Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack need not fear San Diego State

San Diego State forward Yanni Wetzell drives past Nevada forward Johncarlos Reyes during Saturday's game at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.

San Diego State forward Yanni Wetzell drives past Nevada forward Johncarlos Reyes during Saturday's game at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.

The Nevada Wolf Pack does not have to be afraid of the San Diego State Aztecs.

Respect the Aztecs. Admire the Aztecs. Call their moms and dads and commend them for raising such fine sons. Send them all a card at Christmas. Then go out and beat the Aztecs.

But there was the Wolf Pack on Saturday night, with nearly 11,000 loving supporters looking on at Lawlor Events Center, curling up into the fetal position with the game on the line. The Pack threw the ball away, got noticeably frustrated and angry and committed goofy fouls and took even goofier shots in a what-just-happened 83-76 loss to the Aztecs.

They looked like a team afraid to punch the bully right back in the nose. With the game on the line last Saturday, the Aztecs stood up on their hind legs, flashed their menacing teeth and the Pack ran and hid in the woods.

“I don’t know if it was running out of gas or whatever,” said coach Steve Alford said, whose Wolf Pack opens Mountain West tournament play Thursday night (8:30 p.m.) against either Colorado State or Wyoming.

“But they just stepped up and we just couldn’t match that. We just came out on the short end of it.”

Ignore all of that coach press conference nonsense. We blame all of that “we came out on the short end” and “we just couldn’t match that” slop on the teary-eyed, sentimental post-game love-fest when the Pack honored its four seniors Saturday night.

The Pack was in a we-love-everybody-and-everything mode after the game when it should have been in a we-are-mad-at-the-world sort of mindset.

Saturday night, though, turned out not to be the time for sentimentality and hugs. What we should have gotten was a little Pack anger. The Aztecs, after all, came into the Pack’s house and stole their lunch money, car keys, internet passwords and girlfriends. And everyone witnessed it. An ESPN national television audience with a former Alford teammate at Indiana (Dan Dakich) behind the microphone was also watching.

The Pack should have been defiant, during the game and after. The Pack should have been angry. The Pack should have been like Alford is on the bench during most every game. Yelling, fiery, intense. But there they were late Saturday, after hugging mom, dad, girlfriend, teammates and coaches, seemingly content and proud that they fought toe-to-toe with the mighty Aztecs until late in the second half. Not late enough, mind you. But late just the same.

How nice. Nice gets you into the NIT or CBI. Not the NCAA tournament. Nice gets you watching some other team cut down the nets at the Mountain West tournament.

You only get so many chances, after all, to beat the No. 5 team in the nation on your own floor with 11,000 fans cheering you on with a double-digit lead in the second half.

The Pack had the game under control, leading 52-39 three minutes into the second half, 57-49 two minutes later and 66-60 with nine minutes left. The only reason the Pack wasn’t up by two dozen points was because the non-existent Wolf Pack defense was allowing Aztec guard Malachi Flynn to do his best Kawhi Leonard impression.

But not even that seemed to matter when the Pack played with confidence. We were witnessing all of the silver and blue forces coming together for one perfect Pack night. ESPN was there. The Lawlor crowd was also doing its part by “rattling” the Aztecs, according to Aztec coach Brian Dutcher. The Pack was, without question, the better team. The Wolf Pack was making the Aztecs look like an over-hyped and over-ranked bunch that had simply built a 28-1 mirage based on playing the bulk of its games in the mild, mild Mountain West.

The Pack had confidence and swagger. They had revenge (the Aztecs beat the Pack in San Diego in January) as motivation. They had that silly Aztec No. 5 national ranking to slap away. They had the home crowd (the largest at Lawlor this year) pushing them. They had the best scorer (Jalen Harris) in the conference and one of the best point guards (Lindsey Drew) and shooters (Jazz Johnson) in school history. And they had a coach who was the most famous, celebrated and accomplished basketball God in the building. Yes, even more than Dan Dakich.

And then it all vanished. The Pack confidence and swagger left the building. The composure disappeared. It seemed like the Pack started working on its Senior Night speeches about 10 minutes too soon. And it’s all because the Aztecs stood up and said the Pack party was over.

We’re not saying the Pack was ultimately afraid of the Aztecs. Only the Pack knows that for sure. All we’re saying is that there is no reason for the Pack to be afraid of the Aztecs.

If anything, it’s the Aztecs who should be a little afraid of the Wolf Pack. The Pack, after all, scored 76 points on Saturday, the most the Aztecs have allowed this year. The Pack dropped 45 on the Aztecs in the first half. Nobody else has done that to the Aztecs. The Pack’s 49 percent shooting percentage on Saturday is also the best against the Aztecs this year.

