The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team now must adjust to life without A.J. West.
“Anytime the roster changes there are always new opportunities for players,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said on Wednesday as his team prepared to host the Santa Clara Broncos on Friday night (7 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center.
Musselman, whose Wolf Pack is 7-3 after a 79-71 win over Drake on Saturday, would not comment specifically on West’s decision to leave the team on Tuesday. The senior, who was given an extra year of eligibility before last season by the NCAA, left the team for personal reasons, according to the Wolf Pack athletic department.
West’s departure leaves the Wolf Pack with a huge hole in the paint on both offense and defense. The 6-foot-9 West was averaging 9.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.8 blocks this season in 23.7 minutes a game. He entered this season as the program’s active career leader in starts (48), rebounds (473) and blocks (127). He was leading the team in rebounding overall this season and his 43 offensive rebounds were 15 more than anybody else.
And now he’s gone. “Collectively we need guys to step up,” Musselman said.
The task of somehow replacing West, who was one of just 15 players last year in Division I to average a double-double (12.1 points, 11.0 rebounds), seemingly falls on freshman Cameron Oliver, sophomore Elijah Foster junior Kaileb Rodriguez and senior Lucas Stivrins. The 6-8 Oliver has played well so far, averaging 10.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game. But the other three — the 6-7 Foster, 6-9 Rodriguez and 6-11 Stivrins — have played just a total of 156 minutes this year with 48 points, 48 rebounds and eight blocks combined.
“Anytime there are more shots and more rebounds available, inevitably somebody steps up in one shape or form,” said Musselman, remaining as vague as possible about the post-West Wolf Pack.
Oliver scored 17 points in the second half against Drake after going scoreless in the second half. “Cam is a guy who is continuing to grow for us in so many different ways,” Musselman said.
Oliver, who is shooting 51 percent this year, had more points (105-96) and blocks (25-18) than West and had played four more minutes. The one area he has struggled at times, though, is staying out of foul trouble. His 31 fouls lead the team.
“Staying out of foul trouble and the pace we play, we have to keep a close eye on all of that,” Musselman said.
Oliver might be ready to emerge as one of the top players in the Mountain West with more playing time. “The bigger the game that’s been on our schedule, the bigger he’s played,” Musselman said. “But he’s still a freshman. He’ll have his ups and downs.”
Foster, who actually has started more games (seven) than either West (six) or Oliver (five) this year despite playing just 81 total minutes, might benefit the most statistically by West’s absence. He is averaging 1.8 points and 3.0 rebounds a game and has scored just 35 points in 30 career games with 62 rebounds and four blocks. “For Elijah Foster, this (increased playing time) will be good for his growth as a player,” Musselman said.
Not all of West’s nearly 24 minutes a game, however, will go to the remaining big men on the roster. Musselman hinted at using a smaller lineup more frequently in the future, emphasizing guards Marqueze Coleman, Lindsey Drew, D.J. Fenner, Eric Cooper, Tyron Criswell and Juwan Anderson. One of the Pack’s biggest strengths so far has been the ability of the guards to rebound. The 6-3 Criswell is averaging 6.2 boards a game followed by Fenner (5.3), Drew (4.0) and Cooper (2.9).
The Pack guards, though, will have their hands full on Friday trying to contain Santa Clara’s Jared Brownridge. The 6-3 guard is averaging 18.0 points a game. He scored 44 points in a 75-73 overtime loss to Arizona on Nov. 26, breaking former Arizona State guard James Harden’s Wooden Legacy Tournament record of 40 points in 2008. The last two games Brownridge has scored 20 points against Arkansas-Pine Bluff and 25 against Pacific Union. “When asked what concerns him most about the 4-7 Broncos, Musselman just smiled and said Brownridge’s number three times. “Number 23, number 23, number 23,” the Pack coach said. “Jared Brownnridge is one of the best scorers in the country.”
Brownridge, from Aurora, Ill., averaged 15.9 points a game last year as a sophomore and 17.2 a game as a freshman. He is the Broncos’ first option on offense by far, shooting the ball 15 times a game. Against Arizona, for example, he took 29 shots (making 11) while nobody else on the team took more than six. For the season Brownridge is shooting just 32 percent (24-of-76) on 3-pointers and 34 percent (55-of-140) from the floor overall. Brownridge has led the Broncos in scoring seven times but has also struggled this year, scoring nine points against Boston College on 4-of-15 shooting and four points against San Jose State on 2-of-8 shooting. “We are going to try to contain him,” Musselman said. “You are not going to stop him.”
Brownridge, though, might just be hitting his stride right now. He missed a month of practices from late September to late October because of a pelvic injury and it took him a while to heat up, going just 7-of-31 on 3-pointers in the Broncos’ first five games. The Broncos also have some capable teammates to help Brownridge. Nate Kratch, a 6-8 junior, is averaging 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds a game. K.J. Feagin, a 6-1 freshman, is averaging 9.0 points and 3.4 assists a game. Matt Hubbard, a 6-9 sophomore, chips in with 5.8 points a game. Matt Hauser, a 6-2 freshman, Kai Healy, a 6-4 sophomore, and Jarvis Pugh, a 6-6 sophomore, all average just under five points a game.
The Wolf Pack has featured a more balanced approach to scoring this year. Coleman leads the team at 17.6 points a game but he is closely followed by Fenner (13.5), Criswell (12.2), Oliver (10.5) and Cooper (9.8). The Pack is averaging 82.6 points a game. The Broncos, winners of four in a row after opening the season with seven consecutive losses, are averaging just 63.4 points a game, ahead of only San Diego (58.0) in the WCC. Musselman, though, is looking past the numbers. “This is a real good team we’re playing and they can score,” Musselman said. “They are hot and they are confident.”