Joe Santoro: No rest for the weary Wolf Pack

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

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The real Eric Musselman has finally showed up at Nevada.

No, not the magnificent coach and leader of men with the once-a-generation basketball mind, never-take-a-day-off work ethic, winning smile, personality and abs. We’ve witnessed that Musselman since the first day he stepped onto the Wolf Pack campus nearly four years ago.

We’re talking about the other Musselman. You know, the Musselman who isn’t talked about at Nevada in anything but a low whisper because of the avalanche of victories, Mountain West championships and NCAA tournament miracles.

Yeah, that one. Maniacal Musselman. Madman Musselman. Myopic Musselman. Win-or-die-trying Muss. The one who makes officials and opposing coaches, let alone athletic directors and NBA general managers, ingest a bottle of pain relievers after each game.

That guy is finally here. And we couldn’t be happier or more excited. This is the Muss we’ve been waiting for. Crazy Muss. The coach who makes the guy sitting up in the stands wearing the face paint and too-tight player jersey and carrying a six-foot high picture of his favorite player, feel like he doesn’t want the home team to win as much as the coach.

Yeah, that Muss. So sit back, relax and strap it down, Pack fans. You’re in for quite a ride over the next six weeks or so.

The fun has only just begun. A ride on the Muss Bus, which was once a peaceful, picturesque journey through the hinterlands of college basketball, is now a full-fledged thrill ride. Think Sandra Bullock in Speed, afraid to drive slower than 50 mph for fear that her bus will explode. With just two weeks remaining in the regular season before the Mountain West and NCAA tournaments, Manic Muss is now driving the Pack bus and he’s afraid to dip under 100 mph for fear this dream season will blow up in his face.

“There’s been a lot of pressure on us the whole year,” Musselman said after Saturday’s 74-68 victory over Fresno State on Saturday that left the Wolf Pack at 25-2 on the season.

We saw Manic Muss last Saturday in all its neurotic glory. Obsessive Muss. Compulsive Muss. The everybody-is-out-to-get-us Muss.

Musselman played five players a total of 189 of the 200 minutes against Fresno State. It’s the highest percentage (95 percent) of the minutes he has ever given to just five players in any game in his entire four-year Wolf Pack career. There should be NCAA child labor laws prohibiting it.

Caleb Martin played 40 minutes. Jazz Johnson, who had not started a game all season until Saturday, also played 40 minutes. Jordan Caroline played 38, Cody Martin played 37 and Tre’Shawn Thurman, who didn’t even start the game, played 34.

“I feel old right now,” Caleb Martin said after the game with a smile of exhaustion. “I feel old right now.”

Yes, he said it twice. That’s what happens when you have a sweat-shop boss for a coach.

“We got some banged up bodies, for sure,” Musselman said. “We’ve got a tired group right now.”

Whose fault is that? If you play five guys 95 percent of the minutes at home against Fresno State in February, what are you going to do against Duke at a neutral site in late March?

“It’s more of a mental fatigue,” Musselman said, defending the exorbitant amount of minutes some of his players are required to play each game. “There’s been a lot of pressure on us all year. I just think it has kind of caught up to us being drained.”

What happened to all the depth on this team? Why has Trey Porter played just 37 minutes over the last three games? Why has Corey Henson played just 72 minutes over the last seven games? Jordan Brown, a McDonald’s All American last spring, has played just 12 minutes in the last two games combined. It takes longer than 12 minutes to get a Big Mac and fries at McDonalds. Is Nisre Zouzoua still on the team?

“(Last Friday) was our worst practice of the year,” Musselman said. “It’s not that they didn’t want to practice. They’re just drained.”

Old man Caleb Martin now has to get massages to work out the kinks before games like he’s an 85-year-old living down in Miami trying to get ready for his weekly shuffleboard game.

“I was feeling beat up,” he said.

Stop whining. Now go play 40 minutes.

Musselman, we’re afraid, isn’t making sure his players are healthy and rested going into the postseason. He’s getting them prepared, it seems, to hike the Pacific Coast Trail or climb Mount Everest.

“I did not walk into the building (on Saturday) thinking I was going to play (Tre’Shawn) 34 minutes,” Musselman said.

That’s because Manic Muss took over. Don’t forget Musselman was deathly afraid to lose a game when he used to be in the NBA D-League, CBA, USBL as well as the Dominican Republic, China and Venezuela, when nobody was looking.

Now that a NCAA championship is dangling in front of his nose and everybody is looking, well, get out of the way. There was no way he was going to substitute last Saturday with the game on the line. Substituting, after all, is a sign of weakness in the Manic Musselman mind.

“This stuff is really, really hard,” Musselman said. “To be 25-2 is . . . everyone starts writing and talking, you know . . . it’s hard to win a game.”

We saw all of the Manic Muss mania on Saturday. He spent the bulk of the game yelling at the referees as if all the whistles were directed at his team. He did the same three nights earlier at San Diego State in the Pack’s 65-57 loss.