“They have a lot of good shooters,” said Dutcher last week of the Pack. “They shoot the ball from multiple positions at a real high level. (Jalen) Harris, you can do a good job on him and he’ll still score the ball.”

The Aztecs, though, devoured all of those Pack shooters with the game on the line on Saturday. That was a confident team doing what it does best. It was punching its opponent in the throat and daring that opponent to punch back. And the Pack couldn’t make a fist when it mattered most.

The Pack missed nine of its last 11 shots, committed four turnovers and five fouls over the last 10-plus minutes.

That is not the stat line of a team that is confident and composed with a huge game on the line at home in front of a big crowd.

The last 10 minutes is when great, courageous and confident teams take over games. See the Wolf Pack under Musselman from 2015-19. Those confident and courageous teams also test you to see if you have real confidence or whether it is whistling-in-the-graveyard confidence.

In two games against the Aztecs this year the Pack has just had whistling confidence. The Pack has outscored the Aztecs 80-69 in the first half this year. In the second half the Aztecs have destroyed the Pack 82-51.

“If you beat them you know you’ve had to play really well for 40 minutes,” Alford said.

You can be sure Alford, now that the sentimental slop of Senior Night is over, will remind his Wolf Pack of that this week. You don’t beat the No. 5 team in the nation, even if that No. 5 ranking is as real as the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, with 20 or 30 good minutes.

Alford is just the man to instill that confidence. Alford, you see, has never been afraid of anything or anyone when a basketball was involved. He scored 27 points against North Carolina and Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and Kenny Smith in the 1984 NCAA tournament. A confident and sure-of-himself Alford scored 23 points on seven threes in an NCAA championship-game win over Syracuse and Sherman Douglas, Derrick Coleman and Rony Seikaly in 1987.

If anyone should have been afraid of a Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Sherman Douglas or Derrick Coleman, it was a 6-foot-2 shooting guard from Franklin, Indiana. But Alford, the guy who Bobby Knight allowed to lead his Indiana Hoosiers in shot attempts (and scoring) for four consecutive seasons, was always confident he could beat anyone anywhere and at any time.

He needs to grow that confidence in his Pack this week. If that happens, if the Pack truly believes it is as good as any team in Las Vegas this week, it can win the Mountain West tournament and go back to the NCAA tournament for a fourth consecutive year.

That’s because the Pack is just as good as any team in the conference. Yes, even the Aztecs. Harris, Drew and Johnson are as good as any Big Three in the conference. Nisre Zouzoua is the best bench player in the conference. He’d start on at least nine of the 11 other Mountain West teams. K.J. Hymes, Kane Milling, Robby Robinson and Zane Meeks now all have a full year of Division I basketball on their resume. Johncarlos Reyes played three seasons at Boston College. He’s not afraid of the Mountain West tournament.

“It’s going to be a fight,” said Alford of the Mountain West’s Las Vegas party. “No matter who you play it’s going to be a battle. When you get on a neutral floor anything can happen. I’m anxious to see how we handle things.”

The most frightened and anxious team in Las Vegas this week should be the Aztecs, who have the most to lose. Ask the Wolf Pack last year how it feels to fall to a No. 7 NCAA tournament seed when all year it looked like a No. 2 would be attached to their name. Nobody fears a No. 7 seed. Just ask that mediocre Florida Gators team last year.

The Pack, on the other hand, should not be afraid of anything this week. They don’t have any pressure this week. They’ve already lost 11 games. They already lost to the Aztecs twice. They lost to Utah State. Nobody expects the Pack to win the tournament this week because, well, they have yet to prove they can.

“We’ve proven we can win three games in a row on a neutral court (the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in November against mediocre teams),” Alford said. “We’ve proven we can win a game at Thomas & Mack (against UNLV). What we haven’t proven is we can beat the top seed.”

The Aztecs have spoiled a lot of Pack parties in recent years. Not even Eric Musselman’s confident and cocky group could beat the Aztecs when it really mattered the last four years.

San Diego State has knocked the Pack out of three of the last four Mountain West tournaments. It’s Weber State in the Big Sky tournament from 1988-90 all over again.

The Aztecs are clearly in the Pack’s heads. But they are saying all the right things.

“Anybody can beat anybody,” Johnson said.

“I don’t think anybody is really fearing anybody,” Drew said.

That’s not what it looked like in the final 10 minutes on Saturday or in the second half in San Diego back in January. But it doesn’t matter if anyone else believes the Pack can win the Mountain West tournament. All that matters is that they believe.

“It’s been fun,” said Johnson of his Pack career. “But it’s not over yet. So let’s keep it going.”


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