Santoro: Muss has solutions in search of problems

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

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Eric Musselman always needs something to worry about, tinker with and fix when it concerns his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.

This week’s subject is offense.

“We’ve got to get better offensively,” said Musselman after Saturday’s 72-68 victory over South Dakota State at Lawlor Events Center.

Keep in mind the Wolf Pack is ranked No. 6 in the nation in both major polls, was one of just nine undefeated Division I schools in the nation as of Tuesday morning and is the 29th best scoring team in the nation at 83.8 points a game.

How much better can the Wolf Pack get on offense? The Pack has improved offensively each year Musselman has been in Reno, from 75.7 points a game in 2015-16 to 79.8 in 2016-17, 82.6 a year ago and 83.8 this year. This is a team that has already scored 80 or more points in six games this year and has reached 90 or more three times. But if Musselman says this team has to get better scoring the basketball, you can bet it will.

Or else.

“We really struggled scoring the ball,” Musselman said last Saturday.

You must understand Musselman’s goal this season was not to be undefeated in November and December. His ultimate goal for this magical Wolf Pack season has always been to be undefeated from March 19 through April 8, the dates of the NCAA tournament, also known as the real Wolf Pack season. So, brace yourself, Wolf Pack fans. Fussy Mussy is going to obsess about every single, little, minute, infinitesimal detail until then. And if it means even driving his best player crazy right now, well, so be it.

“I have to be way more productive, way more efficient,” Wolf Pack senior Caleb Martin said. “I suck. I suck right now. Suck, suck, suck.”

Keep in mind Martin was saying those things after scoring 20 points on four 3-pointers to go along with five assists, four rebounds, three steals and a block. It was the type of performance 99 percent of the players in the nation could only dream of.

But Fussy Mussy wasn’t happy with the offense after the game so the team’s best offensive player also wasn’t happy.

“I have to get a lot better,” Martin said. “That’s a lot on me.”

That attention (obsession?) to detail, Wolf Pack fans, is why this team, this coach, these players, are ranked No. 6 in the nation. This coach and these players lose sleep over and are haunted by every tiny, minuscule bounce of the basketball that doesn’t go as planned on the court. Just like you do. That’s because, just like you, their goal isn’t solely to beat South Dakota State at home in the middle of December. The goal is to beat Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee or Ohio State or anyone else in late March and early April. So, yes, scoring 72 points at home in December against South Dakota State isn’t a good omen for beating Duke, Kansas and North Carolina in a strange gym in late March or early April.

“When you win games sometimes you can get comfortable,” said Musselman, who really does not know the meaning of the word comfortable as far as the basketball court is concerned. “You can’t mess with the game or it’s going to come back and get you at some point.”

As far as Musselman is concerned, he has been messing with the game lately. Ever since his Wolf Pack allowed 91 points (52 in the second half) in an exhibition loss to Washington back in October, he has been hyperventilating about the Pack’s defense. That fixation on the defense reached a fever pitch last week as the Pack got ready to face South Dakota State and its scoring machines Mike Daum and David Jenkins, who were averaging nearly 50 point a game combined.

“If I had to go back and reevaluate our preparation, we probably spent 98 percent preparation for South Dakota State on defense,” Musselman said.

That preparation, by the way, is the reason why the Pack is 11-0 this morning and not 10-1. The Pack held Daum and Jenkins to five points each. But in Musselman’s beautiful basketball mind he left a detail out of his preparation this week. And it nearly cost his team a perfect season.

“I have to get better as a coach,” he said. “I have to spend more time offensively on what the other team is trying to dictate, to make the game easier on our guys from an offensive standpoint, instead of me solely focusing on the defense and our staff focusing solely on the defense.”

Keep in mind, Musselman getting better as a coach is sort of like Da Vinci getting better as a painter and Michelangelo improving as a sculptor. And Musselman focusing on the defense is sort of like Da Vinci focusing on Mona Lisa’s smile and Michaelangelo focusing on David’s physique.

