Musselmanstein created a monster (effort), says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack’s mad scientist is at it again.

Forget the Eric Musselman you see at Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball games, stylishly adorned in a perfectly tailored suit and tie or slick polo shirt with the latest Wolf Pack color combination. Don’t even pay much attention to the Musselman with the perfectly toned abs running around the court without a shirt you see after every Wolf Pack postseason tournament title.

That Musselman you see in public, after all, is just for show.

The real Musselman, the one nobody sees between games and practices, has wild and crazy hair that extends in all directions. He straps on protective safety goggles and dons a white lab coat while mixing potent and exotic mixtures of bubbly, colorful and smoking liquids in test tubes and beakers.

Other sane and normal coaches might spend the 72 hours or so after losing their starting point guard to a season-ending injury a few weeks before the conference tournament by pulling out their hair or secretly shedding a tear. Dr. Musselmanstein quietly heads back to his laboratory and begins experimenting with frightening and dangerous mixtures to come up with a new creation.

Lose your starting point guard? No problem. Just transform half the roster into makeshift point guards. Lose your best defensive player? No big deal. Just convince your team it can go out and bury its opponent with an historic offensive assault.

Musselman’s latest concoction, a 93-87 victory at Utah State on Saturday night, quelled all the Wolf Pack’s latest fears and concerns. It calmed the delicate and brittle nerves of its fragile fan base before any frightening thoughts could cause a silver and blue riot. Yes, the first few hours after Lindsey Drew, Musselman’s loyal lab assistant who carries out most of Dr. Musselmanstein’s strangest experiments on the basketball court, was lost for the season, a lot of horrific and scary thoughts flashed through the minds of everyone silver and blue.

Who would bring the ball up the floor? Who would defend the opposing team’s best player? Who would pass to Kendall Stephens in the corner for an open 3-pointer? Who would defend half of the court with a wingspan that stretches from Sparks to Winnemucca? Who would block a shot, pull down a rebound or deflect a pass at just the precise moment when it would break the spirit of the opponent? Who would do all of the things Drew has provided for Musselman ever since he stepped on campus three years ago?

We’ve never, after all, seen Dr. Musselmanstein without his loyal assistant, the always reliable and soothing Drew, close by.

Well, we saw it on Saturday. Instead of finding a new Lindsey Drew, Dr. Musselmanstein simply created a new Wolf Pack. And it terrorized the Utah State Aggies in their own village. The Aggies could’ve carried burning torches out on the court on Saturday and it wouldn’t have frightened the new Wolf Pack.

“I tip my hat to Nevada,” Utah State coach Tim Duryea said at his post-game press conference. “They were tremendous.”

It was as if Dr. Musselmanstein transplanted all of the wonderful parts of Drew and planted them in the other Pack players to make them better. We saw Cody Martin score a career high 30 points on a career-best 13-of-18 shooting. We saw Hallice Cooke dish out the most assists in his career since he also had five for Iowa State against Coppin State on Dec. 30, 2015. We saw Caleb Martin make the most free throws he has ever made without a miss in one game in his career (8-of-8). We saw Josh Hall transform into a poor man’s Lindsey Drew and turn in the first game of his career with at least one point (he had six), one assist (three), one steal (one) and one block (one). We saw Musselman give a combined 65 minutes to a couple guys (Cooke and Hall) he seemed afraid to even look at on the Pack bench earlier this year. And they rewarded him with a combined 11 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, a block and a steal. Musselman basically took Hall and Cooke and transformed them into Drew, minus the Sparks-to-Winnemucca wing span, of course.

What we saw, more than anything else, was a basketball team take on a new identity and shape right before our eyes. With Drew, the Pack had a play-making point guard who would rather go to the dentist for a root canal than shoot and score the ball. Well, that guy is now gone. So Musselman took out his beakers and test tubes and gave his team a point guard (Cody Martin) who can drop 30 points on the stat sheet.

“There are not many teams in the country that would have beat them tonight,” Duryea said Saturday night of the Wolf Pack.

We always knew the Wolf Pack was an efficient and productive offensive team. But what we saw on Saturday would make the Harlem Globetrotters jealous.

The Wolf Pack shot 59 percent (32-of-54) from the floor, 52 percent (11-of-21) from 3-point range and 78 percent (18-of-23) from the free throw line. It was quite simply the Wolf Pack’s most efficient shooting performance in the high octane Musselman era. The Pack starters were 31-of-50 from the floor (62 percent) and 11-of-19 (58 percent) on 3-pointers.