Here was a game in which 26 fouls were called on Fresno State and just 16 on the Pack. Two Fresno players fouled out and another had four fouls. No Pack player had more than three. The Wolf Pack was 22-of-31 at the free throw line and Fresno State was 5-of-10. And Musselman was treating the officials as if they were wearing Fresno State jerseys.

“We’re not getting calls,” Caleb Martin said. “I don’t usually complain about the refs but you could tell (the refs) were looking the other way, whether it was them getting annoyed by Coach or whatever it was.”

Annoyed by Manic Muss? Go figure.

“Those guys (the officials) have a very tough job,” Thurman said. “They have to deal with Coach Muss more than we do.”

Musselman, it appears from a safe distance, is clearly feeling the pressure lately. That guy you see interviewed on ESPN or on television or hear interviewed on some national radio show is Public Relations Muss. Public Relations Muss is humble, funny, sincere, respectful.

Manic Muss is a honey badger.

After the Pack had its worst practice of the year on Friday because it’s mentally drained, what did Musselman do? Did he give his players Saturday morning off? Well, in his mind he did. He tried to eliminate some of the pressure.

“(Saturday) was the first time I ever had a closed practice,” Musselman said. “The TV crew (which films every lovable thing during the Musselman day) didn’t come in. I didn’t allow it. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that in my career. But I didn’t want any distractions whatsoever. I didn’t even want anybody in the building. A couple came in and shouldn’t have. We needed to be extremely focused.”

Musselman also complained last Saturday night about how tired his team is because of travel. The Pack, after all, had to go to Wyoming on Feb. 16 and San Diego on Feb. 20 and then back to Reno on Feb. 23. No, the team didn’t have to do it on horseback, hunt for food and sleep in tents along the way.

“I had a guy in my health club ask me if the travel to and from Wyoming had an effect on us going to San Diego State,” Musselman said.

That wasn’t Musselman blaming the loss to San Diego State on having to go to Wyoming four days earlier to play one of the worst teams in college basketball. That was some guy in a health club. Public Relations Muss always has some health club guy say things only Manic Muss says in private.

“We didn’t get back from San Diego State until 1:30 in the afternoon,” Musselman said. “I don’t think LSU is getting back at 1:30 after a game. We had to have a practice at 2 o’clock and we landed at 1. That’s not easy.

“I’m tired. We are tired.”

So blame the loss on nosey health club guy. Poor Muss is just looking for a good workout in the morning when, bam, he’s hit by heath club guy asking him about why the team lost. Now that’s pressure. Rule No. 1 in Muss Fight Club? Never ask Muss about Muss Fight Club losses.

Playing five guys 189 of 200 minutes isn’t pressure in the mind of Manic Muss. Muss, of course, could play five guys each 40 minutes a night for the rest of the season and northern Nevada would cut his lawn, shovel his snow, take out his garbage and drive his daughter to school in the morning if it made his job easier.

Manic Muss, after all, can do no wrong. Even his players never question anything he does, at least not while sitting behind a microphone. Thurman, for example, is one of the most devoted Musselman followers on the team. Nobody works harder, nobody is more unselfish.

“He’s just a guy that puts winning above all else,” Musselman said. “He’s just a winner. That’s just who he is.”

So how does Musselman reward all of that hard work and devotion to winning? He puts him on the bench. Twice. The Pack has lost just two games all season and both times Musselman yanked Thurman from the starting lineup.

“I didn’t want to roll out the same group,” Musselman said. “It’s not just one guy in particular.”

Except, of course, it has been. Twice. But you won’t ever hear Thurman complain. He responded with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four assists against Fresno State and was the best player in silver and blue on the floor.

“I didn’t play well last game (no points in 20 minutes against San Diego State last Wednesday),” Thurman said. “He had every right to bring me off the bench. Of course, when you say it like that, it’s tough. But what keeps me going is the bigger picture. I want to win. Coach Muss has seen more basketball games than me. He’s probably played in more games than me. He’s not going to put me back in the starting lineup if I come in here crying about it.”

There’s no crying in Musselman basketball. And, right now, there’s also no looking at the bigger picture. All Musselman is looking at right now is what is directly in front of him. UNLV at home on Wednesday. Trips to Utah State on Saturday and Air Force next Tuesday. And then the rematch with San Diego State at Lawlor on March 9.

Looking at the big picture would tell Musselman to make sure his team is mentally energized and physically rested for the Mountain West and NCAA tournaments three weeks from now. Looking at the big picture would tell him sometimes you have to risk a loss in February to make sure you win in March.

But the big picture and Manic Muss have never gotten along. So he’s going to treat this final stretch of regular season Mountain West games as if they’re the Bataan Death March.

Yes, of course, somebody might need to save Muss from Muss. Somebody might need to tell him it’s OK to ease the foot off the gas pedal just a bit at this time of year. Tell him it’s OK to play six guys in a game. Go wild and play seven or eight. Old Man Caleb might thank him.

But we’re not going to tell him. Nobody, after all, tells Manic Muss anything, at least not in late February or March and April.

Just sit back, relax, strap it down and enjoy the fireworks. And the winning.


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