Joe Santoro: Wolf Pack experienced and savvy

Eric Musselman during the first half against Loyola-Chicago on Nov. 27.

Eric Musselman during the first half against Loyola-Chicago on Nov. 27.

Don’t you dare call Eric Musselman old, tired, worn out or past his expiration date.

The 54-year-old Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball coach is a workout demon with abs that make Generation Z members jealous. He runs wildly into locker rooms after winning NCAA tournament games dropping F-bombs like a frat boy on spring break.

He’s the father of 8-year-old Mariah, the country’s newest Little Miss Sunshine. His wife, who could pass for a super model, was born when he was about to enter high school. And when he’s not coaching basketball or working on his abs, his nose is stuck in his cell phone like Kim Kardashian in anticipation of his next Tweet.

Age is clearly a four-letter word for Musselman, who became a professional coach before he was 25 and an NBA head coach before he was 40. He’s Benjamin Button Musselman, 54 going on 24.

Then again, however, there’s his Wolf Pack basketball team.

It’s the one area of his life Musselman doesn’t mind a gray hair or two. The Wolf Pack, which is aging like fine wine, is the oldest, most experienced, savvy team currently in the Top 25. You half expect them to eat dinner at 3 p.m. and go to bed after the 6 p.m. newscast.

“There’s a lot of veterans on that team,” Loyola-Chicago senior Marques Townes said after his Ramblers lost to the Pack 79-65 last Tuesday in Chicago. “They played like men.”

Grown men.

“They out-physicaled us and we didn’t respond,” said Townes, whose 3-pointer with six seconds left beat the Pack 69-68 last March in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

If you’re looking for the biggest reason why the Wolf Pack is considered one of the best (No. 6 in the latest national rankings) teams in the nation, look at their birth dates and long resumes. Most of these guys were born before the internet took over the world and when telephones were still attached to a cord in their house and tweets were only heard coming from up high in a tree.

Musselman has artfully crafted a team that could join AARP, apply for Medicare and get a senior discount at a movie theater. Six of his players (Caleb and Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Corey Henson and Tre’Shawn Thurman) are in their fifth year of college basketball and have flown past or are about to celebrate their 23rd birthdays. Five Pack players (Caleb Martin, Thurman, Porter, Caroline, Henson) have played 100 or more games in college. Cody Martin has played 96, Jazz Johnson has played 73 and Nisre Zouzoua has played 69.

While Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kansas’ Bill Self, Michigan’s John Beilein and even Gonzaga’s Mark Few are coaching wet-behind-the-ears kids who don’t know why they can’t check their cell phones during timeouts, Musselman’s group of senior citizens allows him to utilize his vast knowledge of the game. He’s teaching this veteran team a graduate course in how to win basketball games because, well, they can handle it.

“We’re not coaching effort and energy anymore,” Musselman said, explaining the benefit of a wealth of experience on a college roster. “We’re able to coach X’s and O’s type of things.”

Musselman, who cut his coaching teeth in the underbelly of professional basketball, has constructed the NCAA’s version of a CBA and NBA’s G League team, filled with hungry, experienced, tough and gritty players. The Wolf Pack has eight seniors on its roster, five of which (the Martins, Caroline, Porter and Thurman) currently play heavy minutes. The five teams (Gonzaga, Kansas, Duke, Virginia and Michigan) ahead of the Pack in the Associated Press rankings have just eight seniors combined and just four of them play significant minutes. Every dribble, every pass this Pack team makes simply drips with experience, craftsmanship and understanding of the game of basketball. They pass the ball like the Harlem Globetrotters and seemingly shoot the ball with enough confidence to do it blindfolded.

“They pass up good shots for great shots,” Musselman said.

There are NBA teams that don’t do that.

The Wolf Pack is 13th in the nation in scoring at 88 points game. They’ve beaten all eight of their opponents by an average of almost two dozen points. When opponents throw a zone defense against them, the Pack veterans smile and start to drool.

“When we are in our zone offense the ball moves a little bit more,” Musselman said. “It gets first side, second side, third side a little bit quicker.”

Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal, Goose Tatum, Marques Haynes and Nat Sweetwater Clifton never passed the ball better than this Pack team.

“It’s just about the love of the game at this point and wanting to prove ourselves,” said Johnson, just a youngster on this team in his junior year and fourth year in college basketball.

The Martins and Caroline, make no mistake, run this team, spiritually, physically and mentally. The strength of the Pack is those three hungry wolves, the heart and soul of everything Musselman has created at Nevada. They went through the Sweet 16 run last year. Caroline has been with the Wolf Pack as long as Musselman, joining the program before the 2015-16 season. The Martins have been honorary Musselman family members ever since they left North Carolina State after the 2015-16 season.

Those three set the tone for this season when they did the mature, adult thing last spring and summer. They turned down the lure of professional basketball to stay at Nevada.

Who does that in this day and age of college basketball?

“Caleb, Cody and Jordan are doing what we thought they’d do,” Musselman said.

They do what Musselman taught them to do.

“They integrate us perfectly,” Johnson said. “They share the ball, they are making it a team thing. They are incredible leaders doing everything we need to win.”

Johnson and Thurman spent last year becoming Musselman players, sitting out the year and practicing with the team. Porter, a graduate transfer from Old Dominion and George Mason, joined the Pack just last spring and didn’t have the benefit of a year of Musselman tutelage. But those three have blended in with the Martins and Caroline perfectly, on and off the court to form a powerful fist of a basketball team that just demoralizes opponents.

