Wichita shocks the Wolf Pack | NevadaAppeal.com

Wichita shocks the Wolf Pack

Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team got its first real wakeup call of the season in Tuesday night’s 98-69 loss at Wichita State. It was a complete meltdown by the Pack, physically and mentally, and was the ugliest loss of first-year coach Eric Musselman’s Pack career. It was the first time the Pack had been visited by the ghosts of all those awful Pack teams of the recent past. Is it a sign of things to come as the Pack now heads into its 18-game Mountain West season? Not at all. In fact, the loss at Wichita might be the best thing to happen to this team, whose ego and confidence has been artificially boosted by wins over physically challenged teams. Losing at Wichita is not a sin. The Shockers haven’t lost at home in 37 games. Yes, it was ugly. But this is the type of ugly that washes off if you scrub hard enough.

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What the Wolf Pack and Shockers were involved in on Tuesday was not a basketball game. Yes, the Pack got whipped. And, yes, the Pack deserved to lose in a big way. But Wichita State went to the free throw line 62 times and made 44. The Wolf Pack never went as much as three minutes in a row without getting called for a foul. Three Pack players fouled out and four more had four fouls. The Pack was called for 15 fouls in the final eight minutes when the game was out of reach. The officials turned the game into a circus. Wichita State doesn’t need that type of help to win at home. Then again, maybe that’s why they always win at home. Musselman was about two more fouls away from putting his wife Danyelle in the game at small forward.

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There were, however, a few red flags that the Pack needs to address before going to New Mexico on Dec. 30. A few Pack players let the crowd of 10,000 fans get in their heads and take them out of their game mentally. Pack guards Marqueze Coleman and Lindsey Drew turned the ball over a combined 10 times. Emotional freshman forward Cam Oliver, who just might have been the most talented player on the floor for either team, fouled out in just 23 minutes. He did the most jawing with the fans. The Pack simply cannot beat good teams when those things happen. Oliver has to stay on the floor now that A.J. West is gone. Coleman and Drew have to protect the ball. And the Pack has to play under control mentally to have any chance at all. The Pack played with far too much emotion and frustration on Tuesday. That’s not playing hard, like Musselman preaches. That’s just playing dumb.

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Musselman’s decision to play Tyron Criswell 28 minutes was a bit confusing. Criswell injured his knee last Friday against Santa Clara and left the arena on crutches. Musselman, in fact, said last Friday that the senior wouldn’t play at Wichita and might be out for quite a while. We assume he was telling the truth. But there was Criswell on the floor at Wichita State just four days later, playing 28 minutes on a bad knee. Criswell looked like he had two bad knees, missing 5-of-6 shots and 3-of-8 free throws, turning the ball over twice and scoring just seven points. We love his competitive spirit but Criswell is too valuable to this team to risk playing him on an injured knee 12 minutes in a row in the second half of a non-conference game with the Pack down by double digits. The Pack is lucky he didn’t destroy his season.

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Musselman, to be sure, wasn’t out-coached by Wichita’s Gregg Marshall. Musselman, in fact, wasn’t allowed to do any coaching at all because of all the fouls. He simply was scrambling all game long to put five competent players on the floor at the same time. And he didn’t always succeed. What this game showed was how small the Pack’s margin for error truly is this season. All it takes is one thing to go wrong, like biased officials on the road, for the wheels to completely fall off. It’s why, even when the Pack has beaten obviously limited teams this year, Musselman has been over-the-top positive and full of praise. We saw why on Tuesday.

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The Wolf Pack football team is a three-point underdog for its Arizona Bowl matchup Dec. 29 against Colorado State. The odds make sense. Colorado State has won its last four games and is 4-1 away from home this year. The Rams also have a more well-rounded offense than the Pack. But we still like the Pack to prevail something along the lines of 28-24. This game has “Wolf Pack Winner” written all over it. The Pack nearly beat Arizona in Tucson two years ago, losing 35-28. They can certainly beat Colorado State in Tucson. Also, the Pack’s specialty the last five seasons is winning games that mean absolutely nothing. What could mean less than a bowl game in its first year of existence between two teams from the same conference?

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The most interesting thing about the Pack football team right now is not what happens in Tucson next week. Whatever happens in that game will be forgotten before you ring in the New Year. The most interesting thing — and the most important — is what Polian does with the vacant offensive coordinator position. Jim Hofher, who came to Nevada with Polian, will call the plays in Tucson. He’ll do just fine. How hard is it to hand the ball off to Don Jackson and James Butler anyway? If the Pack offense erupts for 28 or more points next week, don’t be surprised if Polian gives Hofher the permanent title of offensive coordinator. On the surface it would look like a safe choice since Hofher already knows the offense and would be loyal to Polian. But giving Hofher the title won’t sell even one ticket for the Pack. Now or ever. Athletic director Doug Knuth is a smart man. He likely would not allow Polian to give Hofher, a 58-year-old coach in likely his last job, the most important job on the staff.

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The hiring of the offensive coordinator could be the most important decision Polian makes in his Nevada career. There’s no secret that Polian’s job security will be a bit tenuous next year. He will likely need a winning season in 2016 to get a contract extension and save his job. That’s not a difficult thing to do at Nevada but, then again, we never thought this team would be 6-6 right now either. Polian, whether he knows it or not, needs an offensive coordinator with fresh ideas and energy to breathe life into this program. The pistol has seen its best days already. The offense is the reason why this team is 6-6 right now and not 9-3. And Hofher was a big part of the offense. Status quo is probably not the best choice for Polian right now. You don’t build a struggling program by just re-shuffling the bricks. You bring in new bricks.