Eyes on Wolf Pack as conference starts tonight
A target has been placed on the collective back of the Nevada Wolf Pack.
After posting an 11-2 non-conference record, the best in the Mountain West, Nevada has established itself as the team to beat entering today’s conference opener (7 p.m., Lawlor Events Center) against a much-improved San Jose State squad which posted a 7-4 record.
“Last year we came into games and people didn’t respect us,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman told reporters Monday afternoon. “Last year’s team played hard, and we opened up (people’s) eyes with our intensity. Add in playing hard, and we’re not going to sneak up on anybody this year. We have to pick up the intensity a little more.
“Conference play is a whole different animal. I go back to my days as a player, and I was a part of NCAA teams my freshman and senior years. Every game came down to the wire it seemed. It’s just how it is in conference play. Things always change in conference play.”
San Jose State coach Dave Wojcik agreed.
“No doubt about that,” he said. “You have to rachet up the intensity 10 times the amount of a non-conference game. It’s a fight. It’s a war every game. It will be that way with Nevada on the road.”
The Spartans have certainly garnered some attention with their 7-4 record, including a 17-point loss to nationally ranked Saint Mary’s. The Gaels beat Nevada 81-63 in the season-opener.
“We’re getting there,” Wojcik said. “Defensively we’ve done a great job. That is one of the staples of our program, being able to defend and doing a good job of rebounding the basketball. Those two are absolute staples.”
“They are a much-improved team,” said Musselman, whose team has won six straight and is getting votes in the coaches’ poll. “They are a good offensive rebounding team (12 per game). We did a good job against Towson (in that area). Brandon Clarke is a good shot blocker.”
Clarke, a 6-9 sophomore, is averaging nearly 15 points a game and pulling down 7.3 rebounds a contest. He also blocks 2.2 shots per contest.
“One of the things he has worked on is him stepping away from the basket and using his jump shot,” Wojcik said. “He’s worked really hard (in the off-season). He is doing his part. He can score with his back to the basket and take people off the dribble.”
The Spartans also count on sophomore Ryan Welage (13.8 a game) and Jalen James (9.5) for offense. Wojcik believes his team has the tools to win a grind-it-out low scoring game or having to put up 80 or 90 points.
The last time San Jose State beat Nevada was back in 2014, and it was James that hit the game-winning shot. Nevada had won 15 of the last 16 before that game.
James is doing his damage off the bench.
“He’s done a terrific job,” Wojcik said. “The toughest thing was trying to make him understand that (he has) value to team coming off the bench. His minutes are still up.”
The San Jose State coach is impressed with Nevada, which is no surprise. Nevada is off to its best start since Mark Fox’s 2006-07 team started 17-1.
“They are a very talented team,” Wojcik said. “They are finding different ways to win games. UCSB went all zone, so obviously that was going to be a low scoring game. They are getting to the free-throw line a lot which means they are being aggressive at the offensive end.
“(Marcus) Marshall has made a big difference. He can really shoot. Cameron Oliver has done a great job. He can score inside and out, and he protects the rim.”
Marshall put on a 3-point show last week in Vegas, knocking down five in the second half of the Towson win, and connecting seven times against Santa Barbara.
“He’s an NBA shooter; an NBA shotmaker” Musselman said. “He is going to play for some money (in the future). He is a tough, competitive guy. He is patient and doesn’t force things. He has great inner confidence. If he misses five or six shots, he absolutely believes the next one is going in.
“He got a lot of NBA attention last week (in Las Vegas). Kansas was in town to play UNLV, and scouts drifted over to our game (earlier in the day). We’ve been talking to people about Marcus. People don’t see him as a point guard, but he can handle the ball and he has great vision. He’s done a lot for us. It’s no surprise at how good he is playing.”