A tale of two players
Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .
The Nevada Wolf Pack found out Wednesday night it can win a game without Cam Oliver. Oliver played 31 minutes in the 83-76 victory over Air Force but he didn’t start (he was late for a film session this week) and did almost nothing in the first half when the Pack built a 15-point lead. He connected on a couple of meaningful shots in the lane in the second half but when the night was over he had just 10 points and five rebounds. He was, simply, a productive sixth man and not one of the best players in the Mountain West. The wonderfully talented 6-foot-8 sophomore seemed subdued and lifeless for the most part against Air Force, especially on the defensive end, and didn’t display his usual joy and passion for the game. He certainly wasn’t anything close to resembling the player who was supposed to be a candidate for Mountain West Player of the Year this year. He hasn’t been that player for close to a month now.
Oliver has missed his last 10 3-point shot attempts and 16 of his last 17. He’s just 8-for-37 (22 percent) on threes over the last eight games. The 3-point shot shouldn’t mean that much to a player who’s 6-foot-8 and is as athletic, powerful and talented as any player in the conference. But when Oliver’s 3-pointer is going through the net, it seems to ignite a passion, intensity and aggressiveness in his overall game. When the shot isn’t falling he gets tentative on offense and tends to disappear on both ends of the floor, like on Wednesday night. When Oliver is hitting his 3-pointers, he dominates the game. He’s cocky, confident, aggressive and he’s clearly the best player on the floor. That’s the player — the cocky, confident Oliver who puts a team on his back — the Wolf Pack needs. More than any other player on the roster, Oliver can transform the Wolf Pack from a good team into a great team. There’s not another player in the conference who even resembles Oliver, a guy who can score points in bunches from any spot on the floor and can block or rebound every shot in the building. The Pack is good enough to win the mediocre Mountain West with Oliver playing a complementary role, like he has been the last month or so. But it can get to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament when he’s the best player on the floor.
Oliver simply hasn’t elevated his game from his freshman year to his sophomore year. He averaged 13.4 points and 9.1 rebounds as a freshman and is at 14.6 and 7.8 now. He’s shooting better from 3-point distance this year (37 percent this year from 33 percent last year) but he has declined inside the 3-point circle (51 percent this year compared to 54 percent last year). Overall he’s shooting 45 percent from the floor this year compared to 51 percent last year. The reason for that is because he’s fallen in love with the 3-point shot, shooting 4.6 a game this year compared to just 1.6 a game last year. His game this year just seems out of focus and inconsistent from game to game. He can be great one night and disappear the next. There will come a time in Oliver’s Pack career when all of the stars are aligned and everything comes into focus and he will dominate every single night. It will be worth waiting for.
The Wolf Pack has become Marcus Marshall’s team this year. It’s Marshall who takes all the big shots. It’s Marshall who’s the most aggressive player on offense. It’s Marshall who the Pack looks to when it needs a big basket. Marshall, right now, is the Mountain West Player of the Year hands down. He leads the conference in scoring (21.5 points a game) and is one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation. He’s fearless, has ice water in his veins and leads by example with his toughness and maturity on the court. He could step into the NBA right now and help a team. Marshall is, without question, pound-for-pound (he’s generously listed as 6-3, 200 pounds) one of the best players in the country.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Wolf Pack going to the NCAA tournament as a 12th seed. ESPN also projects the Pack to finish the regular season with a 26-5 record overall and 15-3 in the Mountain West. It’s tough to argue against those lofty predictions. The Pack will likely run away with the Mountain West this season. Nobody else in the league can seem to play well for two weeks in a row. Boise State even lost at home on Wednesday to New Mexico, leaving the Pack all alone in first place in the league at 5-1 and as the only unbeaten team in the conference at home (8-0). There are still a couple key games remaining (at Boise on Jan. 25 and at San Diego State on Feb. 12) but the Mountain West regular season title is the Wolf Pack’s to lose.
The Wolf Pack might not even have to win the Mountain West tournament to get to the NCAA tournament. Yes, San Diego State won the regular season title last year but lost in the conference tournament and didn’t get an NCAA invitation. But the Aztecs had nine losses after losing in the conference tournament title game to Fresno State. There’s a good chance the Wolf Pack will have six or fewer losses if it loses in the Mountain West tournament. It will be difficult to leave out a six-loss team who’s ranked in the top 35 of the RPI (the Pack is now at 32 and climbing), even if it loses in its conference tournament.
NFL predictions: New England over Pittsburgh and Atlanta over Green Bay. New England is the best team in the NFL and has been all season long. If Pittsburgh, which couldn’t even score a touchdown against Kansas City last week, can walk into Foxboro and knock off a 14-2 Patriots team in the AFC title game, it will be the biggest upset of this NFL season. Don’t ever count out Aaron Rodgers, but the Green Bay miracle worker is doing it with mirrors right now. Everybody outside of Atlanta wants to see a Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers Super Bowl but the Falcons are home this weekend and they also have a pretty good quarterback (Matt Ryan) and a running game.