That focus and obsession worked for Da Vinci, Michelangelo and, yes, Musselman. The end result of that focus was a beautiful piece of art and a December basketball victory at home in a game that had booby trap written all over it. That Pack defense, which allowed 91 points to Washington before Nevada Day, has held its last five opponents to under 70 points, the first time that has happened since Musselman came to Nevada. Just two teams (Tulsa and Massachusetts in 11 and 23-point Pack wins) have scored more than 70 on the Pack this year.

When Musselman sees a problem, after all, he attacks it and that problem disappears. But don’t tell that to Musselangelo, the greatest sculptor in Wolf Pack history.

“There’s two sides of the ball and that’s something I definitely have to get better at,” Musselman said.

OK, we’ll play along and declare a state of emergency on the Wolf Pack offense. And, guess what? Musselman might be right. Go figure. The guy who has been right about absolutely everything since he came to Nevada in the spring of 2015 is right about this, too.

Sort of. The Wolf Pack’s offense has been downright OK lately. The Pack is averaging a mere 74 points a game over its last five games after averaging 92 over its first six. Its best offensive output over the last five games was 79 points at Loyola Chicago. Its worst offensive output over its first six games was 83 points against Pacific.

The Wolf Pack shot .487 from the floor over its first six games and has shot .451 over its last five. The Pack shot .382 on threes in its first six games and has shot just .292 over its last five. They made 24 free throws a game over the first six games and have made 16 a game over the last five.

“We make it a little tough on ourselves at times,” said 6-foot-11 senior center Trey Porter, whose specialty is making it tough on opposing centers.

Porter said Musselman (surprise, surprise) was a bit direct with the Pack players at halftime of the South Dakota State game. The Pack had just nine total successful field goals (only one that wasn’t a 3-pointer) and was shooting just 32 percent from the floor to go along with just seven successful free throws and 33 points in the first half.

South Dakota State, which like most teams knew it couldn’t physically stand up to the Pack’s offense, just sat back on defense and let the Pack shoot.

“They stood in the lane and played a sagging man to man and dared us to shoot threes,” Musselman said.

And the Pack, which never backs down from a challenge, obliged and missed 29 of its school-record 39 3-point attempts. Those 29 missed threes, by the way, are a record for the Musselman era at Nevada.

“Coach Muss, if we’re really playing bad, he really gets on us . . .,” Porter said, stopping himself short of saying something that might cost him playing time. “At halftime Coach Muss really gets into what he’s really disappointed in.”

The message was clear.

“He just said there’s no reason why we should be shooting 32 percent from the floor and we have to start attacking the rim a little bit more,” said Porter, who obviously left a few words out of that message 8-year-old Mariah Musselman shouldn’t hear from her father.

The Pack listened to its coach. Sort of. The results were better — 35 percent from the floor, 39 points on 13 field goals (just two 3-pointers) and 11 free throws — but it wasn’t exactly the second coming of Paul Westhead’s 1989-90 Loyola Marymount Lions with Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers.

Musselman, who treats every missed shot as if someone just kicked him in the ankle, is much more comfortable with that Pack team that was averaging 90-plus points a game to start the season. So, what needs to be fixed? Well, a lot of things. But, rest assured, there’s nothing to be alarmed about. The Pack is simply in that pre-holiday, non-conference part of the season that historically brings about malaise, boredom and mental fatigue. For weaker teams, it usually means an unexpected loss or two. For great teams like the Pack, it just means a decline in efficiency.

Don’t forget that the first six games when the Pack was putting up video game numbers on offense all the games were in the state of Nevada, four at Lawlor Events Center and two in Las Vegas (the Pack’s second home). Since then the rims, crowds and officials for the most part have gotten much less friendly and the offense has, well, hit some speed bumps.