The Wolf Pack’s .593 shooting percentage is its best since it shot .597 against both Holy Names and Fresno Pacific in a couple of glorified scrimmages against Division II schools in the first month of Musselman’s first year as Pack coach in 2015-16. The last time the Pack shot better than it did on Saturday against a Division I opponent was Nov. 21, 2009 when it shot .609 against Houston in a 112-99 victory.

“They shot a great percentage but I feel like our team played pretty good defense,” Utah State’s Koby McEwen told the Logan (Utah) Herald-Journal. “They just made a lot of tough shots over our hands and when that happens you just have to shake their hands.”

The way the Pack was shooting on Saturday, the Aggies could’ve shook one of the Pack’s hands while the other Pack hand was draining a jumper. The Wolf Pack’s 93 points is the most points in regulation time by a Utah State opponent at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum since a certain silver and blue team from northern Nevada scored 97 on March 6, 1993. The Pack’s .593 shooting percentage is the highest by a Utah State opponent since Boise State shot .596 on Jan. 15, 2016 at Utah State.

“That’s as hard a team to defend as I’ve seen come through here in a long time,” Duryea said.

Don’t forget the last time the Pack traveled to Utah State, it lost to the Aggies 74-57 on Feb. 1, 2017. The Pack shot 32 percent (22-of-69) from the floor, 15 percent on threes (4-of-36) and could barely sink a free throw (9-of-20). And that was a Pack team that had Drew as well as Marcus Marshall, Cam Oliver and D.J. Fenner.

If the Pack had turned in a performance even remotely similar to the one it showed us last February, well, panic would’ve set in all over northern Nevada. That’s how important the performance of the Pack was on Saturday. What Wolf Pack fans are experiencing now is a calming of the nerves, knowing Dr. Musselmanstein can deal with whatever the college basketball Gods throw his way.

But we should’ve known. Musselman, after all, has transformed the Wolf Pack before with great results.

He took a team in 2015-16 that shot 3-pointers as if it was flicking dog droppings over the fence into the neighbor’s yard and turned it into a poor man’s version of the Golden State Warriors. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Well, Musselman did. The Wolf Pack in March 2016 went into the College Basketball Invitational with a 3-point shooting percentage of 29 percent. The Pack suddenly caught fire in the CBI, hitting 40 percent of its threes to win the six-game tournament.

Musselman is always tinkering, experimenting and adapting his team to its next challenge. He is, after all, merely a chip off the old mad scientist‘s block. Musselman’s father Bill was as good and crafty as any coach in the nation during his career for five decades from the 1960s through the 1990s at transforming his team seemingly on a nightly basis.

“There is no system with Musselman,” the Associated Press wrote about Bill Musselman in 1996. “Basically he devises new offensive and defensive sets for every game depending on the tendencies of the opposing players.”

Bill Musselman might have been the original basketball mad scientist.

“The thing I love is I can prepare for hours,” Bill Musselman was quoted as saying in that Associated Press story 22 years ago.

Sound familiar, Wolf Pack fans?

You can look at the Wolf Pack’s ridiculous 60 percent shooting percentage from the floor, its 52 percent success rate on threes and even the 30-point outburst by Cody Martin, and call it fantasy basketball. You can say you can’t count on those types of numbers ever happening again. You can saythe performance at Utah State, against an average team at best, merely masked the Pack’s true problems. You can say the lack of Drew on the floor, executing Dr. Musselmanstein’s experiments, will doom the Pack down the road against better opponents, like at UNLV and San Diego State or in the Mountain West tournament.

And you might be right. Or you might be wrong. Did you, after all, foresee the Pack’s best shooting performance just 72 hours after it lost its playmaking point guard?

Yes, defense is a concern. But it has been a concern all season long. That concern didn’t suddenly pop up when Drew’s Achilles popped at Boise State. The Pack wasn’t winning with defense before Drew got hurt so why worry about it now?

You could say Saturday was merely a mirage, fool’s gold or simply putting a Band Aid on a broken leg. But if you say all those things you’re also assuming the Pack is going to try to chase that mirage or spend that fool’s gold or hope that bandage lasts the entire season. With this Pack team, with this Pack coach, don’t forget, nothing stays the same. Just when you think you’ve got this Pack team and coach figured out, it transforms into something new.

Dr. Musselmanstein, you see, has already mussed up his hair and is back at work in the lab with his beakers, test tubes, bubbly liquids and goofy goggles trying to concoct his next Wolf Pack creation. A veteran mad scientist like Musselman, after all, knows to have plenty of bandages on hand when needed.

It might work or it might blow up in the Pack’s face, burn its crazy hair and stain its lab coat. But it will also be fun to find out.


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