Joe Santoro: Eric Musselman is always coaching

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

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The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball coach never takes a moment off from his chosen profession. He coaches his Wolf Pack players. He coaches the Northern Nevada media. He coaches his administration. He coaches his coaches. He coaches his family.

“My mom texted me in the locker room and said, ‘Great win,’” said Musselman after Sunday’s 77-62 victory over the Radford Highlanders at Lawlor Events Center. “I said I didn’t feel like it. She said, ‘You won by 15. Would you take that two years ago?’”

Of course he would have. He gladly took it on Sunday. But there was no way Musselman was going to admit that to anyone late Sunday afternoon. Not even to dear old Mom. That’s why the hyper-energetic Wolf Pack coach took his 15-minute post-game press conference on Sunday to create some artificial drama.

“You know, 9-2,” said Musselman of his team’s won-loss record. “We hadn’t been home in a whole, the Final (exams). You could see some rust. We lacked rhythm for sure to start both halves. We had guys play good, we had some guys really struggle. The good thing is we won by 15 and we know we got to get better.”

That was as positive as Musselman allowed himself to be after the routine, systematic, lifeless victory over the overmatched Highlanders in front of a mostly bored crowd of 7,272. You see, the last thing this Wolf Pack team needs is more pats on the back and lavish praise for being 9-2 after whipping yet another unsuspecting victim at Lawlor Events Center.

This Wolf Pack team, for now, has been praised enough. It was picked to win the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles. It was voted into the Top 25. It has won 34 of 38 games in front of the home crowd over the last two-plus seasons and nobody expects them to ever lose a game at Lawlor Events Center ever again. Northern Nevada loves this Wolf Pack basketball team and this Wolf Pack basketball coach. And for good reason. This team and this coach wins, even when it plays like it would rather be on the couch back in the dorm room watching NFL games.

Musselman, though, is paid handsomely to remind everyone in silver and blue that habits formed in December, even against a Radford on a lazy Sunday afternoon, can pay off or kill you in March in the NCAA tournament against the likes of an Iowa State.

“We have to get a lot better,” Musselman said. “Just so many areas. We probably don’t have enough time (to discuss them all) because you guys want to eat dinner.”

And then, of course, he proceeded to mention some of those things.

“Even little things,” Musselman said. “Like we don’t tell teammates what the play call is. I’ll tell one player and he’ll listen and not echo it to a teammate. Just the most simple mundane things. They have to do a better job communicating, have to do a better job of getting to their spots, whether they’re inbounding the ball or whether we’re inbounding the ball, just the simple out of bounds defense, out of bounds offense.”

Communicating? The inbounds plays on offense or defense? Oh my goodness. Sound the alarm. Forget winning the Mountain West championship or going to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament in March. This Wolf Pack basketball team might not win another game.

“Our post defense was terrible tonight,” Musselman continued. “Atrocious. We can’t guard anybody individually so it is major issues in a lot of different areas. I thought our shot selection was probably the worst I’ve seen in three years here.”

Worse than Marqueze Coleman, D.J. Fenner, Tyron Criswell and Eric Cooper clanging ill-advised 3-pointers off the rim, backboard and the student section and frightening wildlife in the Sierra over a hundred miles away two years ago? It’s a wonder this 9-2 Wolf Pack team can travel from the locker room to the court without a GPS.

“It’s up to them,” Musselman said. “We’re going to coach them everyday and tell them exactly what we have to do.”

Of course he will. Nobody doubts that for even a second. That’s all he was doing in his post-game fake news negative press conference late Sunday afternoon. You don’t come to Nevada two years ago, taking over a dreadful 9-22 team that had no direction or plan, and then proceed to win 61 of your first 84 games without using every single second in the day to coach your team.

Musselman, you see, doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to remind his team in public that it isn’t an outstanding college basketball team. Radford was one of those rare opportunities and he wasn’t going to allow it to pass on by.

“If we play like we did tonight we won’t win (Tuesday at Lawlor against UC Davis),” Musselman said. “I can tell you that.”

Musselman’s team is probably in its toughest stretch mentally that it will face all season long. Radford was the first of four consecutive opponents (followed by Davis, Southern Illinois and San Francisco) that the Pack should beat easily even with a lack of communication, awful shot selection and a disastrous out of bounds defense and offense.

