Joe Santoro: Pack takes care of business — as needed
Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .
The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is two victories from its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 years. The Wolf Pack’s 83-69 victory over the overwhelmed Utah State Aggies in Las Vegas on Thursday in the Mountain West tournament couldn’t have gone much better for the young men in silver and blue. The Pack, as expected, strolled to the easy win despite the fact Cameron Oliver, D.J. Fenner and Marcus Marshall didn’t shoot the three well (a combined 3-for-15) and point guard Lindsay Drew was in foul trouble. But that’s why you want to win the regular season conference title. You get a glorified workout in your first tournament game.
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Given how the regular season ended, with six consecutive victories, it would appear that fatigue is the Wolf Pack’s biggest enemy in this tournament. The Pack only trusts two of its bench players (Josh Hall and Leland King) and then only if the game isn’t tight. It was important the Pack handle its business against Utah State in an economical and timely fashion so the starters didn’t have to push themselves. Pack coach Eric Musselman handled the game well, keeping starters Jordan Caroline and Fenner under 30 minutes of action. Oliver, Drew and Marshall all played 36 or 37 minutes but it was a stress-free 36 or 37 minutes. That should pay dividends in the final two games of this tournament.
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ESPN has the Wolf Pack winning its conference tournament and going to the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed. Unfortunately, though, it has the Pack going to Milwaukee to play Virginia. The unfortunate part of the scenario has nothing to do with Virginia. It’s not that the Pack can’t beat Virginia, it’s that the game is in Milwaukee. If that happens, if the NCAA sends the Mountain West champion to Milwaukee or anywhere east of Denver, that will be further proof of how little the rest of the country thinks of the Mountain West this season. If the NCAA has any respect for the Mountain West, it will send the conference champ to Sacramento or Salt Lake.
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No conference tournament victory, no matter how easy, should be taken lightly in Nevada. Don’t forget the Pack was just 1-4 in Mountain West tournament games going into Thursday’s game. The Pack was just 4-7 in conference tournament games since 2009 before Thursday. The last time the Wolf Pack got past the second round of a conference tournament? That would be 2009, the last year of the coach Mark Fox era. The Pack hasn’t won a conference tournament since 2006 and has only won four (1984, 1985, 2004, 2006) in its entire school history. Our point? Postseason success should never be taken for granted in Nevada.
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Oliver had 19 points and 11 rebounds against Utah State and now has a double double in all three of his Mountain West tournament games in his career. The sophomore had 26 points and 15 boards in a win over New Mexico and 21 points and 10 boards in a loss to San Diego State last year. The young man saves his best for the biggest games of the year. In nine postseason games in his career (three in the conference tournament and six in the College Basketball Invitational), Oliver is averaging a double double at 20 points and 10.9 rebounds.
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It’s time we start comparing Oliver to some of the great players in Wolf Pack history. Oliver went over 1,000 points in his career during the Utah State game and now has 1,018. He’s the 26th player in school history with 1,000 points and just the ninth to go over 1,000 points in just two seasons. The most points scored by a Pack player in his first two seasons is 1,316 by Luke Babbitt. The Wolf Pack would have to win the NCAA or NIT national championship this year for Oliver to threaten that record. By the way, Nick Fazekas, the Pack’s all-time leading scorer with 2,464 points, had 1,091 points in his first two years. Oliver could pass that in the Pack’s first NCAA tournament game next week.
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The Wolf Pack preaches defense and keeps telling everyone defense keys everything it does. Well, don’t believe that. The Pack has now scored 80 or more points in five consecutive games. It’s the first time that has happened in Nevada since late in the 1991-92 season when the Pack scored 80 or more in five games in a row and eight of nine for Coach Len Stevens. Stevens’ 1988-89 Wolf Pack once scored 90 or more points in seven straight games and in nine of 10. The Wolf Pack this season wears teams down because it scores in bunches. And the Pack can score from all over the floor.
All five of its starters can score, especially when Drew is brave enough to shoot.
This is the rare college team whose defense feeds off its offense.