Joe Santoro: Lobos never had a chance against Wolf Pack

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There are few things so frightening in this world as a bloodthirsty pack of wolves out on the hunt.

“You’ve got to be hungry every single day to get better,” Nevada men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman said recently.

Hungry like the wolf, that is. Forget Duran Duran. The Wolf Pack has Martin Martin. And their mouths were alive with juices like wine last Saturday afternoon.

“It was personal,” Cody Martin said.

“Everyone had something to prove,” Caleb Martin said. “I don’t know if anybody (in a Nevada uniform) came on the court and wasn’t hyped to play or wasn’t ready to get after somebody. (If there was) there would probably be an issue.”

The only issue at Lawlor Events Center was how long it would take to clean up the bloodbath after the Wolf Pack’s 91-62 victory over New Mexico. The Lobos of New Mexico, an unfortunate sheep in wolf clothing, never had a chance against the Wolf Pack of Nevada. It was unfiltered nature, red in tooth and claw, on the Lawlor court for all the world to see.

“Whoever was on the floor, we wanted them to be the five most aggressive people in the building,” Musselman said.

The Lobos were cornered from all angles right from the opening tip. The Wolf Pack led 25-4 midway through the first half. The Wolf Pack didn’t just step out on the court last Saturday merely to win a basketball game. It came out in touch with the ground, howling and whining to the Lobos, “I’m on the hunt down I’m after you.”

“We were not going to be passive,” Musselman said. “We were going to attack the rim with reckless abandon.”

We saw the essence of Wolf Pack basketball on Saturday. It was fundamental, essential, intrinsic to why this team is among the best in the nation. The Pack not only attacked the rim. It attacked the Lobos’ heart, soul and courage. It was Wolf Pack life and nature in its most basic and rudimentary form.

The Lobos were stalked in the forest last Saturday too close to hide. They could feel the Wolf Pack heartbeat just a moment behind. And they ran back home to Albuquerque with their tails between their legs.

“We couldn’t lose tonight’s game,” Musselman said, minutes after wiping the Lobos’ blood from his Wolf Pack coach’s shirt.

Musselman, in true Musselman family tradition, worked his team into a frenzy for more than a month leading up to Saturday’s game. It started when he put the score of New Mexico’s 85-58 victory over the Wolf Pack on Jan. 5 up on the various Lawlor scoreboards during the practices the following week after the game.

“We couldn’t get away from it,” Caleb Martin said. “We saw it entering the court. We saw it leaving the court. It was always there to see.”

It was like sticking a knife in the Wolf Pack’s hearts. And the only way they could remove that knife was to leave a whole lot of Lobo blood on the court last Saturday.

“We’re ready for this one,” senior Tre’Shawn Thurman said last week before the New Mexico game. “We don’t want that taste on our mouths again.”

“It was definitely eating at me for sure,” Caleb Martin said.

The Pack now knows what Lobo meat tastes like. That wasn’t a mere basketball game we saw on Saturday. It was a true bloodletting. But don’t feel sorry for the Lobos. This was, remember, a battle of the wolves. It wasn’t a pack of wolves ganging up on an innocent, fluffy little bunny who just happened to venture into the wrong part of the forest.

The Lobos, as Musselman said, embarrassed the Pack back in early January. And they had the nerve to talk about it before the Wolf Pack left the court back in January.

So, yes, both teams bared their teeth on Saturday. At least for the first 10 minutes or so.

“They said some things at their place and they heard what we had to say at our place,” Cody Martin said.

The Pack said “25-4.” Well, something like that. The parents of young children or those who took their kindhearted, sweet grandma to the game were fortunate there was 11,197 loud, noisy, rowdy, vengeful Pack fans at Lawlor on Saturday. Otherwise, certain words would have been heard echoing throughout the arena that, well, shouldn’t be heard by coach’s daughters, wives and sweet, kindhearted grandmas. There was nothing sweet and kindhearted about what happened on Saturday.

“We weren’t the only ones saying stuff,” Cody Martin said. “They were saying stuff, too. Both sides were just trying to get their point across.”

Point taken. Right through the Lobos’ hearts. When asked if that sort of verbal sparring makes the game fun, Martin just smiled and quickly said, “Of course. It’s just basketball.”

It’s definitely Wolf Pack basketball. It’s championship basketball. This Pack team, which is much older than most NBA draft picks, plays a man’s game. This team isn’t afraid of anything. These players aren’t afraid of anyone. They’re a bunch of 23-year-old fifth-year seniors who will either leave the court after their last game with a national championship or leave it with their limbs scattered all over the arena.

Nobody is hungry like these wolves.

“The biggest thing for us is just knowing it’s our last year for a lot of us,” Cody Martin said. “We want to go out with a bang.”

“We have a lot of old guys on this team who are leaving after this year,” said Caleb Martin, one of the old guys. “We don’t have many games left and we want to take advantage of them all.”