“Even though we didn’t play (last year),” Johnson said, “we played a big part in that team’s success because we helped those guys prepare for every game.”

Johnson, Porter and Thurman speak and act (and play) as if they’ve been with Musselman’s Pack for years.

“Look at how far we’ve come since (an exhibition game last month against Washington),” Johnson said. “We’ve come a long way. It’s actually remarkable to see how much growth we’ve made in such a short period of time and I’m excited to see how much more growth we can make.”

“We keep progressing in the right direction,” Porter said. “The great thing about this team is that no one person has to carry the load.”

Not one single person even dares to try to carry the load, unless of course, it’s the Martins or Caroline. They’ve earned the right to take over games when they see fit and have done so on numerous occasions already this year. But there’s only one driver on this Muss Bus and it’s the guy with the abs, supermodel wife and cute-as-a-button daughter.

“We have veteran players,” Musselman said. “They are smart and like playing with each other.”

And they love playing for the coach who’s liable to drop an F-bomb or lift up his shirt at a moment’s notice. Musselman, though, acts young so they don’t have to. Young teams, unless they have a Carmelo Anthony like the 2003 Syracuse Orangemen or a Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones like the 2015 Duke Blue Devils or an Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague like the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats, don’t win NCAA tournaments.

Musselman has built a leather-tough, experienced group that has one goal in mind — to help the Martins and Caroline win a national title. The new parts this year have only added to that toughness and grit.

The 6-8 Thurman, who spent three years playing at Omaha before coming to the Pack, has added incredible toughness, grit and maturity to this Pack team along with the 6-foot-11 Porter.

“We have to stick together,” said Thurman, before the Pack took on USC last Saturday. “If we’re not tough those guys will run us out of the gym. That’s the first thing, we have to be tough.”

If you’re going to select an all-time Tough Wolf Pack team, both physically and mentally, Thurman might be your first pick.

“We have to stay hungry,” Thurman said.

Johnson, Thurman and Porter have only played eight games in a Pack uniform but they’re already team leaders. Yes, they’ve been productive on the court. Porter is averaging 7.4 points and 5.1 rebounds, Johnson is scoring at a 12.3 clip with nearly three threes a game and Thurman does a little of everything with 9.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and roughly an assist, steal and a block every game. But their true value has been their ability to quickly blend in and become part of what Musselman has been building since 2015.

“We all have to be on the same page,” Thurman said. “If one person is not on that page, it’s going to mess up the book.”

A coach couldn’t have said it any better.

Thurman is the type of player who doesn’t even have to score to be valuable. Musselman hardly dared to take him off the floor at Loyola last week, playing him 36 minutes, even though he scored just one point. Toughness, after all, doesn’t have to show up in the scoring column.

“He did what we needed him to do,” Musselman said.

There might not be a more mature team than this Wolf Pack team in all of college basketball. That maturity shows up best in how it’s handled all of the ridiculous media attention and hype it’s received since the end of last season’s NCAA tournament. A weaker-minded team might have gotten knocked off course by all of the attention. None of the players on this Pack team, after all, have been part of a Top 10 team before. None of them have ever been past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, let alone experienced what it’s like to be a Final Four favorite. Caroline played at Southern Illinois, Johnson at Portland, Porter at Old Dominion and George Mason (about a decade after the Patriots went to the final Four in 2006), Thurman at Omaha. Those aren’t schools that normally jostle with Duke and Kansas in the Top 10.

But this group of players has handled the hype better than maybe even their coach. Musselman, it seems, loves the praise and attention from the national media. If he’s not coaching or looking at his cell phone or doing ab crunches he’s likely doing a national media interview. This, after all, is his time to reap the benefits of grinding out a career spent coaching forgotten players in empty gyms all over the world. And he’s not missing a beat.

But that, too, is a strength of this team. Some coaches would look at the hype and attention as the one thing that can destroy a season. Musselman, who gets his showman and entertaining skills from his father Bill Musselman, one of the sport’s greatest showmen, looks at the attention as something that enhances the experience. His veteran players have handled it with ease maybe because Musselman has told them it isn’t something to be afraid of. They enjoy it, they embrace it and they keep it in perspective.

“If you read into what the media says about you, that you are this team or that team, you’ll become that team,” Thurman said. “You’ll lose your fight.”

That’s one thing you’ll never have to worry about with this team. With this bunch of veteran warriors, this team will never lose its fight.

“You can’t win for the media,” Thurman said. “You don’t want to win for bragging rights, you don’t want to win for the attention, you have to win for yourself. Our guys want to win for us, for our team.”

Thurman summed up this Wolf Pack team perfectly.

“Two dogs come to a fight and one is hungrier than the other one, the hungry one is going to win,” he said. “It’s an inner hunger within ourselves.”

This veteran team knows it’s in the middle of something special. And they want to savor every last dribble.

“When you are in a position like this you can’t look past any game,” Cody Martin said. “Every game is extremely important. At the end of the day, we are going to compete with everybody on our schedule.”

The Wolf Pack is playing a grown man’s type of basketball this year with grown man goals. It’s going to fight you and compete with you as long as the clock keeps ticking. And nobody is going to get in the way. Just ask Pacific (83-61), Little Rock (87-59), California Baptist (90-55), BYU (86-70), Massachusetts (110-87), Loyola (79-65), USC (73-61) and Tulsa (96-86).

“We just want to make sure we take advantage of the time we have as a team, as a program,” Cody Martin said. “We have a lot of seniors. It’s our last season together.”


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