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Quietly, Nevada threatening to run the table in the WAC

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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Nevada is surging behind sophomore point guard Deonte Burton. (AP)

Dario Hunt nipped it in the bud.

He was along for the bumpy ride that was a 13-19 campaign at Nevada a year ago, and after being picked by the league's coaches as the preseason favorite this fall, a 68-46 home loss to Missouri State to open the season shocked many.

The senior forward took charge in the locker room right afterwards.

"He definitely got us together and said we've got to step up," sophomore point guard Deonte Burton said. "This is what we did last year, and we don't want this season to be a repeat of last year. It started with practices and went from there."

Almost three months later, the Wolf Pack is 18-3, has won 15 straight games, including its first seven WAC contests, and is possibly eyeing its first NCAA tournament bid since 2007.

"We just haven't gotten much attention because of those three losses," Burton added.

If Nevada keeps on the same path it's been on, the attention will surely come.

Following that opening loss to Missouri State, Nevada mounted a late comeback before falling to in-state rival UNLV by four. The third loss came two weeks later against BYU, but the win that seemed to turn things for the Wolf Pack was a 76-73 home triumph over Washington.

In that game, Burton — the WAC's preseason Player of the Year — tied the game with a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation, then scored eight of the team's 10 points in overtime, taking over the game in every way en route to scoring 31 points.

"Just how last year we started off so bad and overall, we didn't have a good season, and we were nervous of that happening again — We just used it as motivation," Burton said.

Last season, after winning its opener, Nevada lost seven straight, setting the tone for a rare poor season for one of the last decade's more consistent mid-major programs. Now, the team's current run has likely pulled third-year coach David Carter off of the hot seat.

The team's done it by getting consistent contributions across the board.

Seniors Hunt and Olek Czyz are combining to average 22.1 points and 15.1 rebounds per game up front, while junior Indiana transfer Malik Story has found some improved discipline with his shot selection. While his shot attempts per game are down from 12.5 last season to 10.3 this year, his field goal percentage (39.5 to 46.5) and 3-point percentage (38.6 to 48) have both hit major spikes.

But, still, the major catalyst behind it all is Burton, who had plenty of time to learn on the fly as a freshman before emerging as one of the West Coast's top point guards as a sophomore.

The 6-foot-1 Los Angeles native leads the team in scoring (15.5 ppg) and assists (4.5 apg), while averaging fewer than two turnovers per game. After being overlooked and lightly recruited by most Pac-12 schools coming out of high school, Burton said he's thriving because of the school he chose.

"All of my life, I've had to prove people wrong, that's why I thought Nevada suited me the best," he said. "A lot of people doubted Nevada, and we had to prove them wrong, and I have some experience in that."

Now, how much proving is left for them to do in the regular season?

The Wolf Pack's two toughest road tests in league play — at Utah State and at New Mexico State — have already been passed with flying colors.  They'll still host both and have to make the always tough trip to take on Hawaii next Thursday.

There's also their ESPN Bracket Buster match-up with fellow NCAA hopeful Iona out of the MAAC. They'll travel to New York for that contest on Feb. 18.

They currently have an RPI of 59, which keeps the possibility of an NCAA tournament at-large bid in play.

The Wolf Pack is hoping that that debate won't even be necessary a month from now.

"I would say after that New Mexico State game, we showed what we're about," Burton said. "We definitely have to take it one game at a time and try to run the table in conference. It's going to be tough, but we're capable of doing it."

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for Follow him on Twitter: @ryanmgreene.

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