So don’t get in their way. The Wolf Pack didn’t want to merely add another number to their already impressive win column on Saturday. They wanted to take the Lobos’ soul.

You don’t build a 25-4 lead with 9:47 left in the first half by merely coming out and trying to play well. You want to leave no traces of your opponent, like a pack of wolves with a bunny.

The Pack on Saturday wanted to drain some Lobo blood from start to finish. That mentality didn’t even stop during a timeout with just 3:37 to play and the Pack leading 83-57. Musselman had already taken Jordan Caroline out of the game with 7:38 to play. He took Caleb Martin out with 5:58 to go and Cody followed him to the bench with 5:09 to go.

All three of their jaws, though, were still dripping with Lobo blood during the timeout. New Mexico had just gone on a 7-2 run to cut a 31-point Pack lead to a mere 26 points and, well, Martin Martin and Caroline weren’t happy.

“Cody and Caleb and Jordan got in the faces of the other guys and said, ‘If you guys are not going to defend like we were, we want back in the game,’” Musselman said. “That’s the type of group we have. When I heard that I was like, ‘Wow. That’s freaking special.’”

That “freaking” was thrown in for all of the daughters and grandmas out there who might be listening. But the point was made. This Wolf Pack team is indeed freaking special. It takes something freaking special for a demanding, veteran coach like Musselman to say, “wow,” especially in a 26-point game with under four minutes to play.

Musselman, like his father Bill who wrote the manual for demanding, fiery coaches, has coached for a lot of years and decades. It has been rare when any Musselman team (the Bill and Eric variety) truly matched their intensity, desire and thirst for basketball blood.

But this Wolf Pack team is teaching even a Musselman how to be demanding and fiery.

“They (the Martins and Caroline) were getting after me, too, to get them back in the game, if we weren’t going to defend,” Musselman said, flashing a smile like a true proud papa alpha wolf.

The New Mexico game was like tossing a piece of raw meet into the Pack’s wolf den. When this team is motivated, well, all you can say is “wow.” And the motivation can come in all forms. Revenge, like against Loyola Chicago in late November and New Mexico on Saturday, is always a good one.

But respect is an even better one. The Wolf Pack had the best record in college basketball heading into this week at 23-1 but they dropped a spot in the Associated Press rankings this week from six to seven. The NCAA March Madness Bracket Preview show on Saturday on CBS revealed the NCAA tournament selection committee believes the Pack is a No. 4 seed and the 14th overall seed.

Talk about tossing some raw meet into a pack of hungry wolves.

“What incredible exposure for the university,” Musselman said, who’s always a politician when it comes to the national media, polls and rankings. “We’re just happy to be part of that 16. Those are some really big names in there.”

Yeah, right. You can bet come NCAA tournament time, if the Wolf Pack is sitting at 33-1 and is a No. 4 seed, Musselman will whip off his shirt, wipe his teeth and claws with all of the Pack victims’ blood this year and work his team into a bloodthirsty fever. Incredible exposure my... well, you get the point.

“I don’t watch TV,” Cody Martin said, brushing off the No. 4-seed and No. 14 label the selection committee put on the Pack as if it was just another episode of The Young and the Restless.

“As long as I’ve been here we’ve always been a team that has to prove itself,” Caleb Martin said. “All people see is that you are not in the ACC, you’re not in the Big Ten or whatever. They are always going to say, ‘Man, they don’t play anybody. They don’t do this, they don’t do that.’ People are always going to figure out a way not to put respect on your name. But it’s all talk until you get head to head. And then we’ll do what we need to do.”

New Mexico was all talk until Saturday afternoon. All you need to know about this Wolf Pack team, Pack fans, is this team wants to win as much as you do. Maybe even more. This team thrives on the fight. They’ll get bored now and then against the likes of South Dakota State, Akron, Air Force, Pacific and California Baptist. There’s no need, after all, to shred a cute little bunny. You can’t feed an entire wolf pack on one little bunny. But you can make everyone fat, happy and satisfied on a Mountain West regular season and tournament title in March as well as a national championship in April.

So go ahead. Tell them they’re the 14th best team in the country and, well, see what happens.

“We’ll do what we need to do,” Caleb Martin said.

You can count on it.

The Martins and Caroline are once-a-generation talents, competitors and fighters. Players like Thurman and Porter and even 5-foot-10 Jazz Johnson have followed their lead and are just as mentally tough and feisty. All of them came to Nevada to do just one thing. Kick their opponent’s, well, you get the point. If that wasn’t the mentality, as Caleb Martin said, there would be issues.

Rest assured there are no issues on this Wolf Pack team. That’s because if you cross any member of this Wolf Pack team you have to fight the entire wolf pack.

Just ask New Mexico how that turns out.

“We love playing with each other and for each other,” Cody Martin said. “We don’t want this to end.”

It won’t end until the last wolf is fed.


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