A potentially explosive scorer and elite point guard, UNR junior Deonte Burton is a better player than he was last year at this time. Some things around him have changed, however, and not for the better.
He’s in a strangely unfamiliar situation as he leads the Wolf Pack back to Las Vegas for a different conference tournament.
A year ago, Burton was the Player of the Year for the regular-season champions in the Western Athletic Conference. Now, he’s a third-team player, and UNR has gone from 28 wins and first in the WAC to worst in the Mountain West.
“I knew we were not going to come into this conference and dominate,” he said. “We definitely got a reality check. But this is our chance right now to turn our season around. To me, it’s starting over right here at this tournament. We’ve got to show everybody that we can play in this league, and we have the potential.”
The ninth seed in the MW tournament, UNR (12-18, 3-13) meets No. 8 Wyoming (18-12, 4-12) at 5 p.m today in the play-in game at the Thomas & Mack Center. The Cowboys are 3-point favorites. The winner advances to play top-seeded New Mexico on Wednesday.
Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt said he hopes to put his regular starters on the floor, including senior forward Leonard Washington, who has been bothered by ankle and back injuries since mid-February.
The Wolf Pack, on a seven-game losing streak, scored only 48 points in each of their two double-digit losses to the Cowboys this season.
But Burton (15.9 points per game) and senior Malik Story (16.6) form a high-scoring backcourt that Shyatt said “can light you up.”
Burton, who has started all 97 games at the point in three seasons at UNR, said, “We’re going to get our points, but we need other guys to step up.”
The 6-foot-1-inch Burton might not return for his senior season, acknowledging he will consider entering the NBA Draft if it appears he could be a second-round pick.
“If you looked into a crystal ball, and in five years he’s in the NBA, I could believe it,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He’s got that kind of talent.”
Wolf Pack coach David Carter, who would face a tougher rebuilding job without Burton next season, said, “I hope he’s back, and I think he’s going to be back. But you just never know.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.