For the first time in a while, there's a buzz around the University of Nevada basketball team. To the casual fan, it's hard to imagine why. The team is coming off a 9-22 record (5-13 conference), which was good for second-to-last in the Mountain West, only finishing above the winless SJSU Spartans. They fired their coach Dave Carter, and to top it off, the Mountain West looks reloaded and as good as ever.
But it's not about what the Wolf Pack have done (or haven't done) recently, it's all about the future with new head coach Eric Musselman.
The Wolf Pack return a majority of their team from last season, including star center AJ West. Last season, West was the team's leading scorer and rebounder, and finished 3rd in the country in offensive rebound percentage. While the Pack finished in the bottom tier of the country in nearly every category last season, they finished 9th in the country in rebounding, all thanks to West.
In addition to West, the Pack return their starting guard combo with Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell. Coleman led the team in assists, but only averaged 2.3 per game, which was 18th in the conference. The Pack would be best suited to let Coleman play the point and have Criswell play as a 2-guard, due to his higher 3-point percentage and PPG.
Nevada's biggest weakness is the lack of wing depth. G DJ Fenner seems best suited to fill that role mainly because of his height (6-foot-6), however his .213 three-point percentage is too low for him to be a threat from the perimeter. They also have 6-foot-7 sophomore F Elijah Foster, although he made little impact last season.
With the team lacking anybody to play small forward or wing, we could see Eric Musselman potentially go with a three guard lineup. Personally, I love sophomore Eric Cooper Jr, and I think he could become one of the best point guards in the Mountain West. Cooper's freshman year stats closely resemble those of Jimmer Freddette's freshman campaign, and while I'm not comparing the two as players, I do think the ceiling for Cooper is very high. He should step into a bigger role this season, and I would not be surprised if he was a starter for the entire season.
I would be lying if I said that I was excited about Nevada's non-conference schedule. They only have one big non-conference opponent, as they play Wichita State on the road. The Shcokers have been very good the past few seasons and made the Final Four three years ago.
Outside of Wichita State, there's no other quality opponents on the schedule. The Pack's out-of-conference home game is Drake.
The schedule won't be an issue this season, and could help the team's confidence heading into conference play. But if Musselman wants to build something in Reno, he needs to start scheduling some home-and-homes with big programs, such as Arizona, UCLA, BYU and similar programs. They'll probably lose the majority of these games, but all they need is one upset win to make a statement to the conference and in the country.
Key to Success: Find a go-to scorer
Last season, only AJ West averaged double-digits points, most of which came from offensive rebounds. For the Pack to be successful this year, they need to find a consistent scorer that can average 15-20 points per night. Whoever steps into the role shouldn't be expected to do all of the scoring, but if one player can draw more defensive attention when he has the ball, it opens up opportunities for other players on the court. Tyron Criswell is the player who is in the best position to become the guy, but I wouldn't be surprised if Eric Cooper makes a big leap to take it.
While there have been no decisions made, I could see Eric Musselman going with a guard-heavy lineup due to a lack of forward and wing depth.
PG: Marqueze Coleman
Coleman is best suited to be the floor general, but he needs to average 10 PPG and at least 4 assists every game.
G: Tyron Criswell
Criswell should play off-the-ball guard, where he would get the most scoring opportunities.
G: Eric Cooper Jr.
Cooper needs be on the court, and it makes sense with the personnel that Nevada currently has.
F Lucas Stivrins
The forward position is definitely the Pack's weakest position, but Stivrins seems like he would be the most capable to play if Musselman goes with a more conventional lineup, as opposed to a 4 guard lineup.
C AJ West
West is the Pack's best player. He led the team in points, blocks, and rebounds last season.
Record: 21-11 (10-8 Conference)
I am absolutely drinking the Eric Musselman kool-aid. I think this team will see a drastic turnaround, and finish 6th in the conference.
Biggest Upset: Nevada beats UNLV in front of a sold-out Lawlor Events Center.
There's no question Dave Rice can recruit. It's his coaching ability that is the question, and we'll see how he matches up with Eric Musselman.
Bold Prediction: Nevada makes the NCAA Tournament
As a 6-seed in the MWC Tournament, Nevada runs the table and wins the conference tournament. They make the NCAA tournament as a 13-seed.
Warning: This take is so hot it may cause burns in the comment section.