RENO — At the time, it sounded like wishful thinking, and maybe the naive optimism of youth. Now, the words uttered by Deonte Burton are purely prophetic.
In April, when announcing he would not ditch school for the NBA Draft, Burton said he was returning to attend to “unfinished business.” In its first season in the Mountain West, UNR finished last. Burton easily could have jumped off what appeared to be a sinking ship.
Instead, he returned to lift the Wolf Pack from the depths of the league, and his risk is being rewarded. The team is on the rise, and the 6-foot-1-inch point guard — one of the top dunkers in college basketball — has seen his draft stock elevate.
The No. 3 seed in the conference tournament is on the line when UNR (14-16, 9-8) hosts UNLV (19-11, 10-7) at 7:05 p.m. today at Lawlor Events Center, where Burton and two others will be honored on Senior Night.
“It’s going to be very emotional. Deonte will be emotional,” Wolf Pack coach David Carter said. “The seniors want to go out a winner. I talked to them about treating it as just another game and not getting too high and trying to be a hero.
“But it’s going to be hard. They want to win, and you’re playing the Rebels. We’ve only beaten them once.”
Burton played the hero role in that win, scoring 29 points in a 74-71 upset of UNLV on Jan. 8. It stopped UNR’s eight-game series losing streak.
The Rebels will look a lot different in the rematch. Two junior starters — guard Bryce Dejean-Jones and forward Roscoe Smith — are sidelined for separate reasons.
Dejean-Jones, the team’s leading scorer at 13.4 points per game, was suspended for the regular-season finale for conduct detrimental to the team. His conduct was strictly related to attitude and behavioral issues after UNLV’s 73-64 loss to No. 10 San Diego State on Wednesday. Smith, the team’s top rebounder, will miss his second consecutive game while recovering from a concussion.
Junior guard Jelan Kendrick will start in Dejean-Jones’ absence, and senior Carlos Lopez-Sosa and freshman Chris Wood are set to split time in Smith’s spot.
“We were playing at a high level last week, and then Roscoe went down and now we have Bryce’s suspension,” coach Dave Rice said. “We will compete, and it does present opportunities for other guys.”
The Rebels are short-handed, but as 1½-point underdogs, it’s not as if they have no shot.
“There’s a lot on the line,” Carter said. “We can’t approach it like it’s going to be easy. I know that’s not what fans think. But it scares me because there’s an opportunity for someone else to step up and play well. We have to respect everyone on their roster who’s going to play. UNLV is a very deep team with a lot of talent.”
Burton, who has started all 128 games of his career and ranks second all time at UNR with 2,056 points, will be the most talented player on the floor. In June, he figures to be the first player drafted from the Mountain West.
A year ago, with the Wolf Pack off a 3-13 finish in the conference, Burton was considered a late second-round prospect by most NBA scouts. His shooting accuracy suffered while he tried to carry a bad team.
“I was concerned about him not coming back,” Carter said. “The way the season ended, the feeling in the locker room wasn’t great.”
But Burton, from Compton Centennial High School in Los Angeles, wanted to graduate, and he’s on schedule to reach that goal in May. He also wanted to lead a rebuilt, resurgent team and improve his image for the draft.
“It meant a lot for him to come back. The impact he’s had has been incredible,” Carter said. “I don’t know if he will be a first-round pick, because it’s a deep draft, but there are quite a few teams that like him.”
The Wolf Pack dropped five straight games in February but bounced back behind Burton, who is averaging 19.9 points and taking care of unfinished business.
“To be in position to be third in the conference is a great accomplishment,” Carter said. “That’s a huge jump in one year.”
For the Rebels, a loss could send them tumbling to the No. 5 seed in next week’s MW tournament at the Thomas &Mack Center.
“It starts with Burton, and it’s a big night for those guys,” Rice said. “We didn’t play very well the first time against them, and we understand how hard it’s going to be to get Burton stopped.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.