Nobody has to remind the Nevada Wolf Pack about the dangers of Western Athletic Conference play.
"It's always intense," junior guard Malik Story said. "Every time you have a game, it doesn't matter where it is, whether it's Idaho or San Jose State or wherever, it doesn't matter. It's always intense."
The Wolf Pack, which opens WAC play this Thursday (at Idaho) and Saturday (at Utah State), speaks with experience this year. That wasn't the case a year ago as a young Wolf Pack team, with 10 players on the roster without so much as even one WAC game on their resume, learned about the WAC on the fly. The results was a disappointing 8-8 record and fifth-place finish in league play in 2010-11 with three losses in the last four league games.
Just call it on-the-job training.
This year's team features 11 players with WAC experience. That's why coach David Carter is confident this year will be a different story for the Pack in the WAC.
"It's not even close," said Carter, himself a veteran of 11 WAC wars. "They know what to expect now. Last year, the intensity in conference really increased and I don't think the guys were really ready for that for 16 games. This year they understand what they are about to get into."
The Pack, now 10-3, will bring a seven-game winning streak to Idaho. But, Carter warns, victories over such teams as Longwood, Pacific, Cedarville, Prairie View A&M, Montana, Portland and Riverside, don't necessarily translate into success in the WAC,
Then again, it's better than the alternative. A year ago the Pack was 3-10 heading into its New Year's Eve WAC opener with Hawaii at Lawlor Events Center after losses to such teams as South Dakota State, Portland and Pacific. They then proceeded to drop three of their first four WAC games.
"We know what to expect this year," Story said. "They (the WAC opponents) know us and we know them. It's going to be a hard grind. It's just who wants it more."
The Wolf Pack also has signature wins this year over Washington and Arizona State, two teams it lost to a year ago in December. WAC games, Carter added, are a whole different deal.
"This is the next step we have to take in our maturity as a basketball team," Carter said. "Now we are going to be playing teams that know our plays. Everyone has played 13 or 14 games and that means there are 13 or 14 tapes out there on you. They're going to scout you very well. Teams know what you are running. They will sometimes beat you to the spot and take away your shot. You have to adjust to that and execute better."
"We (WAC team) know each other so well," said center Dario Hunt, a senior who is still looking for his first WAC title. "There are no secrets. It's just a matter of who wants to get the win the most."
That team, the Pack insists, is the Wolf Pack.
"This is a confident group," sophomore Jerry Evans said. "We want to win. We're not going to settle for anything else. The intensity we have in practice shows how badly we really want it."
The Wolf Pack's 10-3 record is the best in the conference right now. The Pack was picked by the league's coaches as the favorite to win the league. Pack point guard Deonte Burton was selected as the Pre-season Player of the Year.
Those are a lot of expectations heaped up a team that was 13-19 overall a year ago and hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2007.
"I don't look at it like we're the favorite," Carter said. "Everyone is zero-zero right now. You can't say there is a favorite. Everyone is starting over."
"People can expect you to do different things but if you don't go out and show it, it doesn't matter," Story said. "But I feel if we play like we're capable of, I think we are (the WAC favorite)."
Carter, understandably, isn't very comfortable with his still-young team (six sophomores are among the rotation's top 10 players) carrying the weight of league favorite.
"With a young group that hasn't had a lot of success, you don't want them to get too comfortable," Carter said. "You haven't won the league, you haven't been invited to the postseason, you haven't really done a lot. You've won some games but there's a bigger picture and that's where we have to look, at the bigger picture in the conference."
Experience, the Pack hopes, will be the difference this year.
"We learned last year you can't take things for granted," Evans said. "We gave up leads last year, lost close games. We were just a young group. Young in the mind. This year we've grown up a lot. It shows. We know how to win now. It's not just taking it for granted. We actually go out there and put in the effort."
This year begins a series of drastic changes for WAC basketball over the next few years.
Boise State, which finished second in the league a year ago, has left the conference to join the Mountain West (they will return in 2012-13), leaving just eight teams and 14 league games this year. After this year Fresno State and the Wolf Pack will leave for the Mountain West Conference and Hawaii will head to the Big West Conference and will be replaced by Denver, Seattle, Texas-Arlington, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State.
The league tournament, which debuted in Las Vegas last March, will also have a vastly different look to it this year. Last year the top two seeds (Utah State, Boise State) received a bye into the semifinals and only had to win two games to win the title (Utah State beat Boise in the title game).
The bottom four seeds (Nevada, Hawaii, San Jose State and Fresno State) had to, in theory, win four games and the third and fourth seeds (Idaho and New Mexico State) had to win three.
This year each team (all eight teams in the league qualify for the tournament) has to win three games to win the three-day (March 8-10) tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
"I wish they would have kept it that way (the way it was last year)," Carter said.
Carter said he believes a lack of attendance last year in Vegas prompted the switch. The sessions in Las Vegas averaged just 3,518 fans and the total attendance for the entire tournament was just 14,075, the lowest ever for a WAC tournament.
"They never really said (the reason for the change)," Carter said. "But I think when all the teams are playing on one day, the attendance is better."