When center A.J. West joined the Nevada program last season, playing his first game against Iona on December 22, he was originally declared to be a junior eligibility-wise. With that being the case, and West’s late start to the season, it was expected that the Wolf Pack would have their 6-foot-9 center for just three semesters.
However the ruling regarding West’s status was changed Tuesday, with the NCAA granting the Monroe (New York) College product an extra season of eligibility. As a result West will be a junior this season as opposed to a senior, which would have been the case if not for the ruling.
“We are excited to have AJ for two more seasons,” Nevada head coach David Carter said in a release from the school. “I would like to thank our compliance department for their efforts in this process and express my appreciation for the NCAA and its appeals process for granting him the additional season to play for the Pack.”
West averaged 6.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per contest in the 21 games he played last season (19 starts), and he’ll be an important figure for the Wolf Pack in 2014-15 as well. Nevada, which finished the 2013-14 season with a 15-17 record (10-8 Mountain West), has to account for the loss of two senior starters in guard Deonte Burton and guard/forward Jerry Evans Jr. and they lost forward Cole Huff as well.
Huff, who averaged 12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest last season, transferred to Creighton.
As a result of those departures senior guard Michael Lopez (11.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.1 apg) and West are the Wolf Pack’s top leading returning scorers, with sophomore Marqueze Coleman (6.0 ppg) expected to figure more prominently in the attack. West will be joined in the front court by two returnees (forward/center Ronnie Stevens Jr. and forward/center Lucas Stirvins) and three newcomers: Sheridan College transfer Kaileb Rodriguez (sophomore) and freshmen Elijah Foster and Robyn Missa.
Cole Huff, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, was a valuable contributor for Nevada this season, but recently made the decision to transfer from the school for his final two years of eligibility. The Wolf Pack has struggled with transfers in recent years — three players decided Nevada wasn’t the best fit following the 2013 season — and now that Huff has joined that list, there have been significant restrictions placed on where the forward can transfer.
It is unclear what sort of precedent coach David Carter, and the Nevada athletic department, is trying to set with these restrictions. Huff wasn’t a great rebounder, but he was proficient when he stepped on to the floor, combining a soft touch within the arc (50 percent) with an accurate shooting stroke from deep (40 percent). However, Huff wasn’t the team’s best player — that would be Deonte Burton — nor was he one of the best in the Mountain West (a member of the all-MWC honorable mention squad). Huff was an improving and developing forward with potential.
Huff is a native of California, but it seems like the forward is being told if he wants to play at a high-major level, he better leave the west coast: the only way he’ll play for a BCS-conference school is if that team is in a league east of or around the Mississippi River. It’ll be interesting whether Nevada continues to restrict Huff’s next destination; in recent years, there has been backlash when a coach (like Bo Ryan or Phil Martelli) tried to limit or prohibit a player from taking the floor for a rival, geographical or otherwise, school, but there hasn’t been anything of this magnitude. News is quickly spreading throughout social media, and there has been a bit of backlash against Nevada for severely limiting Huff’s options. It is understandable that Carter would be upset Huff decided to leave; a surprising team during MWC play, the squad’s depth takes a significant and considerable hit without Huff, but the program’s actions seem draconian.
Last season interior play was an issue for Nevada, as they lacked the pieces needed to supplement what Deonte Burton, Jerry Evans Jr. and Malik Story provided on the perimeter. As a result the Wolf Pack struggled in their Mountain West debut, winning just three conference games and finishing with an overall record of 12-19.
Story’s now a professional, and with the arrival of newcomers such as Monroe (N.Y.) College transfer AJ West the Wolf Pack were expected to provide greater resistance in the paint. Unfortunately for the 6-foot-9 forward he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA due to his attending prep school for a second year before enrolling at Monroe, and as a result Nevada’s still had issues inside. Currently the Wolf Pack rank eighth in the Mountain West in defensive rebounding percentage and tenth in blocked shots, two areas in which West was expected to help them when he joined the program.
However in addition to the bad injury news regarding guard Marqueze Coleman and junior forward Ronnie Stevens Jr., it was also announced on Wednesday that West has been cleared to play. West, who averaged 8.9 rebounds and led the country in blocked shots (5.1 bpg) at Monroe last season, will play on Saturday when Nevada hosts Iona.
Obviously it would be unfair to expect West to hit the ground running and immediately play as he did at Monroe, but with the loss of Stevens due to stress fractures in his legs and center Chris Brown still sidelined (health issues related to blood clots) Nevada clearly needed a personnel boost. Three of Nevada’s top four rebounders are perimeter players, with Evans grabbing a team-high 5.7 rebounds per game.
