Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a series of articles previewing the men’s basketball teams in the Mountain West Conference. Today, the Appeal looks at the University of Nevada.
When Eric Musselman met Mountain West media members last month, he was somewhat surprised to see the Wolf Pack was picked to repeat as conference champions.
“I thought we were underrated (my first year) and I think we’re overrated this year,” said Musselman, who guided Nevada to a 28-7 record last year along with the regular-season title, conference championship title and the school’s first NCAA appearance in 10 years.
“We have a lot of new guys; guys that haven’t played a game for us yet or haven’t had to travel in the conference.”
And, two exhibition games into the 2017-18 season, he came right out and blasted his team after a sub-par second half against Stanislaus State.
“The guys voting in the Mountain West have no idea (of what they are doing),” he said. “We are a mid to lower-level Mountain West team right now. Definitely not a step in the right direction. We have large issues, so many issues. We have to get back to the drawing board. We’re just not that good.”
Nevada is certainly a different team after losing guards Marcus Marshall and D.J. Fenner, and big man Cam Oliver, who opted to leave early for the NBA. Oliver went undrafted, was signed by the Houston Rockets, and was one of the last players cut by the Rockets.
That’s 50 points and 15 rebounds a game. Not an easy task to replace. And, don’t forget the 2-plus blocks a game Oliver contributed. That could be the real ingredient Nevada will lack moving forward.
“We are a different team,” Musselman said. “Anytime you lose all-conference players it’s big. We don’t have a rim protector. We’re going to play defense differently. We’re not going to have a center who is going to shoot 80 3s, either.”
The Pack does return two starters — junior point guard Lindsey Drew (5.9, 4.9) and junior forward Jordan Caroline (15.0, 9.2) — as well as sophomore guard Josh Hall (3.7, 2.6), senior forward Elijah Foster (12.0, 7.4 in 7 games) and sophomore walk-on guard Charlie Tooley (0.6, 0.3).
Caroline was the MVP of the Mountain West postseason tournament, and he was Nevada’s most consistent performer. His work ethic and energy made him a crowd favorite.
“Jordan had to play a lot of 5 last year,” Musselman said. “He’s a 2 or a 3. He plays with a lot of emotion and energy. We’re going to continue to work on his perimeter game.”
Many experts felt Caroline should have been preseason Player of the Year based on how the Nevada star finished the 2016-17 season. Caroline shrugged it off, preferring to see how things play out. He certainly will be a force to be reckoned with.
In Drew, Nevada has one of the most unselfish players in the conference. Musselman has to get on Drew because he passes up too many open shots. Drew has always been a facilitator even back in his high school days. He’s the glue that holds things together.
Hall improved by leaps and bounds at the tail end of last year, and he’s enjoyed a good exhibition season. He could be a consistent double-digit scorer. He has the ability to shoot it from the outside, and he can get to the rim.
Foster could be an “X” factor. Suspended after seven games last year because of off-court issues, he’s back but has yet to regain the form he had last year when he averaged 12.7 a game.
“He was good for us last year when he played,” Musselman said. “He is going to do a lot of little things (play defense, rebound) for us.”
Musselman does have four Division I transfers — Kendall Stephens from Purdue, Hallice Cooke from Iowa State, and Cody and Caleb Martin from North Carolina State — to replace the aforementioned trio.
Stephens averaged 7.9 points and 1.9 rebounds a game in three years at Purdue, Cooke averaged 5.4 points and 1.8 rebounds in stints at Oregon State and Iowa State. Caleb Martin averaged 8 points and 3.7 a contest, and Cody Martin averaged 5.1 and 3.7.
Stephens has been deadly from 3-point range, and he might make people forget Marshall before too long. He had nine 3s in the exhibition win over Stanislaus State.
“Marcus was able to create his own 3-point shots,” Musselman said. “We bring Kendall off screens.”
The Martin twins are both versatile, and give the Pack length on the wings.
“Cody is a unique player,” Musselman said. “He can play multiple positions for us. He will play 1, 2, 3 and 4 for us.”
Musselman said Cody Martin will present match-up problems for most teams at point guard because of his height (6-7), and he will also create issues for power forwards because of his quickness.
“Caleb is a high volume scorer,” Musselman said. “He can make 3s at a high rate. He can attack the basket.”
Cooke will give Musselman depth at both guard positions. In two seasons at Oregon State and Iowa State, he combined to shoot 42 percent from beyond the arc.