RENO, Nev. (AP) - Nevada coach Mark Fox figures the young Wolf Pack did pretty well this season for a team that suddenly found itself without the star center of an otherwise small front line who now regularly shows up in NBA highlight.
"We've played 95 or 96 seasons of basketball at this school and have 11 20-win seasons," Fox said. "So, I think we were able to join that group and I'm very proud of that."
Nevada posted a 21-13 record for its sixth consecutive 20-win season, finished second in the Western Athletic Conference and earned a postseason berth - albeit in the CBI - for the sixth straight time before ending the 2008-09 campaign Tuesday night with a 79-77 loss to Texas-El Paso.
But the absence of a big man in Nevada's lineup this year has been a recurring concern since 7-foot JaVale McGee decided last spring to bolt for the NBA and was drafted in the first round by the Washington Wizards after just two seasons slamming home dunks and swatting blocks at the Lawlor Events Center.
"I think with another early entry into the draft this team was certainly younger than we planned, smaller than we planned," Fox said. "But they were able to improve. And I was really proud of their improvement throughout the year."
"I think with JaVale leaving we were over scheduled because we were anticipating he'd be here. And we had a lot of public growing pains ... but that will all make us better and I'm proud of them for that," he said.
Guard Lyndale Burleson, named to the WAC's all-defensive team for the second year in a row, was the lone senior on this year's team.
Freshman Luke Babbitt, a 6-foot-9 forward, sophomore Armon Johnson, a 6-foot-3 guard, both were named to the first team of the
all-WAC squad and again will be the core of next year's team.
Babbitt, a McDonald's all-American his senior year at Reno's Galena High School, averaged 17 points and seven rebounds per game. He set Nevada's all-time freshman scoring record and ranked among the top two or three freshman in the country in scoring.
Fox noted that Babbitt struggled with a back injury the last two games but still managed his fourth double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds in the loss to UTEP. He scored a career-high 30 points in Nevada's 77-68 win over Louisiana Tech in the WAC tourney semifinal.
"He had a phenomenal freshman year," Fox said. "He was an impact player and had to learn everything on the job. He had no other player up front to teach him. He and Dario and Ahyaro learned everything on the job and that is extremely difficult."
Talking to reporters after the final game, Fox likened it to trying to learn to operate a television camera on the fly.
"I don't know how complicated it is to run that camera, but if you put me behind that camera and told me to learn it while we're on the air, you probably wouldn't have a very good broadcast," he said.
In addition to the Babbitt-Johnson tandem, Brandon Fields, a 6-foot-4 guard, and Joey Shaw, a 6-foot-6 forward, return for their senior years next fall.
The play of three freshman forwards also gives reason for some optimism.
Malik Cooke, at 6-foot-6, started every game and steadily improved throughout the season, averaging nearly 10 points and six rebounds a game.
Dario Hunt, who at 6-foot-8 is the closest thing to a center on the roster, started most games and while he only averaged four points and four rebounds, he also blocked two shots per contest.
Ahyaro Phillips, 6-foot-8, also saw his playing time increase as the season went on as he became more of a force on the boards.
Nevada's 2009 recruiting class includes a pair of big men - Steven Bjornstad, a 6-foot-10 center from Columbia, Wash.; and Devonte Elliott, a 6-foot-8 power forward from Paramount, Calif.
Babbitt said he's looking forward to next season.
"I think as a team we've really grown," he said, adding that the credit for that goes to Burleson.
"He's been a great leader. Hopefully that will really show next year even though he won't be here. Hopefully that will really help us as a team," Babbitt said.
Fox agreed. He said Burleson had "a huge impact on our program." "He established a practice habit and a spirit for the young guys who had no idea how to function at this level."
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