Nevada’s fall from NCAA Tournament title contenders to a first-round exit was a process that accumulated over a hard-fought season. Ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation, the Wolf Pack struggled to handle the national spotlight and meet their own expectations, but this particular team will go down as one of the best in school history.
From the sold-out crowds at Lawlor Events Center to the several school records they broke along the way, this senior-led group put a stamp on a historic Nevada basketball season.
Nevada entered the year with high expectations and didn’t disappoint in the regular season. Apart from a few slip-ups against San Diego State and Utah State during the home stretch, The Pack closed the year on a high note and won its third-straight conference title. The Pack secured a first-round bye and carried some momentum heading into the Mountain West Tournament.
“If you would’ve told me at the beginning of the year we’re 28-3 and headed into the Mountain West Tournament as a No.1 seed I would’ve said sign me up, where do I sign?” Eric Musselman said in a post-game press conference after an 81-53 victory over SDSU on Saturday, March 9.
Over time, opponents paid close attention to Nevada’s weaknesses on the offensive end. The two losses to San Diego State showed the Pack can be outmatched inside, battling for second-chance points to keep Jordan Caroline clogged up in the paint and the Martin twins held in check on the perimeter.
The Florida Gators used that same formula to end Nevada’s season earlier than expected. Florida’s Kevarrius Hayes dominated the paint while guards KeVaughn Allen and Andrew Nembhard stifled Caleb Martin to 5-21 shooting from the field. The Wolf Pack finished with a 29-6 record — the most wins in school history since 2006-07 — but lost four of its final nine games when the lights were shining the brightest.
“This stuff is really hard, just to win consistently,” head coach Eric Musselman said after a 74-68 win over Fresno State Feb. 23. “People start writing and everyone is talking about us slipping but it’s hard to win a game every night.”
Double-digit blowouts didn’t come as easy for The Pack during the second half of the season. Nevada was forced to grind out games against physical squads such as Boise State and Fresno State by battling in the paint and winning the second-chance balls.
Fatigue and minor injuries started to come into the picture as a result, Cody Martin battled flu-like symptoms before the NCAA Tournament. Caroline was absent in the Pack’s 65-56 loss to the Aztecs in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals with a nagging Achilles injury.
“We’ve got some banged up bodies for sure,” Musselman said in a post-game press conference. “During these last couple weeks, we are a fatigued group right now so we need to manage that.”
Winning in tough road environments was Nevada’s real Achilles’ heel this season. The Wolf Pack were a perfect 15-0 at home compared to 9-3 on the road, including a 5-2 record in neutral site games. They average 82.1 points per game at home and 77.2 on the road, but the real difference lies in their offensive struggles away from the Biggest Little City.
Nevada shot 46.2 percent on the road to 49.5 percent at home. The same translated from beyond the arc. They shot 31.4 percent from three on just over 25 attempts per game on the road compared to 38.6 percent from behind the arc on 26 attempts. Its heavy reliance on the three-pointer put them down double digits in the early going against the Lobos en-route to a season-high 27-point defeat.
To their credit, the Wolf Pack’s travel schedule was a bit hectic at times this season. Nevada played two-straight road games six times this season. One of which included a three-game travel stint from Chicago against Loyola, Chicago to Los Angeles to face the USC Trojans and to Arizona State against the Sun Devils. The travel between the east and west coast cities via plane totaled 1,739 miles.
In a four-day span, Nevada made the 870.4 mile trip from Laramie, Wyoming to San Diego, California without much leeway time in between. Following its 65-57 loss to the Aztecs, the Pack made a late plane ride back to Reno and had to prepare for the Fresno State Bulldogs.
“Every night is a grind in this league with the way we travel,” Musselman said. “You take all the top 25 teams and it’s surprising. Coming back from San Diego State, we didn’t get home until 1:30 in the afternoon and we had to have a practice.”
Despite the disappointing ending to the season, Nevada’s production was up there with the best teams in the nation. The Pack ranked as high as 18th in ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index and held its opponents to sub-40 percent shooting 12 times. They dominated the Mountain West in multiple offensive and defensive categories including 80.1 points per game at a 13.3 margin.
As a whole, the Wolf Pack’s season was a successful one for a mid-major program.
“It’s really hard to go through the obstacles you go through as a mid-major and play at this pace,” Musselman said. “That’s why I think it’s hard for them to go through the season and some of the records they have compared to other teams.”
On the floor, Nevada’s postseason success rested on the shoulders of the regular starting five of Tre’Shawn Thurman, Trey Porter, Caroline and the Martin twins. Musselman implemented a short seven-to-eight man rotation for the good part of the season, with junior guard Jazz Johnson and freshman forward Jordan Brown serving as the main contributors off the bench. Nisre Zouzoua and Corey Henson also saw time this season.
All fifth-year seniors, this particular starting five accumulated for 62.4 percent of the points this season, scoring 1,712 of the 2,753 total points in 28 games played. They also were responsible for putting on a show in downtown Reno which ultimately broke the school attendance record of 163,169. On top of that, five total seniors on the team scored 1,000 career points or more to top another school record. Their 22-1 record was the best start in school history after 23 games.
Nevada’s record-setting season was cut short for a multitude of reasons, but this Pack team will truly be missed and will be remembered as one of the greatest to ever step foot at Lawlor Events Center.