Eric Musselman says his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is still a work in progress.
“We’re still trying to figure out who we are,” Musselman said after Tuesday night’s 86-70 season-opening victory over the Brigham Young Cougars in front of the 15th largest crowd (11,094) in Lawlor Events Center history. “We’re still trying to figure this thing out.”
The Wolf Pack, ranked No. 7 in the country by the Associated Press, will get another chance to figure things out Friday (7 p.m.) against the Pacific Tigers at Lawlor Events Center. Pacific also won its season opener on Tuesday, beating Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, 74-65.
Musselman, now a perfect 22-0 in non-conference games at Lawlor Events Center as the Pack’s head coach, is still learning about his new team. The Pack has just three returning starters (Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline) from a year ago. A fourth, guard Lindsey Drew, is likely to redshirt this season while recovering from an Achilles’ injury suffered last season.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the rotation right now,” said Musselman, who played nine players against BYU, seven 21 minutes or more. “I don’t feel comfortable as a coach subbing right now. It’s the first time I haven’t felt comfortable since I’ve been here.”
Musselman kept things simple in the second half against BYU when the Pack broke open the game. He played seniors Cody and Caleb Martin and Caroline basically the entire second half. The two Martins never left the floor and Caroline only missed a minute. The trio responded with a combined 33 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in 59 minutes. The rest of the team had 19 points, seven boards and two assists in the other 41 minutes.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Caleb Martin, who finished with 21 points, all in the second half. “Yes, we had a good second half (outscoring BYU 52-36 after a 34-34 halftime tie) and we had spurts where we think we can be a Top 10 team. But we’re nowhere close to being where we want to be.”
Musselman added size and bulk to his roster this season, bringing in 6-foot-11 freshman Jordan Brown and 6-11 senior Trey Porter. But when it came time to winning the game on Tuesday night, the Pack coach reverted back to the formula that won the Pack 29 games a year ago.
“We made the decision to play smaller than we have been playing in training camp because (BYU) played zone and we needed perimeter shooting,” said Musselman, who gave Brown and Porter just seven minutes combined in the second half after playing them 20 minutes in the first half. “We went with a bunch of guards in the second half and they opened up the game.”
Jazz Johnson, a stocky 5-10 guard, also contributed in the second half with 12 points in 12 minutes after going scoreless in 12 first-half minutes.
“The four guys (Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson) that sat out last year (as transfers) are all going to play a big role this year,” said Johnson, who missed his first three 3-pointers and made three of his last four against BYU. “But at some point everybody is going to show what they can do.”
Johnson did exactly that in the second half. His first 3-pointer gave the Pack a 63-57 lead with 8:43 to play. His second put the Pack up 77-66 with 3:16 left and his third helped put the game away, giving the Pack an 82-68 lead with 2:11 to go.
“Jazz in the second half was a huge boost for us,” Musselman said. “His 12 points off the bench were vital.”
Zouzoua, though, was 1-of-5 on threes against BYU while Henson missed all three of his attempts. Henson, in particular, has struggled with his 3-point shot, going a combined 0-for-13 on threes in the Pack’s two exhibition games and the regular season opener combined.
“The thing about Jazz and (Nisre) and Corey, all three of those guys shoot the ball really, really well every day (in practice),” Musselman said. “They shot the ball well last year (when they had to sit out the year after transferring to Nevada). At halftime (against BYU) a couple of the veteran players told them, ‘Hey, you guys have to keep shooting shots because we need your outside perimeter threat.’”
Johnson, Zouzoua and Henson are pivotal to the Pack’s outside shooting this year after losing seniors Kendall Stephens and Hallice Cooke off of last year’s roster.
“The good news is that we still have knockdown shooters like (Nisre) and Corey who are still not shooting the ball to the best of their abilities and we still won by 16,” Caleb Martin said. “We know they can shoot.”
The Wolf Pack was just 1-of-12 on 3-pointers in the first half before making 7-of-16 after halftime.
“Coach Muss never really tells anyone to not shoot,” Johnson said. “We knew that with the open looks everyone was getting, the shots were going to fall at some point.”
Musselman is confident outside shooting won’t be a problem for his team in the near future.
“Things will change from here on out,” he said. “I think we’ll start knocking down a lot of shots which is what we expected coming into the season.”
The Wolf Pack, which struggled on defense in a 91-73 exhibition loss to Washington on Oct. 21, held BYU to 38 percent shooting from the floor. But that number is a bit misleading because the Cougars missed numerous open looks from 3-point range, making just 6-of-31 from beyond the arc. A more disturbing statistic is BYU was an efficient 20-of-38 (53 percent) inside the 3-point circle for the game and a sizzling 12-of-19 (63 percent) in the second half.
“The guys that defend are going to be the guys that play,” Musselman said. “That’s an area we want to continue to get better at.”
“We can be a really good defensive team,” Caleb Martin said. “We’re long, we’re athletic, we can block shots, we can cover a lot of ground.”
The Wolf Pack beat Pacific, 89-74, in Stockton, California, in the fourth game of last season. Josh Hall, also no longer with the Pack, and Stephens combined for 45 points and a dozen 3-pointers. The Pack was 17-of-34 as a team on threes.
Pacific’s Lafayette Dorsey, who had a team-high 18 points off the bench against SIU-Edwardsville on Tuesday, had eight points against the Pack a year ago. Jahlil Tripp had a career-high 24 points and 15 rebounds last year against the Pack and had five points, five rebounds and six assists on Tuesday. Anthony Townes (15 points on Tuesday) and Roberto Gallinat (13 points on Tuesday) also played against the Pack a year ago, combining for 14 points.
Pacific did outscore the Pack 40-14 in the paint a year ago but the Pack didn’t have the 6-11 Brown and Porter last season.
“I really truly believe we’ll be a different team two weeks from now than we are right now,” Musselman said. “We just have to keep trying to figure it out. And we have to continue to win games while we try to figure it out.”
Musselman, it seems, is going to use the non-conference schedule as a way to tinker with all of his new depth this year. The Pack can go small as it did in the second half against BYU or it can go big inside with Porter and Brown.
“We have so many pieces this year that can help us in so many ways,” Caroline said. “We have so much talent that we can throw different lineups out there and win. It shows we have a lot of potential.”