Joe Santoro: Pack creating ‘buzz in the community’

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

The hype is real.

Relax, Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball fans. Your beloved No. 6-ranked team is what we thought it was. After four perfectly scripted games in the comfort of Lawlor Events Center in front of 41,323 adoring fans, all is well in Wolf Pack Wonder Land.

Your Wolf Pack is 4-0. And it barely broke a sweat doing it.

“We’ve won by a large margin,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said, assessing the first four games of the 2018-19 Wolf Pack Victory Parade. “We didn’t let teams mess around with the games and as the games progressed we were able to open them up.”

The road to 30-plus victories and a spot in the Final Four is paved with scripted victories over such teams as BYU, Pacific, Little Rock and California Baptist. The Pack won all four by an average of 25 points, got a chance to show off some of its new toys (namely Jazz Johnson, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown and Tre’Shawn Thurman) and made Pack backers like Sports Illustrated, the Associated Press and ESPN look good along the way.

The First Four didn’t destroy the Final Four dreams one bit.

“We have to figure some things out and along the way continue to win games,” Musselman said.

When you’re Nevada and ranked No. 6 in the country hoping for a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, every game is crucial. There are no meaningless victories. There are only punch-to-the-gut losses. Musselman, a guy who has never lost a non-conference game at home in 25 tries since he became the Pack coach, wasn’t going to allow that to happen to this team. Not this soon. Not in front of the home crowd.

“There’s a buzz in the community right now,” Musselman said. “And it’s really, really cool.”

Think of the Wolf Pack right now as a theater troupe simply opening its highly-touted play off Broadway. The first four games were merely a chance for the Pack to learn its lines, figure out where to be on stage at all times and work out the kinks before bringing the play to the biggest stage.

“We’re taking steps in the right direction,” freshman Jordan Brown said. “We’re getting to the point where we need to be. We got the four wins but there’s still room for improvement.”

The early reviews are in. This Pack team is for real.

“We have so many pieces on this team that can help you win,” senior Jordan Caroline said. “We have so much talent that we can throw different lineups out there. That shows we have a lot of potential.”

The Pack whipped BYU, Pacific, Little Rock and California Baptist with 3-pointers and dunks. They attacked the lane and got to the free throw line on average 32 times a game. This Pack team can beat you six different ways. And we saw them all over the past four games.

“We have guys we know can shoot the ball real well and they haven’t even gotten hot yet,” Cody Martin said. “We have a lot of weapons. I know it makes my life easy.”

It’s rare in college sports when reality meets expectations, especially when those expectations include a full color photo of two of your star players (Cody and Caleb Martin) and a multi-page feature on your head coach in Sports Illustrated before the season even begins. But this Pack team showed the first four games the expectations might even be a little understated.

The Wolf Pack simply toyed with BYU, Pacific, Little Rock and California Baptist. The Wonder Twins, Cody and Caleb, were like coaches on the floor, simply directing traffic and making sure the new kids on the block got their Wolf Pack feet wet and confidence pumped.

Caleb didn’t even bother to score a point in the first half of the first two games. In the second half of those games he came out and showed why he’ll likely be a first-round NBA draft pick next summer, scoring 21 and 22 points. He leads the Pack in scoring after four games at 19 a game almost by accident. Wait and see when he actually wants to score.

Cody spent the first four games hardly even taking the time to shoot the ball, taking just 23 shots in 123 minutes. One of the most unselfish players in Wolf Pack history, Cody used the first four games as merely an opportunity to make his new teammates feel welcome, dishing out 32 assists. It was as if Musselman himself was running the Pack point guard the first four games.

Caroline, the son of former NFL great Simeon Rice and grandson of former NFL great J.C. Caroline, still plays with a never-ending passion and aggression. He’s simply a defensive end in shorts and a tank top. Mere basketball players can’t handle him. He has three double-doubles in the first four games and is averaging 17 points and 10.5 rebounds a game.

Those three — the twins and Caroline — are the heart, soul and unquestioned leaders of this basketball team. That was never going to change, no matter how many fancy toys Musselman added to this roster. They all could be playing professional basketball right now somewhere. But all three decided to come back to northern Nevada and accomplish something truly special.

But we already knew the Martins and Caroline were special on and off the court. What we learned these first four games is they don’t have the weight of all these Pack expectations entirely on their shoulders this season.

There’s plenty of help to go around.

Jazz Johnson, a 5-10 “little bulldog,” according to Cody Martin, has made the biggest impact so far among the newcomers, draining a dozen threes over the first four games. “When Jazz comes off the bench, the game really changes from a positive standpoint,” Musselman said. “He makes shots and he gives us a boost of energy, which is the biggest thing when you come off the bench.”

