Somebody up there loves the Nevada Wolf Pack. The Wolf Pack has spent the last three weeks playing dead like a Texas possum and still was selected to participate in the 68-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Pack has lost four of its last six games, all four in either stunning (Utah State, Wyoming) or heartbreaking (UNLV, San Jose State) fashion, and still was rewarded. Don’t you just love college sports in the everybody-gets-a-trophy world we now live in? Don’t ever say a discouraging word about the NCAA again, Pack fans. This was a gift from the college basketball gods. A 10-loss Wolf Pack team that stumbled to the finish line, opened its eyes on Selection Sunday morning and got an at-large bid? That’s never happened before. Did the Pack basically sew up a NCAA tourney bid by winning at New Mexico, 77-76, on a last-second shot on Feb. 7? Nothing, after all, the Pack has done since is all that impressive. Maybe it was the win over San Diego State at home, 75-66, on Jan. 31 that did it. All the Pack had to do the last six weeks or so, then, was not play dead on the highway and stay awake long enough to beat mediocre-to-bad teams (Fresno State home and away and Air Force and San Jose State at home) to get to the NCAA tourney? But don’t question it, Pack fans. Just be glad you don’t have to pay attention to the NIT this week.
The NCAA Selection Committee really loves the Pack. They gave Nevada a winnable matchup against Arizona State on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, in one of the First Four games. If the Pack wins that game (they should), they then get to play an overrated 12-loss TCU team that finished sixth in the always overrated Big 12. After that, the Pack would play either an overrated Gonzaga team or a mediocre-to-bad Grand Canyon team they already beat rather easily (59-46) back in November at Lawlor Events Center. And, before you know it by Sunday night, the Pack is in the Sweet 16. Keep the faith, Pack fans. Playing dead actually does work after all. Those possums are onto something.
Getting dumped into the First Four is not all that horrible. Yes, they call it First Four because it is really the Last Four that get to the 64-team bracket. But the Pack will take it. The First Four format has only been in existence since 2011 but already two schools (VCU in 2011 and UCLA in 2021) went from the First Four to the Final Four. Tennessee (2014) and Syracuse (2018) got to the Sweet 16. South Florida (2012), Notre Dame (2022), USC (2017), Wichita State (2016) and Dayton (2015) got to the round of 32 (something the mighty 2018-19 Pack didn’t do). A First Four game is a great way to get all of those we’re-just-happy-to-be-here, opening-game jitters out of your system. It’s low key, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the week. In other words, it might be exactly what the possum Pack needs to get back up on all fours and start gritting its teeth again.
It is time we get rid of the conference tournaments. All they do is get bad teams who get lucky over three or four days into the NCAA Tournament. One bad team (Fairleigh Dickinson) this year didn’t even have to win its conference tournament because the team it lost to (Merrimack) was not eligible for the NCAA Tournament because it is in transition to Division I (another ridiculous notion the NCAA also needs to abolish, by the way). The Mountain West Tournament last week in Las Vegas meant absolutely nothing. The possum Pack knows that better than anyone. The Pack went into the tournament in a slump and left it in need of therapy, losing to San Jose State in its first tournament game. The Pack then gets invited to the NCAA Tournament and San Jose State is now in the CBI. Don’t ever complain again about the NCAA, Pack fans.
The Pack, the NCAA Selection Committee will tell you, is in the First Four because it has an impressive NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) ranking of No. 37. The NET rankings, in large part, have something to do with playing quality teams on the road that also, in turn, play other quality teams on the road. Why any college basketball team ever plays a home game these days is a mystery. Arizona State, in case you are worried about Wednesday night, is No. 66. Arizona State fans also need to send the NCAA a thank you note. How the Pack is still as high as No. 37 right now is a bit mind-boggling. They somehow dropped just one spot after losing to San Jose State, which is now No. 95. The week before the Pack lost to No. 172 Wyoming and No. 91 UNLV. City Rec teams all over the nation made up of 60-somethings were falling over each other trying to schedule the Pack. Again, don’t question it, Pack fans.
We’ve been constantly wrong about everything the Pack has done the last three weeks. Who knew they’d lose at Wyoming, at home to UNLV or in Las Vegas to San Jose State? The Magical Mystery Pack Tour began Feb. 18 when a 30-9 Pack lead at Utah State turned into a 75-66 loss. The Pack still hasn’t truly recovered from that and neither has our Pack predictions. But we’ll give it another try. The Pack should be able to beat Arizona State. The Sun Devils can’t shoot, a fact that should help a reeling Pack defense. Guard Desmond Cambridge and center Warren Washington transferred from Nevada to Arizona State last spring and the Pack got better this year. That may or may not be a coincidence. If the Pack heads to Dayton with the same mindset and determination it had the second after the loss to San Jose State last week, they’ll win on Wednesday. That’s the mindset the Pack had when it won 20 of its first 26 games. But if they go to Dayton feeling good about themselves like they somehow deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament, well, the result on Wednesday will be similar to what happened in Las Vegas. So, yes, this is not so much a prediction as it is a word of warning.
All Wolf Pack fans should take a moment this week and pay their respects to the 2011-12 team. That Pack team didn’t get a bid to the NCAA Tournament, despite winning the Western Athletic Conference regular season title and putting together a 26-6 record by Selection Sunday. That 2011-12 Pack team, with all due respect to the current bunch, was deeper and more talented than the Pack team that will play Arizona State on Wednesday. The 2011-12 Pack had Deonte Burton, Malik Story, Jerry Evans, Dario Hunt, Olek Czyz, Devonte Elliott, Jordan Burris, Jordan Finn, Kevin Panzer, Keith Fuetsch, Brice Crook and Patrick Nyeko. This year’s Pack only goes six deep on most nights — three deep on many nights, especially lately. That 2011-12 team won 16 in a row at one point and was 19-3 in early February. They beat Bradley, Washington and Arizona State once as well as Utah State, Hawaii, San Jose State and Fresno State twice. That team, which won two NIT games because it had a huge chip on its shoulder (like the one the current Pack team should borrow), should have at least been a First Four team and deserved to be a First 64 team.
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