Joe Santoro: Next time, Nevada needs to bring a defense

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

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When Eric Musselman was introduced as the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball coach two years ago, he stood confidently behind a podium and a microphone and declared, “We want it to be cosmetically pleasing to the fans.”

Mighty Muss is a man of his word.

The 52-year-old coach with the boyish good looks slapped a ton of makeup on the Pack, put them on a crash diet, tweezed their eyebrows, combed their hair and even performed some plastic surgery where needed and turned the Pack into beauty contest winners. Fans flocked to Lawlor Events Center in record numbers this past season and the Pack rewarded all of the boy-band attention with a Mountain West championship and the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade.

“When we came here we told everyone that we were going to score a lot of points and play an exciting brand of basketball,” Musselman said earlier this year.

Again, mission accomplished. The past two years on north Virginia Street has produced a ton of championships, YouTube highlights, standing ovations and victories. Think New Kids on the Block, NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and One Direction with a jump shot and the ability to dunk. That’s how popular the cosmetically pleasing Pack has become in Northern Nevada.

Well, cosmetically pleasing can only carry you so far. It’s now time for the Pack to ugly things up. The Wolf Pack’s 84-73 loss to the Iowa State Cyclones on Thursday in the NCAA tournament was the college basketball version of Metallica, Whitesnake and Black Sabbath going up to the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and New Kids on the Block and stealing their lunch money. The older, more experienced and grittier Cyclones did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it and the cosmetically pleasing Pack could never do anything about it.

“It was a great learning experience,” Musselman said. “When you haven’t been in this type of situation experience really matters.”

What did the Pack learn? Hopefully they learned cosmetically pleasing only allows you to walk down the red carpet. It doesn’t get you an Oscar inside the building. For the Wolf Pack to take the next step as a program and truly dance with the big brutes of college basketball, it has to learn how to roll up its sleeves, flex its muscles and not be afraid to mess up their pretty faces once in a while.

The Wolf Pack simply never made the Cyclones feel uncomfortable on Thursday night. The Pack led for just 14 seconds. The closest they got the final 29:41 was four points and that was only for 28 seconds. The only way you make the other team feel uncomfortable in college basketball is by playing teeth-rattling, punch-to-the-gut defense. And the Pack just didn’t have that in their makeup bag this year.

The 84 points Iowa State scored is the second most the Pack has ever allowed in 11 NCAA tournament games, behind only an 87-79 loss to Montana in 2006. Iowa State’s .556 shooting percentage (30-of-54) is the highest ever allowed by the Pack in the NCAA tournament. When you give up 84 or more points in a NCAA tournament game, you’re begging to get beat. From 2008 through 2016, 120 teams have allowed 84 or more points in a game in the NCAA tournament. Just 13 of them won that game and five those had to go to overtime. The other 107 lost.

But all Musselman wanted to talk about Thursday night was his offense, which scored just 27 points and shot 30 percent (9-of-30) in the first half against Iowa State.

“We struggled to score in the first half,” Musselman said. “That was the difference in the game.”

It also didn’t help the Pack allowed 40 in the first half. That had only happened to the Pack twice (Michigan State in 2004 and Montana in 2006) in their previous 10 NCAA tournament games.

“I don’t think anybody can say we didn’t play with effort,” Musselman said. “We played as hard as we can play. All you can ask your students athletes is to play hard. And we did that.”

Nobody should ever question the effort from a Musselman-coached team. And the Pack certainly play with maximum effort on offense. At that same press conference when he met the Northern Nevada media for the first time two years ago, Musselman told everyone “I told the players today that I don’t have an offense that takes 30 seconds to run. Even if I wanted to milk the shot clock I can’t do it.“

The Pack loves playing offense under Musselman. He lets them run, have fun and shoot as often as they like. He doesn’t care if they miss. All he’s worried about is how quickly they can get the next shot up. The Pack averaged a Mountain West-best 79.8 points a game and won 28 games this year.

The Pack’s effort on defense this year? Well, it looks like they’re playing hard on defense. Sort of. Until the opponent gets near the basket, that is. And their defensive effort is certainly good enough to win a ton of games in the Mountain West. But it’s cosmetic defense. It looks good, it covers most of the wrinkles. But once they start sweating, well, the makeup runs down their face.

