Joe Santoro: Pack now a work of art

Nevada coach Eric Musselman yells during the second half of the Tuesday's game against UNLV.

Nevada coach Eric Musselman yells during the second half of the Tuesday's game against UNLV.

The Nevada Wolf Pack is taking college basketball to a higher level.

“The biggest thing for us is playing without thinking, just playing free,” senior Caleb Martin said recently.

Think Secretariat at The Belmont in 1973. Tiger Woods at The Masters in 1997. Michael Phelps at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Bob Beamon in Mexico City in 1968.

That’s the No. 8 Wolf Pack men’s basketball team right now. Just doing what it does best, flowing through space and time, doing what it loves to do. And nobody can do anything about it.

It’s basketball at a higher level of consciousness.

“Not second guessing anything,” Martin said. “Just knowing that nobody is going to be mad at you for making a mistake or missing a shot, taking a tough shot. Just playing for each other. Just letting it fly.”

Imagine Miles Davis on trumpet, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker on the sax, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock on the piano. That, too, is Wolf Pack basketball right now.

“It was on auto pilot,” coach Eric Musselman said after a 100-60 win over Colorado State last week. “I could have gone out in the student section and had fun. When the guys are playing like that they don’t really need us.”

The Wolf Pack, which stretched its record to 20-1 with an 87-70 work of art at UNLV on Tuesday night, hasn’t trailed for even a second over its last 90-plus minutes of basketball. It started when two Jordan Caroline free throws tied the Air Force Falcons 37-37 with 10:43 to go on Jan. 19 and continued the rest of that game and through the next two games, against Colorado State and UNLV.

The 90-plus minutes without trailing is the Pack’s longest stretch of continuous dominance this season. The last time the Pack trailed in a game (37-35 to Air Force midway through the second half) the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams still had to win another game to get to the Super Bowl. The United States government shutdown still had a week to go.

Over the last 90-plus minutes, the Wolf Pack has outscored Air Force, Colorado State and UNLV by a combined score of 219-145. That’s 2.4 points a minute for the Pack, or 96 over a 40-minute game. Their opponent is at 1.6 a minute or 64 points a game.

“That’s just what happens when we put two halves, two 40 minutes together,” Martin said.

Listening to Martin and the rest of the Pack talk about their craft lately must be what it was like talking to Michelangelo and asking him how the Sistine Chapel and David came together.

“We all believe we’re a very talented team,” senior center Trey Porter said. “We can do some great things.”

The Wolf Pack right now is Jackson Pollock, not thinking or even looking at his canvas and just throwing paint and creating magic. The rest of the Mountain West is heading to Hobby Lobby and coming home with an paint-by-numbers sketch of a cat and a bowl of fruit and spilling paint on its shoes.

The Pack, which hosts Boise State at Lawlor Events Center on Saturday (3 p.m.), is playing a different game at a level nobody in the Mountain West can even comprehend.

“We’ve kind of been waiting for an offensive explosion,” Musselman said last week.

It has been an explosion of colors and shapes like we’ve never seen before. “We have a formula,” senior Tre’Shawn Thurman said. “It’s what makes us click.”

Thurman then smiled and gave us all one of those “if I tell you what the formula is, I have to kill you” moments.

“I can’t tell you guys the formula,” he said smiling like a kid who knows where the key to the candy store after hours is located. “It’s a good formula. Everybody understands what it is.”

It was like asking Secretariat how to win a Triple Crown race by 30 lengths or trying to get Tiger to tell mere mortals how to win a Masters by double-digit strokes.

“Part of it is moving the ball,” Thurman said. “Part of it is trusting yourself and your teammates. Having fun, that’s part of it, too. But I can’t give all the secrets away.”

The Wolf Pack let UNLV coach Marvin Menzies in on a few secrets on Tuesday night. Imagine the Denver Broncos walking out onto the Louisiana Superdome turf for Super Bowl XXIV in January 1990 and seeing Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Ronnie Lott and Roger Craig.

“It’s the superior talent and the position-less basketball,” Menzies said.

