The Nevada Wolf Pack has a great opportunity when it walks into Taco Bell Arena on Wednesday for its showdown against second-place Boise State (8 p.m., ESPNU).
Not only could the Pack (21-5, 10-2) sweep the season series with a win and grab the all-important tiebreaker, but it could up its lead to two games in the loss column with five left.
Coach Eric Musselman & Co. know it won’t be easy. The Broncos, 20-5 overall and 10-3 in conference, have yet to lose in 13 games at home. They’re the only MW team with an unblemished record at home.
“We know what’s at stake,” said senior swingman Kendall Stephens, who drained seven 3-pointers in the blowout win against San Diego State. “They are a tough team, especially at home. If we do win, it will separate us (a little). We just have to go in and execute.
“They don’t beat themselves. They have guys who know their roles. They stay with the scheme and follow the game plan. It’s going to come down to 50-50 balls and getting stops. We have to stay aggressive and play harder on defense.”
Musselman has been impressed with the Broncos all season, especially preseason Player of the Year Chandler Hutchison, who’s averaging more than 20 a game.
“They are so well coached,” he said. “They all know their roles, and they like playing with each other. You can see their chemistry.
“Hutchison has good games against everybody. Even when he struggles for 20 some minutes, he goes on runs at the ends of games. Why he is such a tough cover is that he can create his own shots when plays break down.”
Hutchison scored 27 in the first meeting. Musselman was asked if there was a number in mind the Pack needed to hold Hutchison to.
“If we do, we won’t tell you guys,” Musselman said, smiling.
“Hutchison is a good player,” Stephens said. “We have to make other players beat us. We have to put pressure on their other players.”
Chris Sengfelder and Alex Hobbs both reached double figures when the teams met in Reno.
Wednesday starts the final third of the conference season, and it will be a difficult one. Four of the games are on the road (Utah State on Saturday, UNLV on Feb. 28 and San Diego State, March 3). Sandwiched between Utah State and UNLV are home games against San Jose State and Colorado State.
“I wondered whether the league office liked us or not,” Musselman said when asked what his thoughts were when he saw the schedule this season. “It is what it is. Everybody has to play the games. It’s an overly challenging four-game road stretch and two at home. We have to play one game at a time.
“People talk about teams being hot or being on a roll. A lot has to do with the schedule. It doesn’t matter what sport. It’s the same thing in the NBA. A team might be on an eight-game winning streak. They had six home games and two fairly easy travel (games). A lot of times winning is dependent on how schedules are laid out; how hard the travel is; how much rest between games and what venues you are playing in. That is the great thing about the Mountain West tournament is that everything is equal.”
A big question for the Pack is the health of Caleb Martin, the talented junior swingman who leads the team in scoring at 19 a game. He suffered a lisfranc sprain to his left foot at CSU, causing him to miss the UNLV game. He played 23 minutes on Saturday and scored 10 points.
Martin showed up to practice on Monday wearing the boot, but he eventually took it off. It’s not known whether he actually took part in any drills.
“I thought he would be in tennis shoes walking around and attending class,” Musselman said before Monday’s practice. “I know it was still bothering him. It’s day by day and we’re seeing how he feels. It’s not like we’re out of the clear. I don’t know what will happen.
“We’re not doing a Patriots and Bill Belichick thing where we are playing it close to the vest. I was told (before Saturday’s game) that he was a 2 (pain level). I just asked if he could play.”
Musselman said he assumed Martin couldn’t play, which is why he made the change in the starting lineup. The coach does believe Martin will play today.
“When you coach in the minor leagues, you don’t know whether guys are getting on a plane or getting off a plane,” he said. “You just go keep rolling with preparation.”
Hallice Cooke started against San Diego State. It’s unknown whether he will start again or whether it would be Josh Hall. It could come down to matchups.