Tre’Shawn Thurman, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound physical presence, can do anything Musselman wants on and off the court. In just 92 total minutes, Thurman is averaging 7.8 points and 6.0 rebounds a game with four assists, five steals and four blocks. He’s been efficient, shooting 50 percent (9-of-18) from the floor, 40 percent (4-of-10) on threes and 90 percent (9-of-10) on free throws.

“Thurm’s done a great job,” Musselman said. “We put him on a guy (on defense) and we don’t even worry about who he’s guarding.”

Thurman seems to be a no-nonsense type of player every serious basketball team with a serious coach with serious goals seriously needs. “I think we can play better,” Thurman said after win No. 4. “We have to start doing what we say we can do.”

Musselman couldn’t have said it any better.

Trey Porter, at 6-11 and 230 pounds, plays with his emotions on his sleeve. A former George Mason and Old Dominion player, Porter is in Nevada for his senior season for just one reason. To win. “I’m not really focused on my scoring,” said Porter, who’s averaging seven points and six rebounds a game in just 63 total minutes this year. “The thing this team needs from me is my defense and my intensity.”

Jordan Brown, the 6-11 freshman who has been kissed by the basketball gods, seems to make huge strides with each game. He played just five minutes and scored three points and didn’t have a rebound in the opener against BYU but he has averaged 27 minutes, 11 points and 7.7 rebounds over the last tree games.

“It feels good to be able to do some of the things I know I can do,” Brown said.

Corey Henson, a 6-3 senior, hit his first two 3-pointers in a Wolf Pack uniform on Monday against California Baptist. Nisre Zouzoua has struggled, missing 11-of-12 3-pointers so far, but the 6-3 junior made 152 threes in just two seasons at Bryant. It won’t be long until he joins the Pack party.

The new players have all already shown they’ll be contributors to a team with Final Four dreams. Musselman has shown an incredible ability to find hidden gems and then an even more amazing ability to convince those hidden gems to be role players.

That is how you transform Nevada from a team that could barely compete in the Mountain West into a legitimate national championship contender in three short seasons. You build a roster like a NBA team and fill it with talent in every role imaginable.

“I now what type of players Muss recruits and what they all can bring to the table,” Cody Martin said. “I knew they would all be able to come in here and contribute.”

This could very well be the deepest team in Wolf Pack history. That, too, is what we learned these first four games.

But four games doesn’t a NCAA champion make.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Caleb Martin said. “We have spurts where we think we can be a Top 10 team but we’re nowhere close to where we need to be. But we’re headed in the right direction.”

We’ll find out much more about this Pack team over its next six games, all away from the friendly confines of Lawlor Events Center. The likes of Pacific, Little Rock and California Baptist will be replaced on the schedule over the next few weeks by Loyola Chicago, Arizona State and USC. And Lawlor will be replaced by the north side of Chicago and Los Angeles. If the Pack comes back to Lawlor on Dec. 15 to play South Dakota State with a 10-0 record, look out. You think the expectations are high now? If this team is 10-0 and flirting with a No. 1 ranking, those expectations will likely be seen from space.

“We know we have pressure,” Musselman said. “Our guys know it. But if you see our locker room, our guys are pretty loose. But they still understand the stakes.”

Pressure has been sitting on the shoulders of the Wolf Pack since the first day the Muss Buss drove into town three years ago. But this year will be new for everyone, including Musselman, with new challenges.

“It is cool,” Cody Martin said. “It is really awesome to say we have these preseason accolades for our team and this program because this program has come a long way. That’s what happens when people work extremely hard.

“We understand how hard this season is going to be. Realistically we know we have a target on our backs. You can’t completely ignore everything everyone is saying. But at the end of the day, we still have to go out and do it, we have to produce and make sure we meet the expectations.”

It’s one thing to have a target on your back when Pacific, Little Rock and California Baptist are doing the shooting. It’s quite another when Pac-12 teams, as well as a Final Four team (Loyola) and Mountain West teams that actually scout you, start shooting.

“We are playing every possession like it’s our last,” Musselman said.

The first four games were, collectively, a great opening for this team. The Pack didn’t play anywhere near as well as it will later in the season but they still ended all four games in an avalanche of dunks and 3-pointers, followed by bows, hugs, encores and standing ovations as the 40,000-plus fans rocked Lawlor to its rafters. The first four games did have a pro wrestling feel to them. A little fake drama in the beginning, a missed 3-pointer here, a missed free throw there, followed by a Pack party in the end. The perfect script.

But don’t say it looked easy to Musselman. This is a guy, after all, who coaches against California Baptist as if a Final Four spot is on the line. Then again, it just might be.

“Every game is hard,” Musselman said. “I don’t know if my wife realizes that. I don’t know if my daughter realizes it. Every games has its own issues to deal with.”

Spoken like a true pro wrestling promoter. Vince McMahon would have been proud. All that was missing was the cape, face paint and tights.

But the season is young.


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