Joe Santoro: Should Muss find out who’s on the bench?

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Eric Musselman uttered eight words Saturday night that have the potential to change the course of the Nevada Wolf Pack’s entire men’s basketball season.

“Some guys need to play some more minutes,” the Wolf Pack coach said after a 68-62 win over the Akron Zips at Lawlor Events Center.

Yeah, we’ll believe it when we see it.

Some guys? Which guys? More minutes? How many more minutes? And if some guys are going to get more minutes, which guys will get less minutes?

“I don’t think it’s necessarily who we need to give more minutes to,” Musselman said, “because we’re 12-0 and ranked (sixth last week). But the guys who are playing a lot, they’re not distancing the game enough.”

Yeah, that’s what we thought. When Musselman says “some guys need to play some more minutes” what he really means is “the guys who are getting all the minutes need to play better.”

Remember all that depth this Wolf Pack team supposedly had back in the spring, summer and early fall? Well, forget all that. We’re not even through the holidays and Musselman has pared all that depth down to six.

The six Musselman trusts with his Wolf Pack dream season so far are Cody and Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline, Tre’Shawn Thurman, Trey Porter and Jazz Johnson.

“At the end of the day, (Musselman) just wants to get a win,” senior guard Caleb Martin said. “He’s just going to play the guys he knows are going to get him a W.”

Winning, after all, gets you ranked in the Top 10 and it fills Lawlor Events Center with fans. So, by all means, keep winning and keep playing six guys. If it ain’t broke, after all, don’t fix it. When you’re undefeated and seemingly on the way to a perfect regular season and a season-long flirtation with the nation’s No. 1 ranking, after all, that’s not the time to start tinkering with precious things like minutes.

Musselman, after all, knows a good thing when he sees it. And 12-0, as 2018 is about to melt into 2019, is a good thing. It’s certainly not the time to tell the players who made you 12-0 their minutes are going to be slashed.

“That (winning) is really all he’s worried about,” Caleb Martin said. “If he could throw three people out there and get a win, he’s going to play three people.”

Don’t be silly. Musselman would never play just three players at a time. Would he? Well, maybe four. But not three.

The Wolf Pack’s Core Four are Cody and Caleb Martin, Thurman and Caroline. Lately, that Fab Four would need a GPS to find the bench.

The Martins and Caroline — the three guys who could indeed likely go out and beat half the teams on the Pack schedule by themselves — are on the floor seemingly more minutes than the Wolf Pack logo in the middle of the court. Over the past eight games, Cody, Caleb and Caroline have played a total of 869 minutes combined out of a possible 960. Caroline is averaging 37.4 minutes a game over the last eight games. Cody is averaging 34.8 minutes over the same time frame and Caleb is on the floor 36.5 minutes a game.

Thurman, the Pack’s junkyard dog, is also a workhorse. He’s averaging 33.8 minutes a game over the last six games. Jazz Johnson, the best 3-point shooter on a team that bases everything it does on making 3-pointers, is averaging nearly 27 minutes a game off the bench and starter Trey Porter plays about 17 minutes a game.

So maybe when Musselman talks about “some guys” needing to play more minutes, maybe he’s talking about the Martins, Caroline, Thurman, Porter and Johnson. Those six, after all, only played 193 out of the 200 available minutes against Akron.

That’s not what he meant. Right?

“Like coach says, we have to figure out a rotation that’s going to help us,” Caleb Martin said, “whether that’s deeper (more players involved) or whether that’s playing certain people more minutes or certain people less minutes.”

Keep in mind traditionally this isn’t the time to start adding bodies to the rotation. The Mountain West season, which starts Jan. 2 at Lawlor Events Center against Utah State for the Wolf Pack, is about to begin. That’s when coaches normally get out a wrench and tighten their rotation.

It’s the non-conference portion of the schedule, which has just one game this Saturday (at Utah) remaining for the Pack, is when visions of sugar plums and minutes are dancing in the heads of bench players. That’s when the starters are supposed to build huge leads so everyone can play.

But that just hasn’t happened for the Pack lately which has won its last four games all by eight points or less.

But Musselman tightened his rotation long before that.

Freshman Jordan Brown has played a total of just 42 minutes over the last seven games combined. Senior Corey Henson has played 17 minutes over the last six games. Junior Nisre Zouzoua has played 28 minutes over the last eight games, with 15 coming in one game (against South Dakota State) when Johnson was out with a concussion. Zouzoua and Henson didn’t even play against Akron.

“We still have three guys (Brown, Henson, Zouzoua) sitting on the bench that can go play anywhere,” Caleb Martin said.

Anywhere, that is, but Nevada right now.

But maybe that will change soon. Maybe that’s what Musselman meant by “some guys need to play some more minutes.”

But don’t expect the Core Four, or even Porter and Johnson, to just give away their precious minutes. It takes a special player to earn Musselman’s trust and special players don’t like to sit on the bench.

“If you love playing you just don’t ever want to come out,” Caroline said with a smile. “But if we need to come out I’m OK with that, too.”

Yeah, not really. Your senior season, especially a senior season that could end up in the Final Four, isn’t the time to sit on the bench.

“They (the Martins and Caroline) get a little antsy when we get up (a big lead) and they don’t want to come out,” Musselman said earlier this year. “But they like to play. They are competitors. Last year they never came out even though we might be up 35 because nobody was sitting there (on the bench).”

Maybe that’s the problem this year, too. Maybe nobody, at least in Musselman’s eyes, is sitting on the bench now. Zouzoua and Henson, who were brought to Nevada to shoot threes, are a combined 7-of-36 (.194) this season from beyond the arc and 17-of-54 (.315) from the floor overall. The 6-foot-11 Brown has played well at times, averaging 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds a game in just 10.9 minutes a game, but his game right now as a 210-pound freshman stretched over a 6-feet-10 frame, is finesse. The Pack needs its big men in the paint (Porter fills the bill perfectly) to be physical.

And, Caleb Martin said, the Pack needs its players on the floor to get victories. The time to develop players is in the spring and summer and in practice during the season. The games are meant for winning.

“At the end of the day, you have to give our team credit because the only thing you’re trying to do is figure out how to get a win,” Musselman said. “There’s not many teams that are undefeated this time of year. We’ve done a good job of figuring out how to win even when we don’t play very well.”

It’s all about the W’s this year at Nevada. That’s why the Big Three are playing as many minutes or even more than they did last year when there wasn’t anyone (worthy of playing, according to Musselman) sitting on the bench. Caleb Martin’s minutes have gone up this year to 34.2 (from 33.3 last year) and Caroline has gone from 34.8 last year to 35.5 this year. Cody’s minutes are down slightly, to 33.4 from 35.6 but, remember, he’s averaging 34.8 over the last eight games.

“Last year we played a limited amount of guys and it did take a toll on our bodies,” Cody Martin said earlier this year. “Midway through the season we had a lot of guys with injuries and fighting through those injuries.”

The difference between last year and this year, fortunately for the Pack, is this team actually does have more depth. It’s just Musselman, at least right now, doesn’t use it often.

“Obviously it would be good for other guys to jump in there,” Caleb Martin said. “I know they would love that, too.”

The Pack has legitimate depth, Martin said. It’s just only the Pack players at practice are aware of it.

“There are guys who are sitting now (Brown, Zouzoua, Henson) that haven’t gotten a chance to showcase anything,” Caleb Martin said. “So our fans, the media, don’t really know if we are (truly) that deep. But I’m telling you, we really are that deep. We have guys who are sitting that could go start on any team in our conference and half the teams in the country. I’m telling you. We really are deep.”

It might be time for Musselman to find that out before March rolls around.


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