Caleb Martin is just 6-of-32 on 3-pointers over his last thee games. Jordan Caroline has turned the ball over 13 times in his last five games after doing so just seven times in the first six games. Jazz Johnson, who didn’t even play against South Dakota State because of a concussion, had 17 successful 3-pointers over the first five games. Since then he’s made just eight in five games. Cody Martin had 31 assists in the first three games and has had 36 over the last eight.

The biggest reason for the decrease in offense, though, just might be the Wolf Pack’s rapidly vanishing bench.

The supposedly deepest team in Wolf Pack history is beginning to look like just about every other Pack team. Musselman is back to his old tried and true ways of playing six or seven guys a game.

Freshman Jordan Brown played 89 minutes over the first five games and scored 42 points and has played just 35 minutes over the last six with eight points. Corey Henson played 86 minutes over the first six games and scored 26 points and has played just 17 minutes and scored three points over the last five games. Nisre Zouzoua played 50 minutes and scored 12 points over the first four games and has played 28 minutes over the last seven games with five points.

Four of the starters (Cody and Caleb Martin, Caroline and Tre’Shawn Thurman) are already playing heavy minutes. Caleb has played 194 out of a possible 200 minutes over the last five games. Cody has played 217-of-240 over the last six games. Caroline has played 262-of-280 minutes over the last seven games and Thurman has played 167-of-200 over the last 200. Shooting percentages tend to fall as players become fatigued.

Johnson, it seems, is the only bench player Musselman trusts with valuable playing time right now and he wasn’t even available against South Dakota State. Johnson played 265 total minutes over the first 10 games and averaged 12.6 points a game and the Pack missed him dearly against South Dakota State.

“Jazz is a big piece for us,” Caleb Martin said. “It probably would have drawn out (South Dakota State’s sagging ) defense out a little more just by having him hit a couple threes.”

Johnson’s threes do more than simply add three points to the Pack point totals and alter the defense. Each one of his bombs seems to electrify the team (and the Lawlor crowd). Johnson drains a three and suddenly everyone is hitting them. He’s a human performance enhancing drug for the entire team. The Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s had Vinnie Johnson, who was called “the Microwave“ for the way he heated up the Pistons’ offense. Jazz Johnson is the Pack’s microwave.

But the Wolf Pack likely needs to find Johnson a reliable partner off the bench. Johnson made 17 3-pointers over the Pack’s first five games when he was still a secret and opposing defenses still obsessed over the Martins and Caroline. Since then, though, opposing coaches have seen Johnson all over the Pack’s game film hitting threes from every corner of the arena. He’s made just eight threes over his last five games (just two against Loyola Chicago, Massachusetts and Arizona State combined).

The help for Johnson off the bench is there for the asking. Musselman’s job is to bring it out.

Zouzoua was given 15 minutes in Johnson’s absence against South Dakota State and he responded by missing seven of his eight shots overall and all six from beyond the arc. The junior made 154 3-pointers in just two seasons at Bryant and is just 2-for-19 in a Wolf Pack uniform. Henson, a senior, made 180 threes in three seasons at Wagner but is just 5-of-17 at Nevada.

With Zouzoua and Henson struggling (and Brown watching most of the games from the bench) the Pack offense is likely operating at about 65 percent capacity right now.

“Niz and Corey, those guys are capable of hitting three or four threes in a game,” Caleb Martin said. “It’s just hard sometimes coming off the bench like that. Niz and Corey are easily capable of stepping up and making shots.”

Martin and the Pack haven’t lost confidence in either Zouzoua or Henson simply because they’ve seen them both hit threes all day long in practice over the past two seasons (they sat out last season at Nevada).

“I know a game is coming for them,” Caleb Martin said. “I’m not worried about it.”

That’s how good this Pack team is, Pack fans. They’re 11-0 and ranked sixth in the country and still have talent in reserve waiting to blossom.

“I’m telling you,” Caleb Martin said. “When they (Zouzoua, Henson) get past this little hump (mentally), it is going to be a much different story. Then we’re going to have two more shooters and (opponents) don’t want that problem.”

And when that happens, Musselman will no doubt discover another problem to solve and conquer.


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