Other coaches get their players to play positions. Musselman gets his players to play basketball. The Pack toyed with the Rebels, like a cat with a three-legged mouse. Yes, the Fremont Cannon might still be red, as UNLV reminded everyone at halftime by rolling it out onto the Thomas & Mack court. But the entire city of Las Vegas as well as the whole state of Nevada is now a deep shade of blue.

The Pack made nearly 50 percent of its shots and just under 90 percent of its free throws as well as just more than 40 percent of its threes against the Rebels. UNLV would have had a better chance of stopping Montana-to-Rice on a slant in 1990. Trey Porter had a dunk 37 seconds into the game. And the Rebels fell down into the fetal position.

“They threw the first punch and it was hard to recover,” Rebel guard Kris Clyburn said.

That’s because the Pack also threw Punches No. 2 through 200. It was the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals, minus the Sweet Georgia Brown and the pail of confetti. It’s a wonder the Rebels didn’t roll the cannon over to the Pack bench and hand them a bucket of blue paint.

“They played like men,” Menzies said. “They played like they are. They played experienced and used their athleticism. They definitely looked like the No. 8 team in the country.”

Actually, they looked like the No. 1 team in the country.

You think they’re going to be afraid of Tennessee, Michigan, Michigan State, Gonzaga or Kentucky? Do you think this Pack team will be in awe of Duke and its three 19-year-old freshmen? This Pack team gets 19-year-olds to carry its bags into the hotel. The Pack are playing a free-form, disciplined and transcendent game of basketball right now the youngsters at Duke have only seen on PlayStation and Xbox.

When asked if his Wolf Pack feels like it can beat any team in the country right now, Musselman, without hesitation, boldly said, “Yeah. When we make threes like that. Yep. It hasn’t happened often this year. But that’s kind of like we were last year in the NCAA tournament. Yeah, when we shoot the ball like that.”

Free and easy. Without thinking or hesitating. Just having fun.

This Pack team, though, didn’t always play like this. It was only just a dozen days or so ago, on Jan. 19, through the first 30 minutes or so against Air Force, the Pack looked like Musselman’s worst nightmare.

Even Musselman, who has 500 solutions to every possible problem or at least 500 people he can call for help, seemed to be struggling. His Wolf Pack were still winning but it looked like an artist that could merely paint inside the lines. They were Jackson Pollock throwing paint toward the canvas and getting most of it on the floor, ceiling and in their hair.

The moment of truth came after the Pack scored all of 20 points in the first half against Air Force. If Musselman was back in his CBA, USBL or D-League days, he might have traded them all right then and there for six pairs of shoes, a six-pack of Diet Coke, a whistle and a week-old lottery ticket.

“We just knew we were a much better team than that,” Martin said, an embarrassed look of I-can’t-believe-we-did-that coming over his face. “Twenty points in half. You kind of look at yourself and say that’s kind of ridiculous.”

In the first half against Air Force, the Pack looked like a bunch of 17-year-olds after a long night of partying attacking a miniature golf course trying to sink a 40-foot putt through a clown’s mouth.

After the Air Force game Musselman threatened to take away the Pack’s 3-point shot. That’s like taking away Steph Curry’s mouth guard.

The threat caught their attention.

“It’s the first time I’ve done that since I’ve been here,” Musselman said. “I kind of wanted to get under their skin a little bit.”

Musselman not only got under their skin, he pierced their heart. In the two games since Musselman’s threat, the Pack have made 22-of-49 threes and have averaged just under 94 points a game.

Tell us to shoot less threes, huh? Shut up and go watch some more tape, old man.

“They were having a good time (during the Colorado State game) when they started knocking them down,” Musselman said. “They were pointing at me and laughing.”

The fun had returned to Wolf Pack basketball.

“We’ve been working so hard in practice trying to figure this stuff out,” Thurman said. “Muss has been watching a million clips, calling people he knows. Assistant coaches have been doing so much work. They all put us in a great position.”

Musselman watches those million film clips so the Pack don’t have to think out on the court. They do it so the Pack can just go out, let it fly and play on auto pilot.

And create a masterpiece.


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