For Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team there’s ‘nothing easy here’ says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

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The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team safely and comfortably led the Boise State Broncos by five points with five seconds to play 10 days ago at Lawlor Events Center when Caleb Martin handed us all a teachable moment.

“Towards the end of the game when I tried to reach in there and tap it from the big dude (Boise’s Zach Haney) and the ref called a little foul,” the Wolf Pack junior remembered with a smile. “The ref said, ‘Come on, man. Why’d you do that?’ I just said, ‘Man, we can’t do nothing easy here. Nothing easy here.’”

Nothing easy here. Remember those three simple yet important words as this season reaches a crescendo over the next two months. The Wolf Pack might want to plaster those meaningful words on a t-shirt and wear it during the pre-game warm-ups just to serve as a helpful reminder.

Nothing easy here. Who said college basketball was supposed to be easy? Men’s college basketball isn’t professional wrestling, a Connecticut women’s basketball game or Tom Brady in the AFC Championship game. Yes, the Wolf Pack is 18-4 overall this season and on top of the Mountain West Conference at 7-1. And, yes, the Pack has jumped into the national Top 25 rankings twice already this year and will likely be back for a third time before you can recite the words to The Law of the Jungle.

But, as Ringo Starr once said, “It don’t come easy. You got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.”

One of those painful dues the Wolf Pack has paid this season took place just last week in Laramie, Wyo. Nobody said it would be easy but nobody expected the yellow and brown slop the Pack stepped into last week.

The Wolf Pack beat Wyoming by nine in Reno just 17 days earlier in front of 9,188 fans. The Wolf Pack had won 13 Mountain West games in a row overall and seven in a row on the road. The Wolf Pack was ranked No. 23 in the country. Just 5,017 yellow-and-brown wearing Wyoming fans - more fans were dressed as yellow-and-brown empty seats - showed up to see the Cowboys take on the Pack in Laramie.

The Cowboys won 104-103 in double overtime in of the most bizarre games in Wolf Pack history.

The Wolf Pack scored 103 points and lost. It was the first time since a 110-104 loss to BYU in Las Vegas on Dec. 22, 2009 that the Pack had scored 100 in a game and lost and just the sixth time that happened in school history.

Caleb Martin, the player who has taken the most shots and scored the most points for the Wolf Pack this season, scored 12 points on eight shots in 19 first-half minutes and then proceeded to take just three shots and score just seven points over his next 30 minutes the rest of the game. Lindsey Drew and Kendall Stephens both fouled out and played a combined 46 minutes, the same amount of time as Cody Martin played off the bench by himself.

Stephens had made at least two 3-pointers in his last 15 games going into the Wyoming game. Against the Cowboys he was 0-3 from beyond the arc and had more fouls (five) than points (four). The Pack converted its first 23 free throws against Wyoming and then missed eight of its last 15 with the game on the line late in the second half and in overtime.

Wyoming’s leading scorer Justin James (33 points) only played four of the 10 minutes in overtime and the Cowboys still won. Wyoming missed 23 of its 31 3-pointers and still won. In the previous 19 games in the Nevada-Wyoming rivalry, which began in 1937, no team had ever scored as many as 90 points in a game.

Bizarre, indeed. But bizarre is how the college basketball Gods send down messages to unsuspecting teams. But that’s just it. The Wolf Pack, they insisted after the win over Boise, was ready for the college basketball Gods.

“We’re trying to stay at the top,” Wolf Pack junior Jordan Caroline said after the 74-68 victory over Boise on Jan. 20. “Every game is tough. We’re trying to rise to the challenge every game. We don’t look down at anybody. We think everybody is a tough opponent.”

“We have to use this game (against Boise) to fuel us and not take a step backward the next game (at Wyoming),” Stephens said.

The strangest thing to come out of the Wyoming game for the Pack, though, didn’t take place on the court last week. It took place in the days of preparation before the game. An opposing coach might have finally proven to be the equal of Musselman, at least for one night. No, we’re not saying Musselman was out-coached by Wyoming’s Allen Edwards. All we’re saying is that an opposing coach went out and performed a pretty darn good Musselman impression.

