The juice in the Mountain West Conference basketball race is provided by San Diego State, who has beaten Kansas and is getting some media love as perhaps the best team on the West Coast (a designation that eliminates top-ranked Arizona). That’s certainly true, but the Aztecs have surprise early company atop the MWC standings. Nevada basketball is off to a 4-0 league start. Can the Wolfpack hang with the Aztecs for the long haul?
Nevada is led by senior guard Deonte Burton, who averages 22 points per game. Michael Perez is his running mate, and kicks in 12 ppg. Neither is a great three-point shooter, something that will hinder this team’s ability to pull upsets. But they are at least competent—Perez, at 36 percent from behind the arc, is the best of the players with a reasonable number of attempts.
A.J. West averages eight rebounds a game, but it was clear in the non-conference portion of play—a period that was not kind to Nevada, and they went 5-8—that West was going to need some help if the Wolfpack were going to compete in Mountain West games.
Nevada found themselves when league play began, and have gotten home wins over Wyoming and Utah State, to go with a road win over San Jose State, and a big road win at rival UNLV. Here’s a brief review of those games, in the order they were played…
@San Jose State (62-50): The rebounding help arrives in the person of Cole Huff and the 6’8” sophomore gets 10 boards, while the defense holds San Jose to 35 percent shooting.
vs. Wyoming (61-58): Another good rebounding game, with a 35-26 edge, and a 12 points/12 rebounds night from West.
@UNLV (74-71): The kind of game an underdog needs. The Pack were outrebounded, which helped to give back a good defensive night. But Burton stepped up big and hit 12/20 from the floor for 29 points. Perez was in support, shooting 7/12, for 18.
vs. Utah State (62-54): Another display of good defense and mediocre rebounding. An ugly game where the Pack grinds out enough offense to win.
I like what we see on the defensive side of the ball, but when you force missed shots, you’ve got to close it with the rebound. If Huff and West can start controlling the interior, Nevada can at least win the games it should, and Burton is the type of signature player that can steal you the kind of W he did at UNLV.
To return to our question, I think asking Nevada to hang with San Diego State is asking too much, at least for right now. A better question is a two-parter—can they get in the top two or three in the Mountain West, and if so, will that be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament?
My own answer would be why not? Beyond San Diego State, no one else has really stood out, and any team that brings consistent defensive effort is a threat to finish as high as second. The second answer is the unfortunate one, because Nevada almost certainly started too slowly to get an NCAA bid, at least short of a 15-3 or 16-2 conference run, something that is definitely asking too much.
What Nevada basketball offers right now is an interesting team to keep an eye on and a possible smart money bet for the locals who can wager legally.