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Saturday, March 20, 2004
Updated: March 21, 2:52 PM ET
Nevada busts onto NCAA scene

By Ray Ratto
Special to

SEATTLE -- Trent Johnson is just one of those coaches who doesn't count his chickens until they've laid the next round of eggs. But he knows the horse he's riding.

So while he may take a staple gun to the smiles that keep sneaking out when he's staring at the floor in the waning seconds of games successfully completed, he gets what his Nevada Wolf Pack did Saturday, and what they still can do in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Win, for lack of a more concise term.

The Pack, one of those stealth teams you neither note nor remember when you're busting open your office pool, is now the cutest team in a tournament running dangerously low on cute.

Indeed, by comprehensively throttling Gonzaga, 91-72, at KeyArena Saturday, the Pack established itself as ... well, Gonzaga Lite, if you must.

They have the obvious star presence figure in swing man Kirk Snyder, a lithe 6-foot-6 junior with the brass to tell you he's about to make you silly and the skills to do it.

They have the Kirk Hinrich impersonator in senior point guard Todd Okeson, who looks like a guide wire with hair, but could light a highway flare with his face-to-grindstone tenacity.

They have the scorer-turned-defensive specialist in Garry Hill-Thomas, who obliterated Gonzaga's Blake Stepp (no field goals against Hill-Thomas until 2:18 remained and the game effectively finished) as the latest notch in his defensive résumé.

Kevinn Pinkney
All five Nevada starters reached double figures, led by Kevin Pinkney's game-high 20 points.

They have the difficult-to-deal-with role players, like 6-9 junior Kevinn Pinkney and 6-11 freshman Nick Fazekas; the bruising backup power forward in 6-9 senior Sean Paul; and the slashing rebounder in 6-5 junior Jermaine Washington.

California, Kansas, Colorado, South Carolina ... and Paul, the Nevada native. A seeming collection of odds and sods who make up far more than they seemed when they escaped the regional cruelties of the WAC to enter a tournament that has not been kind to the conference since it lost half its members to the Mountain West.

They all love the attention, the adrenaline rush, and the counterpuncher's pigheaded belief that Boston College or Georgia Tech can be had, as they are, with what Nevada has.

And then there's Johnson, who has improved the team's record every season since he signed on five years ago, but who has essentially rendered expressions of joy on a need-to-know-only basis.

He knows, having been an assistant at Stanford, just how quickly the car door opens without you seeing it.

"I'm happy for them, but we have games to play," Johnson said. "Right now, I'm more concerned right now that they get their rest and they don't run around Seattle and celebrate and have a good time."

To which Snyder, who is living the life every WAC player dare not dream, says, "Coach is a standup guy, but sometimes he wants us just to hold the ball up, to make smart plays, be good. But when I'm going, it's more killer instinct for me."

Nevada is one in a series of very live 10-seeds that have elbowed their way into the second weekend over the past several years ... Auburn a year ago, Kent State in 2002, Georgetown in 2001, Seton Hall and Gonzaga in 2000, Gonzaga, Purdue and Miami of Ohio in 1999, West Virginia in 1998, Texas and Providence in 1997.

Of those, however, only Providence, the '99 Zags and Kent State took the next step. Because if anything is true about the tournament, it is that dreamers start losing sleep the further they go.

Thus, Nevada is working with the casino's money, but history suggests that it is a short bankroll.

But you can't tell them that, because they're not listening, and because Trent Johnson is telling them to take good care. Friday comes faster than any of them can possibly know.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to