GAME NOTES: After claiming their sixth Western Athletic Conference title last year, the Nevada Wolf Pack will begin their journey in accomplishing that feat in a new league as they tip off the season on the road against the UC Irvine Anteaters.
Nevada put together a fantastic campaign a season ago, going 28-7 overall with a nearly perfect mark in the WAC (13-1), but its success did not carry over to the conference tournament, as it lost to Louisiana Tech in the semifinals. Despite missing out of the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight season, the Wolf Pack qualified for the NIT and advanced to the quarterfinals. This will be their first season as a member of the Mountain West Conference.
UC Irvine's season was one to forget, as it went just 6-10 in the Big West Conference and won only 12 games overall. Even with a poor season, the Anteaters were always a tough draw at home, as they went 8-6 at the Bren Events Center.
Nevada leads the all-time series over UC Irvine, 13-5. The current squads are vaguely familiar with one another as they faced off last November as part of BracketBusters, with the Wolf Pack winning, 74-63.
Nevada is used to scoring success, having put up more than 70 ppg a season ago on 45 percent field goal shooting. Moving to a new conference shouldn't change that fact, especially considering it returns the reigning WAC Player of the Year and honorable mention All-American Deonte Burton. The 6-1 junior was involved in a large majority of the Wolf Pack's scoring plays last year, netting a team-high 14.8 ppg, while dishing out 4.2 apg. Rounding out one of the strongest backcourts in the MWC is Malik Story, who finished just behind Burton in scoring (14.1 ppg) and was a sharp-shooter from three-point range (94 3-pointers on 41.6 percent shooting). Although the guards are clearly the team's strength, it does lack experience in the post now that Olek Czyz (13.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and Dario Hunt (10.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.4 bpg) have moved on. Replacing that production will be improbable, especially considering projected starters at forward Devonte Elliot and Kevin Panzer combined for just 4.6 ppg and 4.2 rpg last season.
UC Irvine struggled mightily last year, shooting just 41.7 percent from the floor while being outscored by its opponents by an average of 4.1 ppg. There's plenty of reason for optimism in Irvine this season however, as the team returns all five starters and 10 players who logged significant minutes. Highlighting the returnees are four seniors -- Michael Wilder, Daman Starring, Derick Flowers, and Adam Folker -- who are amongst the most experienced players in the Big West. Wilder is the top returning player in the conference in terms of career points (762), assists (162), field goals made (223), three- pointers made (152), free throws made (164) and minutes played (2,321). Wilder (11.5 ppg), Starring (11.4 ppg), and Chris McNealy (10.2) all averaged double figures last season, while Folker (8.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) was the team's best rebounder. Third year head coach Russell Turner will also have several underclassmen with valuable experience in reserve roles under their belts in Will Davis II (7.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Aaron Wright (6.9 ppg), and Mike Best (4.0 ppg).
Even during last season's championship run, Nevada got out of the gates sluggishly with losses in its first two games to Missouri State and UNLV, so don't be surprised if it gets off to another slow start here. UC Irvine figures to be much improved with its veteran group, and at home the Anteaters will find a way to win.