“We just said, ‘Let’s make them play defense,’” Edwards said after the game.

Sound familiar, Pack fans. The Pack, which values 200 or more passes every game, tries to make every team it plays have to play defense.

Edwards wanted the entire Wolf Pack team to play defense but one player in particular was on his radar. “We (Wyoming’s offense) attacked him on defense, Edwards said, “to where he got in foul trouble and eventually fouled out (playing just 17 minutes).”

That strategy, Edwards said, was done out of respect for Stephens.

“He is kind of the silent assassin for that team that nobody talks about,” Edwards said. “It’s (the talk) is always (about) number 10 (Caleb Martin) and then Jordan Caroline and then the other Martin (Cody). (The talk about) Stephens is like, “Yeah he shoots the ball (well).’ But I think he’s very dangerous.”

Edwards also watched tape of the Pack-Boise game and learned something. “Boise played a lot of zone, especially in the first half against them,” Edwards said. “The reason for us playing zone was to kind of take away the one-on-one basketball play.”

That might explain Caleb Martin taking just three shots after halftime.

“We wanted to try and make somebody else besides 10 (Caleb Martin) and 21 (Stephens) shoot the basketball,” Edwards said. “10 ended up doing a good job (for one half, at least) but we did a great job on 21.”

Edwards and the Cowboys matched the Pack’s pre-game preparation and strategy. That hasn’t happened very often in the Musselman era. Edwards, though, seems to be building sort of a Nevada East program, even down to the off-season conditioning he makes his players endure.

“We feel like nobody can keep up with us when we’re playing Cowboy basketball,” James said. “Especially with this altitude, with the crowd having our back, we feel nobody can run with us.“

Insert Wolf Pack for Cowboy and you have a typical quote from a Wolf Pack player the last two-plus seasons.

“Anytime we step on the floor we feel like we’re the best team on the floor,” James said. “That’s the confidence level of our team, confidence level of our coaches.”

Sound familiar, Wolf Pack fans?

The loss to the Cowboys was not only a Nothing Easy Here reminder for the Pack players. It’s also a reminder for Musselman. The secret is out now in the Mountain West. Musselman has built a Mountain West powerhouse at Nevada in just two-plus season and the rest of the conference’s coaches are trying to keep up. The other coaches now know that in order to beat the Wolf Pack you not only have to outplay the Wolf Pack players on the floor. You have to out-coach and out-work Musselman in the days leading up to the game.

Edwards did a terrific job of at least matching Musselman’s work ethic and strategy, getting Stephens off the floor and taking the ball out of Caleb Martin’s hands after halftime. What we saw last week in Laramie was an obvious sign that opposing coaches are upping their game to match Musselman.

It’s nothing to be worried about. The Pack is still the best team in the Mountain West and one of the Top 30 or so teams in the nation. There are just a dozen teams in the nation (as of Monday morning) that have lost fewer games than the Pack right now. And no coach can really match Musselman’s work ethic and preparation day after day, month after month and season after season. But those things (leading the Mountain West, getting votes in the Top 25 rankings and Musselman on the bench) mean that every game is going to be an all-out war where bizarre things could happen.

Make no mistake, the date of all Wolf Pack games is now circled on the calendar of every Mountain West team. The word is out. If you want to win a Mountain West title and go to the NCAA tournament every team in the conference knows you have to go through Musselman and the Wolf Pack.

That’s why the Wyoming fans stormed the court after beating the Pack last week as if their yellow and brown Cowboys had just beaten Duke or Kansas. “Two and a half years ago who would have thought somebody would have stormed the floor against Nevada,” Musselman said.

Get used to it, Wolf Pack. And don’t forget it the sight of those yellow and brown fans celebrating in your face as you walked off the floor in Laramie. Wyoming fans running out onto the court was just the college basketball Gods reminding us all that Ringo was right.

Nothing easy here.


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