Wolf Pack basketball needs bench to step up, says Joe Santoro (commentary)

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Eric Musselman uttered six words in the same sentence one right after the other after last Wednesday night that we never thought he’d ever say in public.

“We had some tired guys tonight,” the Wolf Pack head basketball coach said after a 76-69 victory over the UC Irvine Anteaters at Lawlor Events Center.

Tired? The Wolf Pack? Musselman’s Wolf Pack? After just two games in the last 11 days? Is the end of days near? It’s a wonder that a silver and blue lightning bolt didn’t flash from the ceiling and strike the table behind which Musselman was sitting and set it on fire.

“When I say fatigued I don’t mean it’s because guys were playing 36 minutes or whatever,” Musselman said. “We’re all just slightly tired from the amount of games we’ve played.”

That’s more like it. The end of the world is not near after all. The Wolf Pack isn’t tired. They are merely slightly tired. Musselman’s Wolf Pack, after all, doesn’t get tired. The 52-year-old (it should be spelled muscleman) is the picture of physical health and isn’t going to let something as silly as conditioning get in the way of his team’s dreams.

“Our guys are well conditioned,” Musselman said, obviously a little defensive that the word tired was being associated with his team even though he’s the one that brought it up. “We’re not overly concerned.”

All is right in the Wolf Pack world after all. The Pack isn’t tired. How dare you suggest that? Move on.

If Musselman wasn’t the Wolf Pack coach, it would be a bit disconcerting to note that the Pack is giving just seven players meaningful minutes in games right now. It would be proper to point out that the coach seemingly only trusts five players - Cameron Oliver, Jordan Caroline, Marcus Marshall, Lindsey Drew and D.J. Fenner - in the second half of games with the outcome on the line. If Musselman wasn’t the Pack coach we would be extremely concerned that there are still 20 games remaining in the regular season, including all 18 Mountain West games, and the Pack is reduced to a roster no deeper than your typical city rec league team.

But Musselman is indeed the Wolf Pack coach (thank you, Doug Knuth) and there is no reason to worry. Well, not yet, at least.

“I don’t think our guys are worried about depth,” Musselman said.

Not yet, at least.

Roster depth and player fatigue became a legitimate Wolf Pack issue late last month when junior forward Elijah Foster was suspended after getting arrested on a domestic battery charge. The Pack was just seven games into Year Two of the Musselman era and the year was already suspiciously looking like Year One.

“We’re back to last year,” Musselman said after the first game (a 77-67 win over Pacific on Nov. 29) after Foster’s suspension.

Going back to last year is all well and good, considering the Wolf Pack won 24 games in Musselman’s first season. And if this season ends with 24 victories, it will again be a success. The Pack was 7-3 last year when senior center A.J. West suddenly quit the team and Musselman and the Pack barely blinked. It was as if West - the best player left over from the David Carter era the year before - was never on the roster to begin with.

Yes, there was an adjustment period. West’s absence, after all, left a front court to be manned by a freshman (Oliver) and a sophomore (Foster). But after going just 6-6 in their first dozen games without West, the Wolf Pack hit its stride in early February and won 11 of its last 16 and took home the College Basketball Invitational as a parting gift.

This year was going to be even better because the Wolf Pack supposedly had an abundance of talent. Yes, dependable and talented seniors Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell were gone, but in their place would come experienced and savvy veteran transfers like Marshall, Caroline and Leland King as well as talented freshmen Josh Hall and Devearl Ramsey. Add all those new faces and skills to returners Oliver, Drew and Fenner and, well, the biggest question before the year was how Musselman would find enough minutes for all of those skills and egos.

That’s not a problem anymore.

Even Musselman, who seemingly seeks out every dictionary on campus just so he can rip out the page that contains the world excuse, was a bit concerned when Foster was suspended.

“I went to every guy (in the first three days after Foster’s arrest) just to take their temperature to see how they felt,” Musselman said.

Yeah, right. When Musselman says he is taking your temperature, he is really determining how much fight you have left in your heart and mind. He wants to see who he can rely on moving forward. The Pack, Musselman said, knew enough to say all the right things.

This, after all, was not the first time Musselman tried to take their temperature. He took their temperature the minute he took over the program and made them run and train non-stop from March 2015 through August 2016. He took their temperature last December when West went back east. He took their temperature when Coleman injured his ankle late last February. He took their temperature with the CBI title on the line last April 1.

“They were all like, ‘Chill out, Coach,’” Musselman said. ‘“We’re good, man. We’re ready to step up.’ I don’t think our guys are worried about depth. We’ll figure out a way to come up with a rotation. Hey, more assists for them, more minutes, more shots, more opportunities.”

