Senior returned and is carrying Top 25 Wolf Pack

Originally Published: December 12, 2006
By Ed Graney | Special to ESPN.com

You figure in a given season, there are more than 4,000 Division I basketball players. You figure anyone good enough to rank among the top 30 of them in both scoring and rebounding would feel more content than a stage actor bowing to a third curtain call. You figure existing in such company would be enough for most college players.

You would figure wrong.

"I basically became satisfied with getting 20 points and 10 rebounds every night last season," Nick Fazekas said. "I didn't realize how much harder I could work, where I could improve, what my weaknesses were, the places I could take my game.

"I feel stronger now. All aspects of my game are better. I'm a better scorer, a better rebounder, a better defender."

The Reno area in northern Nevada is home to 300,000 residents and welcomes more than 5.1 million visitors annually. It owns the showy surface of 24-hour gaming and the picturesque magnificence of Lake Tahoe. There is a river that flows through the city's heart. There are charming churches and splendid mansions and sleek high-rises. There are parks and casinos and shopping malls. In terms of available recreational activities, it's pretty much the equivalent of what symphony enthusiasts get in London.

Nick Fazekas
John Cordes/Icon SMIFazekas has added muscle and a more diverse offensive game since last season.

And on one side of town sits the University of Nevada, opened in 1874 and home to one of the nation's best mid-major programs. This year's team includes the school's all-time leading scorer and a two-time conference player of the year, a 6-11 senior forward whose importance to the city of desert hills and valleys is nearly impossible to measure. Fazekas means that much.

"He is just huge here," said Darrell Moody, who covers the Wolf Pack for the Nevada Appeal newspaper. "He has a good relationship with everyone. He doesn't walk about like the [star] basketball player. This isn't a typical college sports town. It's not like Norman, Okla. It has actually been tough selling this team in a sense. You would think it would be a much tougher ticket to get for a team that has been to the NCAA Tournament the last three years.

"I can only imagine what it would be like had he not decided to return to school."

He almost didn't. Then did. And almost didn't. Then did.

That's how life went for Fazekas after last season, a daily dosage of indecision about remaining in the NBA draft or playing his final year at Nevada.

He worked out for some pro teams, and the reaction was mixed. Draft opinions ranged from late first round to late second. One day, Fazekas would walk into Nevada coach Mark Fox's office and insinuate he was leaving. The next, he would walk in and pledge he was staying. It just sort of went that way for a while.

"I think the first thing that was very evident when he finally came to a decision is that no one sensed any bitterness from him," Fox said. "In the end, he really wanted to come back. It's pretty evident to see how much progress he has made. He has been raised to be very grounded. It's not easy for a player of the year who averages a double-double to look in the mirror and honestly assess where he was and what kind of improvements he could make.

"We're not a program that's going to go out and beat Duke on a great 6-11 kid. We need to identify those big men who we think can improve and get better under us and have a lot of potential. Nick is an excellent example of that."

Not only is Fazekas better this season, but so, too, is a Nevada program that advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2004 and took out Texas in a first-round NCAA game the next season. Some speculate that last season's first-round upset loss to Montana fueled much of Fazekas' desire to return, and thus far it has paid off with a Top 25 ranking.

Nevada won its first seven games before being outplayed at home and losing to rival UNLV on Saturday, but the Wolf Pack's best player still managed 16 points and 17 rebounds while grinding through 35 minutes with bruised ribs. Fazekas became the school's career scoring leader in the season's third game and is also its all-time best in blocks, giving credibility to those who already feel as though he is the most decorated player in school history.

And for those slow to accept the notion, there is this: Five players in college history -- Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Bill Bradley, Christian Laettner and Keith Van Horn -- amassed career numbers of 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the line.

Fazekas has a fantastic chance to become the sixth.

"He can do so many things," said Lon Kruger, UNLV coach and former Atlanta Hawks coach. "He's big. Long. A presence on the block. He can come down as a trailer and knock down 3s. He can pop out to a wing and shoot it. He's very, very skilled. Players that good sometimes tend to just take what comes to them. [Fazekas] has gone out and worked hard and seems even hungrier now.

"Obviously, how he [translates to the NBA] is interesting because that was the question about him last year. I don't know that he's a low-post guy. They'll probably see him as a skilled four-man. But that's a tough challenge. There are good players at that spot. Very good players."

There is time for that. Fazekas still has the opportunity to join Van Horn as the only players to earn WAC Player of the Year honors three times. He still can continue to improve on last season's averages of 21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds; entering this week, he ranked 14th nationally in scoring (21.8) and first in rebounding (14.1).

There is time for the pro career beyond the parks and casinos and shopping malls, beyond the place suitably called "The Biggest Little City in the World."

"I'm not even thinking about the NBA right now," Fazekas said. "I'm focused on the present, on this season. We have a chance to be very good. We can really score. We have much better athletes this year. We have a lot of confidence that everyone can put points on the scoreboard. We have a lot more threats teams have to defend."

The main threat, though, hasn't changed. He's the one who thinks 20 and 10 isn't good enough. Go figure.

Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.