Joe Santoro: Musselman feels the agony of winning

Nevada's Cody Martin battles for a loose ball against Illinois State on Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center.

Nevada's Cody Martin battles for a loose ball against Illinois State on Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center.

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The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is so good that it is making its coach nervous.

“I feel more angst this year,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said after Wednesday night’s 98-68 victory over Illinois State at Lawlor Events Center. “I don’t know if the guys feel it, but I’m a little more uptight during the week before a game and on game day than I’ve been before. It’s because we’re in a different state than we’ve been.”

It’s a state of excellence. The Wolf Pack is now 7-0, matching the 2006-07 Wolf Pack for the best start in school history since the 1951-52 Pack won its first 14.

“I feel more anxious because we feel like we can win,” Musselman said. “I feel it.”

When Musselman utters the word win, he actually means dominate. The Wolf Pack has won its seven games by an average of 19 points. It has already beaten two teams (Santa Clara and Illinois State) by 30 points. The 2006-07 team, by comparison, won its first seven games by an average of 16.4 points. That team didn’t beat a team by 30 points until March.

“We’re rolling,” junior forward Jordan Caroline said. “But we can get even better. We’re not at our peak. We’re rising.”

It’s hard to imagine a college basketball team playing better than the Wolf Pack played against Illinois State. The Redbirds jumped out to a 9-0 lead about 90 seconds into the game and still looked at a 15-point deficit by halftime. The Wolf Pack led by double digits over the final 24:24 and never let the Redbirds even sniff a comeback.

The Wolf Pack invited Illinois State over to its home for a post-Thanksgiving dinner and then didn’t allow the Redbirds to eat. The Wolf Pack led in rebounds (42-24), outscored the Redbirds 36-20 in the paint, hit more threes (14-12), more free throws (14-8) and dished out more assists (25-14). The best stat of the night? The Pack never allowed Illinois State to score even a single second-chance point.

The Wolf Pack strangled the Redbirds so thoroughly that the appreciative crowd of 8,293 started walking out of the building with about five minutes to play. That’s because the game looked like a glorified Wolf Pack practice for much of the second half.

“That’s what we are always telling them,” Musselman said. “We tell them, ‘You better play your minutes because there are guys on the bench who deserve to play just as much as you do. If you don’t play with max effort every second you are out there all you are doing is cheating your friends, your teammates.”

This Wolf Pack seems to play just as hard when it has a 20-point lead as it does when it is trailing. The Pack led by 15 (51-36) at the half and never let Illinois State get closer than 12 in the second half. Illinois State cut the Pack lead to 14 (62-48) with 13 minutes to go and the Pack seemed to take that personally. Caroline went inside for a dunk and later completed a 3-point play, Caleb Martin hit a 3-pointer and Josh Hall had a pair of layups and, before you knew it, that comfortable 14-point lead became a 23-point blowout less than three minutes later.

“These guys get it,” Musselman said. “It’s such a good feeling to have a group of guys who play hard for 40 minutes and not just 37 or 36.”

When Musselman utters the word group, he means the entire team.

Stephens drained five 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 19 points. Caroline came off the bench to score 20 points in 24 minutes. Cody Martin had 11 points and seven assists. Caleb Martin had 21 points and seven rebounds. Hallice Cooke chipped in with a pair of 3-pointers off the bench. Hall had six points, seven boards and three assists in 25 minutes. Even fan favorite Charlie Tooley, who played a grand total of three minutes over the first six games without scoring a point, drilled a 3-pointer to cap off the scoring with 13 seconds left to play. The crowd, many of which were already in their cars on the way home, gave Tooley the biggest cheer of the night.

“With this group of guys, our chemistry clicked right from the start,” Caleb Martin said. “You guys (the media) don’t see it, but we’re always spending time together off the court. We hang out all the time. Just last night we all got together and watched (the movie) Home Alone. We just have so much team chemistry and so much trust in each other.”

The Wolf Pack just might be the most unselfish team in the nation. The 25 assists on 35 successful field goals on Wednesday only tells half the story.

“We had a goal of getting 200 passes in a game,” Musselman said. “And we had 223 passes tonight. I never thought we’d ever get to 200. Our ball movement was fantastic.”

At times it was a work of art.

Cody Martin fed Cooke to the right of the lane who, in turn, fed Caroline streaking down the middle of the lane for a dunk and a 47-33 lead with 1:48 to go in the first half. Cody Martin dived near mid-court, swiped at the ball with one hand as he was about to hit the floor, passing the ball to his brother Caleb who promptly passed it back to Cody. Cody then connected with Caroline for another dunk and a 62-46 lead with 13:18 to play. Josh Hall fed Caroline less than a minute later for a dunk and a 64-48 lead. Hall converted a dunk for a 72-51 lead off a pass from Cooke with 10:20 to play. Cody Martin fed Hall for a layup and a 74-51 lead a minute later.

It was like that all game long.

“Our ball movement had to be good to get so many open threes,” Caleb Martin said. “This is the best shooting team I’ve ever been on. We just have so many threats.”

The way things look now, Musselman will be a nervous wreck as this season progresses.

“Every game is like the Super Bowl,” Caroline said. “We know how important every game is.”


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