“He’s a great player. I think he’s going to have an impact on this team with his ability to block shots and to rebound,” Nevada head coach David Carter said according to Dan Hinxman of the Reno Gazette-Journal. We’re very excited to have him on the floor. Now, is he a savior? He’s not a savior. He’s just another good player that adds depth on a good team.”
Both Stevens and Coleman, who’s dealing with complications after being poked in the eye according to Hinxman’s report, are expected to miss anywhere from two to four weeks. Coleman’s averaging 8.0 points and 3.2 rebounds and Stevens is contributing 4.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per contest for the Wolf Pack, who are 4-7 on the season.
Nevada has two more non-conference games before they open Mountain West play at league newcomer San Jose State on New Year’s Day.
All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
Their first season as a Mountain West member was a tough one for the Nevada Wolf Pack. Lacking depth in the front court, David Carter’s team took more than its fair share of lumps in a season that ended with eight straight losses and an overall record of 12-19 (3-13 Mountain West). Offensively guards Deonte Burton and Malik Story were asked to lead the way, with Burton averaging 16.3 points and 3.6 assists per game.
For his efforts the Los Angeles native was a third team All-Mountain West selection, and the league’s coaches named him to the league’s preseason all-conference team earlier this month. But due in large part to the Pack’s lack of success, Burton remains anything but a household name outside of the conference, and that’s something both player and coach understand.
“I think sometimes it falls on your record and how you finish,” Nevada head coach David Carter told NBC Sports. “In our conference I don’t think he’s overlooked at all. We finished at the bottom of the league last year and he was still a third-team all-league selection. I just think that around the country he’s probably one of the most underrated players, especially at his position.”
Amongst Mountain West players who factored into at least 24% of their team’s possessions Burton ranked sixth in offensive rating per kenpom.com, and with four of the top five players ahead of him gone (Boise State’s Anthony Drmic is the lone returnee) Burton should be able to improve his standing in that statistical category. And if there’s one area in which Burton saw the need to improve entering the 2013-14 season, it was his perimeter shooting.
After making 37.2% of his three-point attempts as a sophomore, Burton shot just 30.1% in his Mountain West debut. Burton noted that he worked on his perimeter shooting and overall shot selection throughout the offseason, but on a team that didn’t have a high number of consistent scoring options, the shot selection was bound to be an issue last season. A contested shot by Burton was, at times, their best option offensively.
“Myself and Malik Story were the only two guys who had the ability to pick the team up offensively, so it was tough in that regard,” said Burton. “This year I have great teammates, guys who can finish and score inside and hit perimeter shots that I can rely on.”
It’s a lot to ask a point guard to run a team as well as be a primary scoring option, and for that reason there aren’t a high number of players at the position entrusted with both tasks. Arizona State’s Jahii Carson and California’s Justin Cobbs would be two examples of this, but both had multiple scoring options at their disposal and that ultimately led to more team success. The hope in Reno is that even with Story having graduated, there are enough pieces around Burton to help him flourish while also lightening the load on his shoulders.
The team’s summer trip to Italy helped with the growth process, as Burton and the other returnees were able to get some valuable court time with the team’s seven newcomers.
“They want to get better each and every day. That alone is a big step for them,” said Burton when asked of the newcomers with one being UTEP transfer Michael Perez, who’s expected to help fill the void left by Story. “They’re willing to listen and want to get better, and they come in each day and work hard at everything we do.”
With Story gone Burton’s role won’t change much at all, but the presence of those seven newcomers means that the senior point guard’s role as a team leader becomes even more important. The summer trip to Italy certainly helped in regards to Burton’s individual skill set and his bond with his teammates, but it also helped Burton improve as a leader.
“I think for him, his role stays the same in terms of being a leader and taking ownership of the team, and that’s what he’s done so far,” Carter said of his point guard. “His teammates were obviously excited that he chose to come back, and I think when he decided to come back that sent a strong message to our guys who were returning that he’s the leader. I think Italy just strengthened that bond between Deonte and his teammates.”
Ranking in the top ten in school history in points (10th), assists (8th) and steals (9th), Burton’s destined to go down as one of the most productive players in Nevada history. The respect from Mountain West foes is there as well.
The national praise hasn’t come as quickly however, but all involved know that the only way to change that is to go out and win more games.