David Carter won’t declare that his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team has finally turned a corner. But he will admit that the Pack can finally see that pivotal corner.
“It’s been a long pre-season,” said Carter, whose Wolf Pack (5-7) will play one more non-conference game Saturday night (7:05 p.m.) against the Long Beach State 49ers (3-9) at Lawlor Events Center before opening Mountain West play next week. “We’ve had a lot of injuries and a lot of different lineups. But with the addition of A.J., we have that defensive presence that gives everyone confidence.”
A.J. is junior power forward A.J. West, who made his debut last Sunday at Lawlor in an 82-70 victory over Iona. West had four points, five rebounds and a block in 17 minutes and, for the most part, played as advertised.
“A.J. is a big-time shot blocker,” senior forward Jerry Evans said. “And he’s the best rebounder we have. He reminds me of (former Pack center) Dario Hunt. He gives us that presence on defense.”
West started slow — he had no points, no rebounds, no blocks, two fouls and missed two free throws in five first-half minutes against Iona. But he finished strong with four points, three rebounds and a block in the final five minutes of the game.
“The addition of A.J. gives us confidence,” said Carter, who has been looking for a reliable defensive presence in the paint since Hunt, the Pack’s all-time leading career shot blocker with 275, left the program after the 2011-12 season. “He gives us that defensive mentality, that anchor on defense.”
The 6-foot-9 West missed the Wolf Pack’s first 11 games because of academic issues.
“I wanted to play so badly,” West said. “I was so tired of waiting.”
His performance against Iona, he said, was just a brief preview of what he can do.
“I have to get in better shape,” he said. “I did some good things out there but I know I can play better. I was a little nervous at first because it was my first Division I game. I was a little nonchalant. But once I told myself to go out there and get angry, I played more like I know I can play.”
And so did his teammates.
“In the first half I felt we had to get a little more hungrier,” West said.
Carter said West’s defensive-first mentality is what his team has been lacking in recent years.
“It’s who he is,” Carter said. “It’s his mentality. It’s like a scorer’s mentality. A.J. has a shot blocker’s mentality, a rebounder’s mentality. He wants to do it. It’s what he does best.”
West couldn’t have come at a better time with 6-9 center Ronnie Stevens out another three weeks with a stress fracture in his leg. When asked if West would start against Long Beach State, Carter just smiled and said, “He has to learn some plays first.”
The Wolf Pack had Monday and Tuesday off after the win over Iona and returned to practice Christmas night.
“It was nice to have the two days off,” senior point guard Deonte Burton said. “I went back home and it was nice to be in that (Los Angeles) weather.”
The Wolf Pack historically has done very well in its first game back after Christmas when that game is at home. Starting in 1990, the Pack has gone 12-1 at home (and just 3-7 away from Lawlor) when its first game after Christmas is at Lawlor. The Pack’s only loss at home in the past 23 seasons in its first game after Christmas was on Dec. 27, 1997 against Texas Tech.
“I think the guys came back more focused after the two days,” Burton said. “We needed that break a little bit.”
Long Beach State is just 3-9 this season but the 49ers have played a difficult schedule, losing to the likes of Arizona, Kansas State (twice), Michigan, Washington, Creighton and North Carolina State. They will, however, bring a two-game winning streak into Lawlor after beating USC and Montana State-Billings.
“I know they are 3-9 but I don’t look at them like they are a 3-9 team,” Carter said. “They’ve played a tough schedule. They won’t be intimidated by us at all.”
The Wolf Pack last met the 49ers on Feb. 19, 2000 when both teams were in the Big West Conference. The Pack is 6-11 all-time against Long Beach. The 49ers feature guards Tyler Lamb, Mike Caffey, A.J. Spencer and Branford Jones as well as forwards Dan Jennings, David Samuels and Kris Gulley.
Lamb transferred to Long Beach after last season from UCLA and, like the Pack’s West, only became eligible at the semester break. The 6-foot-5 Lamb has played in just two games this year and is averaging 24.5 points a game.
“Just from personally knowing him, he’s a shooter,” said Burton, who played against Lamb while growing up in Southern California. “He likes that pull-up jumper.”
Caffey, the 49ers’ 6-foot point guard, is averaging 16.8 points a game. The 6-9 Jennings chips in with 11.8 points a game while Spencer (6-3) adds 9.3.
“We’ve recruited some of their players,” said Carter, who recruits Southern California heavily. “We know a lot of their guys. And our players know them. That can help us.”
Carter also knows that a victory over the 49ers will do wonders for his team’s fragile confidence. The Wolf Pack, after all, hasn’t won two games in a row since beating Cal Poly and San Francisco in the middle of November.
“We want to go into the conference schedule on a high note,” said Carter, whose Wolf Pack opens Mountain West play Jan. 1 at San Jose State.