Cam Oliver has a message to the rest of the college basketball nation.
“If we take every game seriously, if we play each game hard, we’re pretty good,” the Nevada Wolf Pack sophomore center said on Monday. “The sky’s the limit for us.”
But will pretty good be good enough? That is what the Wolf Pack is going to find out in the next three weeks with a Mountain West regular season and tournament title as well as a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line.
“I feel we’re having a great year,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said.
Great might be what it takes for the Pack to realize all its dreams. Musselman knows as well as anybody that pretty good won’t cut it for his Wolf Pack. Yes, the Pack is 21-6 this season and is without a doubt one of the top four dozen or so teams in the nation. They clearly deserve to be among the 68 teams selected to play in the NCAA Tournament next month. But teams outside of the Power Five Conference don’t get the luxury of being merely pretty good if they want to get to the NCAA Tournament.
Teams like Nevada almost have to be perfect.
“We’re not the old Nevada teams where nobody knows our players,” senior guard D.J. Fenner said. “We have a lot of talent now.”
The Wolf Pack, though, has heard all the whispers and shouts and read all of the media stories, Tweets and Facebook posts about this being a down year for the Mountain West. The league got just one team into the NCAA tournament a year ago and, well, nothing that has happened so far this season has changed that.
“If that’s the case, then I want us to be that one team,” Fenner said. “In my mind we should be that team.”
That is the mindset the Wolf Pack needs with four games remaining in the regular season and a three-game Mountain West tournament starting them in the face. They simply cannot afford to put their NCAA tournament chances in the hands of a fickle NCAA selection committee.
The last time that happened was five years ago. With four regular season games and the Western Athletic Conference tournament remaining in the 2011-12 season, the Pack was 22-4 and seemingly a lock to get into the NCAA tournament. The Pack won three of those 4 remaining regular season games, won the WAC regular season title and then lost in the second round of the postseason tournament. They presented a 26-6 record, that included a 16-game winning streak and wins over Washington and Arizona State, to the NCAA selection committee and their reward was a spot in the National Invitation Tournament and a first-round game at Oral Roberts.
Their only fault in 2011-12 was that they were not perfect. They were merely pretty good.
Pretty good is good enough if you are in the Pac-12, ACC, Big East, Big 12, SEC or Big 10. At Nevada, more often than not, you have to be nearly perfect to get into the NCAA tournament without a tournament championship on your resume. The Wolf Pack has gotten to six NCAA tournaments in its history and was only handed an at large invitation twice. The first time was in 2004-05 with a 24-6 record. But they won the WAC regular season title that year and had a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament from the year before. The only other time they got to the NCAA tournament without winning the conference tournament was 2006-07. But they were 28-4 at the time, were coming off three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and were ranked in the Top 25 the bulk of the season.
This year the Pack hasn’t even been to the NCAA tournament in a decade, let alone the Sweet 16. And your 5-year-old can count the total number of Top 25 votes the team has gotten all year combined (14 in the coach’s USA Today rankings and nine in Associated Press).
Make no mistake, an at large bid is not totally out of the realm of possibilities for the Pack this year. The Pack could sweep its final four regular season games, win two games and then lose in the conference tournament title game for a record of 27-6. It would be downright criminal if all that happened and the Pack still found itself in the NIT in the middle of March. But, don’t forget, the NCAA selection committee has done some villainous things in the past.
“Our approach right now is to just beat Boise (Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center) and on to the next one after that,” Musselman said.
Musselman, like most coaches, is not a fan of how the NCAA determines its 68 tournament teams. “It’s amazing that some conferences get eight teams in and some get one,” Musselman said. “I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this. When I was at Arizona State (as an assistant in 2013-14) we got in and I didn’t think we had a great year. Last year I thought San Diego State was great and they didn’t get in.”
Arizona State got into the 2013-14 NCAA tournament with a 21-11 record, having lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament to Stanford. The Sun Devils also were just 10-8 in conference play in the regular season. A Wolf Pack team with that resume would be lucky to get to the NIT.
The Pack is likely already a lock to get to at least the NIT this year. And that is where the Pack will likely end up if they don’t at least win the Mountain West regular season title and get at least to the tournament title game. The NCAA selection committee will look at the Pack’s resume in three weeks and see a team that does not have a victory against a Top 50 RPI team. It will also see a team that has lost four games to teams ranked from 101 or higher in RPI.
“The Saint Mary’s loss didn’t hurt us,” said Musselman of the 81-63 loss to the now 24-3 Gaels in the season opener.
But the losses to Fresno State (twice), Utah State and Iona did. The Wolf Pack has also been let down by its non-conference schedule this year. It was heads and tails tougher than a year ago but not as tough as it could have been. Wins over a 5-23 Oregon State team and a 9-18 Washington team from the Pac-12 did the Pack’s RPI (now 42) no favors. Wins over Bradley (10-19), Santa Barbara (4-21) and Loyola Marymount (13-14) also did little good. Even Irvine is just 16-12 overall and Buffalo is a mere 15-12. The Pack did play some solid teams like Oakland (21-7), Iona (18-11) and Towson (19-10) but they are nothing more than NCAA bubble teams like the Pack if they don’t win their conference.
The selection committee looks for reasons to eliminate teams that are not in Power Five conferences. The Pack, unfortunately, has given them a few already. Not winning the Mountain West tournament in a down year for the conference would be another reason.
The Pack players, though, believe the Mountain West has gotten a bad rap this year.
“Playing in the Mountain West, I see other teams and play against those guys and I know we’re a very competitive conference,” Oliver said. “We’re under the radar as far as how competitive we are.”
That competitiveness will reach a fever pitch on Wednesday when Boise State comes to Lawlor and on March 4 when Colorado State is in Reno.
“It’s about first place now,” Oliver said.
“You’ll be able to feel the electricity in Lawlor, to be sure,” Musselman said.
There is a banner at Lawlor that hangs in front of the student section behind one of the baskets. It’s labeled “The Muss Bus” and features a few Pack players pictured in a school bus with an intense Musselman in the driver’s set with his fist clenched out the window. At the bottom of the banner it reads, “On the road to the NCAA tournament.”
The Pack needs to make sure that road doesn’t have any speed bumps the rest of the way.
“It’s like Cam (Oliver) always says,” Fenner said. “He says, ‘We deserve this.” And he’s right. We’ve worked too hard and we deserve this success.”
Will the NCAA selection committee believe the same thing in a few weeks? The Pack might be best served if they don’t have to find out.
“We control our own destiny,” Fenner said.
Keep it that way.