What so-called rotation has Musselman figured out in the four games since Foster’s rotation? Well, he’s figured out that he really doesn’t have much of a rotation at all. He gives Hall a ceremonial start at the beginning of games and throws King out there to give guys a brief rest now and then but all goes out the window after halftime with the game on the line. When Musselman comes out of the halftime locker room he throws Oliver, Drew, Caroline, Fenner and Marshall out onto the court and tells them to go win the game. He’s not rotating anything except his head that is constantly seeking out officials to scold.

The Fab Five (Oliver, Drew, Caroline, Fenner and Marshall) has played 357 of out of possible 400 minutes combined in the second half over the past four games combined. Drew has sat out just one minute over those four games. Caroline and Marshall have rested just three minutes each in the second half since Foster was suspended. Even Fenner, who isn’t even a starter, has missed just 11 minutes in the second half over the last four games combined. Oliver has sat out 25 minutes in the second half over the last four games combined but that is only because of foul trouble.

The non-rotation rotation in the second half is working so far. Hall gets an average of about 12 minutes of playing time early in the first half when possessions aren’t as costly and Musselman pares his roster down to the Fab Five at halftime. The Pack hasn’t lost since Foster was suspended so Musselman, at least on the surface, has indeed chilled out.

But what works against Pacific, Bradley, Washington and UC Irvine over a stretch of 16 days, might not work against Mountain West foes San Jose State, Fresno State, San Diego State and New Mexico over a grueling stretch of 11 days starting on Dec. 28.

It would be fair to point out that the Pack needs Hall, King and Ramsey to at least prove to Musselman that he can depend on them in the second half moving forward. But all of that hasn’t happened. Not yet, at least.

Hall, despite replacing Foster in the starting lineup, has played just a grand total of 14 minutes in the second half over the last four games. Over those 14 minutes he has zero points steals, blocks and assists and just one rebound.

“We’ve got to get Josh to play better or somebody else will get the opportunity,” Musselman said.

The choice to replace Hall in the starting lineup would seem to come down to either Fenner or King.

Musselman, though, likes Fenner on his bench and might not want to disturb that dynamic.

“You want pop off your bench,” Musselman said. “We had that last year with T.C. (Criswell). The worst thing you can do is when you get down in the game and you look down your bench and you don’t have a veteran.”

Musselman rarely looks down his bench in the second half of games lately. It’s Oliver, Fenner, Caroline, Drew and Marshall or bust. Fenner knows he is going to play important minutes, whether he starts the game or not. So he doesn’t complain. He saw West quit the team last December after not starting in five of six games and, well, Fenner isn’t about to allow his career to end that way.

“He understands he will play a lot regardless,” Musselman said. “We have great confidence in him. We need him to come off the bench and give us a pop.”

So don’t expect Fenner to return to the starting lineup anytime soon. If he does, it is because Musselman doesn’t like the temperature of King, Hall or Ramsey. The 6-foot-7 King, a junior who sat out last season after transferring from Brown, has played just 27 minutes in the second half over the last four games with seven points and five rebounds. Ramsey has played just two minutes over the last four games because of a thigh bruise.

David Kyle, David Cunningham, Charlie Tooley and Collin Weaver are also on the roster but they’ve combined to play just four minutes and three seconds over the last four games even with Foster gone. John Carlson, a sophomore from Damonte Ranch High, will be eligible to join the active roster in the second semester in the middle of January. But if you see Kyle, Cunningham, Tooley, Weaver or Carlson playing significant minutes from this point on, you will know that the Pack’s team temperature has turned to freezing.

So that’s it. It’s not like Musselman is coaching in the D-League anymore and can just get on the phone, make a few calls, and find players to fill holes. The Pack will play just seven players meaningful minutes in games this season and everyone will like it.

“No excuses,“ Musselman said.

The good news is that Musselman has already nursed a thin roster with an even thinner margin for error before. It happened last year at Nevada and there’s no reason why it can’t happen again. Last year the Wolf Pack even lost Coleman for four full games and parts of two others down the stretch because of an ankle injury and still managed to win the CBI title.

Yes, the goals are higher this year. But it’s still just December and players like King, Hall and Ramsey have plenty of time to gain Musselman’s trust so they can help the Fab Five win games in the second half. All it takes, after all, is hard work.

“I’m not a nap guy,” Musselman said last week. “I’m not a guy who sleeps in.”

The Pack players are well aware that there is no such thing as sleeping when Musselman is watching. And nobody gets tired. If you are a Pack player and you want to rest you wait until your eligibility runs out.

“We’re thin,” Musselman said. “We understand that.”

So move on.


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