on the floor at a time, it takes only a couple of stars to radically transform a team overnight (see, 2008 Boston Celtics, 2011 Miami Heat, and the 2012 Los Angeles Clippers).
But building a broader team, one not driven by any one Jimmy Chitwood, takes time. The reason for this is that whereas teams built on superstars require only quick coalescence around one or two individuals, a band of equals must each, individually and collectively, gel with the other. There are more connections to be made, and creating the right formula for success is a trickier proposition. The NBA parallel for this type of squad is the 2002 Sacramento Kings or the 2011 Oklahoma City Thunder, each of which took several seasons for all the parts to figure out how to work together as one engine.
We saw that engine roar to life last night, particularly with the play of point guard Jordan Finn in Burton’s stead. The 6′4″ sophomore from Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga tallied only 5 points and 1 assist in 15 minutes, but he also snagged 3 boards on the defensive end and generally meshed well with his teammates in transition and on set plays. Between Finn and Keith Feutsch, the Pack had a stable point guard presence for those minutes Deonte spent on the bench.
Finn largely attributes this to the fluidity of the team as a unit, rather than his own personal growth
“We’re confident together,” he said. ”We’re pretty close. When we go in there together, we have a lot of chemistry.”
This chemistry is further evident in two ways. First is the effectiveness of the zone and press over the last two games against Portland and UC-Riverside, both of whom feature speedy point guards who have wilted under the intense combined pressure. The zone and its full-court corollary, the zone press, requires quick communication and trust between defenders, trust that when your man leaves your zone, that the guy covering the next area is available and able to pick him up.
The first point relates to the second, larger evidence of growth in team chemistry over twelve games. During most of last season and into the first three or four games of this season, the Pack committed a flurry of turnovers that resulted from miscommunication and what appeared to be an unfamiliarity on the part of any one player as to how to best work with another to get him the ball and score. Hence, the clunky play that defined our loss to Missouri State and two aesthetically awful wins over Prairie View A&M and Longwood.
Post-Washington, when the Pack’s play was as fluid as I’ve ever seen it, the once Baby Pack (now Teen Wolves) still occasionally turns the ball over or makes foolish errors with the basketball. The major difference, though, is that when this happens, I haven’t seen the mental meltdowns I’ve been accustomed to. They’re now learning from their mistakes on the fly and making smaller adjustments mid-game to fuel 22-0 runs, like they did last night.
Carter attributes this growth to the necessity of early season losses that not only instructed, but humbled, the Pack.
“They’ve learned through losing,” Carter said. ”Just because on paper you’re supposed to be good, you still have to come out and play.”
And play they have, like the Hoosiers of Hickory. The big difference, however, between the 1952 Hickory High squad and the Nevada Wolf Pack of sixty years later is that whereas Hickory ultimately needed Jimmy Chitwood to come to them from the outside to energize their run to the Indiana state championship, Nevada already has not just its leaders in Burton, Czyz, and Hunt, but a supply of Chitwoods-in-waiting who can rally the Pack to a WAC Championship run in our last year of league play.
For those of us who a month ago contemplated selling our season tickets and using the money to upgrade our Netflix package, it’s worth noting that the ship isn’t sinking. In fact, this team has hoisted the sails. So while the thousands not among the 3,651 in attendance last night wait for Nick Fazekas and Ramon Sessions to gain another year of eligibility and come rescue the Pack, I have news for you…
…I would hope you would come out to Lawlor and support who we are and not who we are not. These twelve individuals have made a choice to work, a choice to sacrifice, a choice to put themselves on the line for thirty nights between November and March. To represent you, the University of Nevada, and this town, and this state. That kind of commitment and effort deserves and demands your respect. This is your team.
This is the team we are.