David Carter doesn’t hesitate when asked what the biggest challenge his Nevada Wolf Pack will face Wednesday night (6 p.m.) against the Wyoming Cowboys in Laramie, Wyo.
“Leonard Washington is the key to their team,” the Pack head coach said.
Carter witnessed up close what Washington could do back on Jan. 12 in a 59-48 Wolf Pack loss to Wyoming at Lawlor Events Center. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Washington had 16 points and 13 rebounds, as well as six assists, four blocks and three steals.
“He dominated inside,” Carter said. “We can’t let him just set up in the paint.”
Washington, who had 18 point and 15 rebounds in a 68-61 loss at Boise State last Saturday, is averaging 13.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and two blocks a game for the 16-7 Cowboys. Wyoming, though, is just 2-7 in Mountain West play, a game behind the 12-11, 3-6 Wolf Pack.
“This is a physical league,” Carter said. “It’s not Big Ten physical, but the referees will let you play. The refs won’t bail you out in this league. You have to be able to handle the physical play.”
Physical play is Washington’s specialty. The Wolf Pack is going to need another solid effort from 6-9, 225-pound junior Kevin Panzer. Panzer struggled against Wyoming back in January, going scoreless (0-for-7 from the field) with seven rebounds in 22 minutes.
“We need him to rebound and continue to play defense,” Carter said. “He had a nice game last time and hopefully he’ll build on that.”
Panzer played his best game in a Wolf Pack uniform during the Pack’s 74-69 win over Air Force on Saturday at Lawlor Events Center. He had 10 points and 14 rebounds in 29 minutes and made 5-of-6 shots from the field.
“He has a tendency to want to drift out and take the three,” Carter said. “But in that game he stayed in the paint and was in position to score inside. I told him, ‘Look, you just had your most successful game of your career and you didn’t take one 3-pointer.’ In the past he’s always thought that he had to hit a shot from outside to open up his game. But now he knows he doesn’t need that.”
Wyoming might be without Washington’s partner in the paint, 6-8 sophomore Larry Nance. Nance, who is averaging 10.5 points this season, had nine points and eight rebounds against Nevada last month. But he missed the Boise game with an injured wrist and is a game-time decision for Wednesday night.
Nance’s absence could mean a special night for 6-10 Pack center Devonte Elliott. Elliott, who is long, lean and athletic like Nance, had a solid game with Nance on the floor last month against Wyoming, scoring 11 points and pulling down seven rebounds in just 21 minutes.
“We only have one (conference) win on the road,” Carter said. “If we can get one in Wyoming, it will be a huge confidence booster for us.”
The victory over Air Force was huge for the Pack’s confidence, Carter said. The Pack, which has just three home games left this year, went into the game on a three-game losing streak and having lost seven of its last nine games.
“We’ve had confidence and we’ve been playing better lately,” Carter said. “But it was very important to win that game. Hopefully it will lead to more wins.”
The Wolf Pack has struggled with consistency all season long. They opened the year with three victories in their first four games, then lost three of four, followed by a five-game winning streak. They will go to Wyoming with seven losses in their last 10 games.
The Wolf Pack, senior guard Malik Story agreed, has yet to play a great game from start to finish this season. Even in victories, they’ve allowed inferior teams to stay close until late in the second half. The Pack even struggled in the win against Air Force, trailing by 10 with 5:32 to go.
“Even last year we never really played our best,” said senior guard Malik Story, referring to the Pack’s 28-7 season in 2011-12. “I guess we just like to grind games out. We never make it easy. We always let people back in games. As long as we get the W, it’s all right. But, I don’t really know why we do that. I don’t know how to fix it.”
Point guard Deonte Burton said the Pack knows the time to play its best basketball has arrived. There are just seven games remaining in the regular season and the Pack needs a victory at Wyoming if it wants to avoid finishing eighth or ninth in the Mountain West.
“As a team we realize this is our last go-around,” Burton said. “This is the second time around through the league. We have to get these wins. There is a definite sense of urgency.”