The Nevada Wolf Pack dragged itself into Las Vegas this week like a disheveled Los Angeles gambler on a Greyhound bus who just realized he left his wallet, luggage and cell phone at home. No money, no credit cards, no change of clothes, nobody to call for help. That’s the Wolf Pack as it heads to the Mountain West men’s basketball tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Just a little over two weeks ago the Wolf Pack was a sparkling 20-6 overall and seemingly a sure thing to play in the NCAA Tournament later this month. This conference tournament was supposed to be just a pleasant three- or four-day getaway of lounging around the pool in the warm desert sun, meeting old friends and some new ones and getting ready for the NCAA party.
That all changed drastically, though, when the Pack closed the regular season by losing three of its final five games to fall to 22-9. The last two losses this past week were of the stunning variety, falling at Wyoming, 80-71 and at home to UNLV, 69-67. There is now no time to lounge around the pool or mingle with old and new friends this week. The Mountain West Tournament is now serious business for the Pack.
Nobody ever truly knows what the NCAA Tournament selection committee will do. There is a chance the Wolf Pack still doesn’t even need to win a conference tournament game this week to get to the NCAA tournament. The Pack, after all, is still No. 36 in the NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) Rankings.
That would obviously drop with a loss to San Jose State (No. 96 in the NET rankings) on Thursday (2:30 p.m.) in Las Vegas. The plunge, though, might not leave the Pack out of consideration for one of the 36 at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. A win over San Jose State and a loss on Friday would likely keep the Pack in the Top 40 of the NET. So maybe we’re overstating the importance of the conference tournament.
The Pack should not test the patience of the NCAA selection committee. Let’s just say a loss to San Jose State would not give the Wolf Pack a quality NCAA tournament resume. At the bottom of that resume would be four losses in its last six games, a fourth-place regular season finish in the Mountain West, no tournament wins and a solid but not spectacular 22-10 record.
Does that get the Pack to the NCAA Tournament? Remember, no matter what the Mountain West coaches told you this year, the Pack is not in the SEC or ACC. No Pack team with more than seven losses (2018) ever got an at-large bid. If the Pack loses to San Jose State, you might be better served to figure out what NIT stands for. Ask a Pack fan who was around in 2012. It can be fun and certainly better than staying home with nothing to do. But it’s sort of like Knotts Berry Farm on a Tuesday night in January compared to Disneyland on Saturday night in July.
If the Pack has a 22-10 record on Sunday when the selection committee announces its 68-team NCAA Tournament field without the Wolf Pack then don’t complain. Keep your fingers crossed and say a prayer or two in front of your 2016-19 Muss Bus shirt but if you don’t hear the Wolf Pack’s name on Sunday just go outside, take a deep breath and shovel the driveway if it needs it. Reality, after all, should have already settled in probably around 6 p.m. Thursday night after the Pack lost to San Jose State.
The only thing keeping Pack hopes alive are the goofy NET rankings which, for some reason, love the Wolf Pack. Is the Pack, even now, truly one of the top 36 teams in the nation? Of course not. Right now they would struggle to make the Top 75. They just lost to No. 90 UNLV at home and No. 171 Wyoming on the road for goodness sake. The Pack is running on dirty Muss Bus fumes right now.
A win over San Jose State, though, might be the gulp of fresh air the Pack needs to return to the team we saw a little more than two weeks ago. We’re convinced there is still a very good basketball team trapped inside the struggling and confused Pack we’ve seen the last two-plus weeks. But that very good team needs to rise from its slumber and emerge from its rusty bus with the two flat tires against San Jose State. If the Pack beats the Spartans then anything is possible.
If the Pack loses to San Jose State, though, it will be an indication of some serious problems. So get the paramedics ready at courtside on Thursday afternoon at Thomas & Mack The Pack might need them. A loss to the Spartans would mean the entire Nevada program needs to be taken apart, dissected and analyzed by college basketball’s greatest doctors. The Pack, you see, simply hardly ever loses to the Spartans.
The Pack has won 51 of its last 63 games against its Bay Area patsies, dating back to 1970. That was before cell phones, the internet, cable TV and even conference tournaments. The Pack is 2-0 against the Spartans this year, holding them to an average of 45.5 points a game. The Pack went on a mind-boggling 25-0 run at San Jose State to close out the first half on Jan. 7. They outscored San Jose State 42-23 in the second half in Reno on Feb. 21. The Pack has never met the Spartans in the Mountain West tournament but they went 2-0 against them in the Western Athletic Conference tournament, winning in 2009 in Reno and 2012 in Las Vegas. Those two years the Pack went 3-0 both times against San Jose State. This year would make it three times.
Forget what Mountain West basketball coaches tell you. It turns out they love ball-hogging, selfish, shoot-first scorers like the rest of us. The league’s coaches selected San Jose State’s Omari Moore as the Player of the Year this week, a guy who averaged 20.1 points a game (just conference statistics are considered) while taking 16.7 shots a game. Moore, by the way, played for the fifth-place Spartans, a team that barely won more games in league play (10) than it lost (eight).
The top four teams in the conference (San Diego State, Boise State, Utah State and Nevada), in case you are interested, didn’t have a scorer in the league’s top five. Nevada’s Jarod Lucas was sixth at 17 a game. Boise’s top scorer was Max Rice at No. 9 (15.9), Utah State’s leader was Steve Ashworth at No. 10 (15.6) and San Diego State’s top scorer was Matt Bradley at No. 15 (14.4).
The top five scorers in league play were, in order, New Mexico’s Jamal Mashburn (21), UNLV’s Elijah Harkless (20.7), Moore (20.1), Colorado State’s Isaiah Stevens (17.8) and New Mexico’s Jaelen House (17.1). No. 7 was Wyoming’s Hunter Maldonado (16.5) and No. 8 was New Mexico’s Morris Udeze (15.9).
All of the top eight scorers (except, maybe, hopefully, Nevada’s Lucas) play on teams that will have to win the Mountain West tournament title to get to the NCAA Tournament. That’s the situation all the coaches tried to avoid all season long.
Moore, the best player in the league, according to the coaches, scored a grand total of 23 points in two games against Nevada this season. He was 9-of-23 from the floor overall and 3-of-12 on threes with eight turnovers. If Moore is the best player in the league then the Pack’s Tre Coleman or Kenan Blackshear should have been voted Defensive Player of the Year. But that award went to San Diego State’s Nathan Mensah.
Another stunner was San Jose State’s Tim Miles winning Coach of the Year. Miles, we remind you, went 10-8 in league play this year. Nevada’s Steve Alford went 12-6. Miles had the Player of the Year or so the coaches say. Alford didn’t even have a First Team player (Lucas made Second Team while Will Baker was Third Team).
Is it because Miles did more with less? Not really. San Jose State was picked to finish 10th this year by the media but the Pack, a team that was gutted by transfers, was picked to finish ninth. The Wolf Pack lost as many as two games in a row once all year. San Jose State had three separate two-game losing streaks. Check the NET Rankings and figure out who did a better coaching job this year. If that doesn’t convince you look back at the tape of the two Nevada-San Jose State games this year.
Alford, who clearly knows a me-first, selfish, shoot-first player when he sees one, couldn’t just get one player off in a corner and tell him before games and at halftime, “just keep shooting.”