This is a dangerous portion of the schedule for the Pack, in between the Texas Tech and TCU games on Dec. 5 and 8 and the start of the Mountain West schedule on Dec. 27 at Fresno State. Toss in final exams, more free time once those exams are over as well as the Christmas holidays and, well, you can see why Musselman is afraid of the next 10 days or so when his team’s focus and motivation could easily wander.

The off-the-court concerns are far greater than the on-the-court challenges but that doesn‘t make it any easier. It’s easy, after all, to get motivated to play a Texas Tech or TCU and a Fresno State. Radford, Southern Illinois, UC Davis and San Francisco take some special motivation.

That’s where Musselman, a brilliant basketball psychologist, came in late Sunday afternoon.

“We didn’t play with nearly the desperation I thought we would after losing two games (against Texas Tech and TCU),” said Musselman of the Radford game. “I was totally shocked at the lack of enthusiasm to start the game.”

Nobody - the players, the fans, the media, the concession workers - had enthusiasm for Sunday’s game. First of all, it was Radford. Wolf Pack fans don’t know Radford from Harrison Ford or Boo Radley. Second of all, it was a goofy Sunday afternoon tip-off. Nobody wants to be at Lawlor on a Sunday afternoon to see Radford when the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are playing on television.

“That’s no excuse,” senior guard Kendall Stephens said. “We should be ready to play every game. Not being a Power Five school every game matters for us. We can’t look over any game.”

The Wolf Pack is only human. Yes, they play like basketball machines, churning out victory after victory, but there’s just no way a Radford on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of December is going to bring the same level of excitement and enthusiasm as a UNLV on a Wednesday night in February or a Boise State on a Saturday night in January. The Wolf Pack proved on Sunday that it can beat a Radford by 15 points with one eye on the basket and another eye on the Steelers-Patriots on their cell phones.

Did they leave their enthusiasm and energy back in their dorm rooms? Of course they did. So what? Well, Musselman, like all bundles of non-stop motivated energy, wants his team to play with the same machine-like precision and rhythm for every game. It’s not possible but that won’t ever keep Musselman from demanding it.

“We walked the ball up the floor at times,” Musselman said.

Musselman would never admit it but the 15-point victory over Radford demonstrated far more Wolf Pack positives than negatives.

As Momma Musselman said, there was a time the Pack would have organized a parade down Virginia Street after beating Radford by 15. That, alone, shows great improvement. But there were other more important Pack positives to take from the game.

Stephens showed that he can carry the team with his 3-point shooting, nailing four threes in four attempts in the first half when the Pack offense seemed stuck in the mud. Point guard Lindsey Drew returned to the offense, scoring eight points and making 3-of-6 shots after taking just three shots (making none) and scoring just two points combined against Texas Tech and TCU. The bench had more assists combined (11) than the starters (10). And, oh yeah, the Pack had a 20-2 edge in fast break points. So much for that lack of energy and enthusiasm theme.

Jordan Caroline was a beast, scoring 25 points and pulling down 15 rebounds. Cody and Caleb Martin had their worst games from a scoring standpoint (just eight combined points) since joining the active roster this year but the two twins filled the stat sheet up in different areas, combining for eight rebounds, seven assists, five blocks and two steals. Josh Hall came off the bench to score 11 points, pull down five rebounds and hand out five assists in just 24 minutes. Hallice Cooke came off the bench for two of the most brilliant passes of the night (for a Drew layup and Caroline dunk) on his way to three assists.

So, yes, maybe the Pack’s communication and out of bounds offense and defense was a little lacking. Only Musselman knows for sure. And maybe the team wasn’t playing with the same energy as it did at Texas Tech. But there was much more to like on Sunday than there was to be concerned about.

“We could play better,” Caroline said. “But we played all right. Overall we played OK. The (post-game) locker room atmosphere is fine. Nobody was upset with each other. We know what we have to do.”

They had to whip Radford and that‘s exactly what they did. So if they could do it without breaking a sweat, well, so much the better.

“We did win by double digits,” Musselman said.

That’s more like it. The Wolf Pack sky is not falling after all.


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