There were a lot of disturbing moments for the Pack defense against Iowa State. Here are a few: The Cyclones’ Deonte Burton got the ball on the left side of the lane and strolled in for a left-handed dunk and a 30-20 Cyclones lead late in the first half. The Pack’s Cam Oliver could have stepped in front of Burton, taken a charge or made him pull up for a short jumper. But all he did was weakly stick an arm in and move out of the way so Burton could electrify the crowd. With seconds to go in the first half, Burton ran the length of the floor past the Pack’s Lindsey Drew and D.J. Fenner and fed an unguarded Solomon Young for a dunk and a 40-27 lead. Darrell Bowie had an easy dunk off a pass from Burton midway through the first half. The Cyclones had eight dunks and six layups in the first half. Many of their jumpshots were easier shots than their dunks and layups.

The Pack, which can score with any team in the nation, simply could never find a way to stop the Cyclones. Iowa State made 42 percent of its 3-pointers (8-of-19), 56 percent of its shots (30-of-54) overall and 89 percent (16-of-18) of its free throws. It was as if the Pack defense wasn’t even on the floor most of the night.

Iowa State’s 84 points is the third most the Pack allowed all year. They allowed 104 in overtime to New Mexico and 85 to Washington. They won both of those games because, well, you can get away with cosmetic defense against mediocre-to-bad teams. See the Mountain West standings. The Pack was clearly the best team in the league this year but it wasn’t because of defense. They were sixth in points allowed (71.3), eighth in defensive rebounding (35.1), eighth in steals (5.40), seventh in opponents’ field goal percentage (.428).

It’s not bad defense. It’s just not good enough against the Iowa States of the world. Or the Saint Mary’s.

Those are the types of teams who now should have Musselman’s bull’s-eye on their chest. The Wolf Pack opened their season and ended it against the two toughest teams on their schedule. They lost both games rather convincingly, falling 81-63 to Saint Mary’s and 84-73 to Iowa State. Saint Mary’s shot 60 percent from the floor against the Pack and Iowa State was at 57 percent. Both teams shot over 50 percent in both the first and second half. Winning a game or two in the NCAA tournament is about beating the Saint Mary’s and Iowa States of the world. That’s what the Pack should be shooting for now.

The Pack got down by 13 against Iowa State by halftime and, well, it wasn’t time to panic. They had overcome halftime deficits of 10 or more points to win four times already this year. But Iowa State isn’t Iona, Oakland, New Mexico or Fresno State. The Cyclones weren’t going to just sit back and let the Pack overwhelm them with a flurry of threes and dunks in the second half.

“Our biggest thing is we didn’t want to give (Marcus) Marshall any good looks,” Cyclones coach Steve Prohm said.

Marshall went 2-for-10 on threes and the Pack could never get closer than four. Against teams like Iowa State you need some defensive stops to go along with your threes and dunks.

The problem with basing everything on offense is offense doesn’t always show up, especially against good teams. Marshall, Jordan Caroline and D.J. Fenner were a combined 11-for-36 (31 percent) from the floor against Iowa State. Lindsey Drew had two assists in 34 minutes. Fenner didn’t make a shot in his 20 minutes (0-for-4). The Pack were 8-of-26 from beyond the arc.

The Pack needed defense to beat Iowa State and, well, it never showed up. That’s why the Cyclones, it seemed, were only concerned with the Pack offense on Thursday.

“They are capable of doing some crazy offensive things,” Cyclones senior Naz Mitrou-Long said of the Pack.

“You watch Nevada play, they can really score,” Prohm said. “(Marcus Marshall), (Cam) Oliver, those guys can really score. (Jordan) Caroline, is very good.”

Nobody talked about the Pack defense on Thursday.

But that’s OK. For now. The Pack, after all, were all about offense this year. Musselman, who cut his offensive teeth in the nightly slam dunk contests that are the D-League, CBA and NBA, knew offense was the Pack’s quickest way to respectability and sold-out crowds after winning just nine games two years ago. It was offense that revitalized the Pack and why players like Oliver, Marshall and Caroline decided to come here in the first place.

But it’s defense that will take them all to the next level.


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