Mountain West title for Wolf Pack hinges on remaining home games, say Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Northern Nevada is experiencing a phenomenon.
The entire region has a basketball jones. It has Wolf Pack basketball fever and it’s got it bad. And nobody in silver and blue is looking for a cure anytime soon. Legendary announcer Michael Buffer stood in the middle of a packed house last week at Lawlor Events Center, boldly declared “it’s Wolf Pack time” and told everyone to “get ready to roundball.” The biggest gathering in Wolf Pack basketball history responded by nearly blowing off his tuxedo with noise.
“We could sense it,” smiled senior D.J. Fenner.
“The students were absolutely amazing,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “Our guys felt it.”
It’s not just the students. The entire community has seemingly fallen in love with this Pack basketball team, so much so that we just might be in the midst of the greatest season ever for attendance in the history of the program. The Lawlor basketball-record crowd of 11,841 last Wednesday for the Pack’s 104-77 win over UNLV was just the tip of the Pack iceberg. The phenomenon that is overwhelming northern Nevada runs much deeper below the surface and has been building for more than a year.
“Nationally people are starting to notice the crowds,” Musselman said.
It has been a decade since Wolf Pack crowds were noticeable in northern Nevada, let alone the rest of the country. The Wolf Pack’s record for attendance is the 8,903 average crowd that showed up in 2006-07 at Lawlor Events Center. But the following season the crowds fell to 7,468 a game and haven’t been over 7,000 since.
Until this year.
The Wolf Pack this season is averaging 8,572 fans over its first 11 dates, which would make it the second greatest season in school history behind 2006-07 and ahead of 2005-06 (8,371). The Pack has the fourth best attendance in the Mountain West, even better than Fresno State, Utah State and Boise State. How impressive have the crowds been at Lawlor this year? If not one single fan walked through the doors at Lawlor over the final three regular season games this year, the Pack would still finish with an average attendance of 6,736, its greatest attendance season since it drew 6,929 in 2008-09, the final year of the coach Mark Fox era.
Take a bow, Wolf Pack fans. You’ve been more consistent and more worthy of Top 25 attention nationally lately than your basketball team. Forget worrying about whether or not this is the greatest Wolf Pack team in history. We’ve seen too many efforts like the 70-56 loss at San Diego State on Sunday lately to discuss that question with a straight face for now, at least. But the time has come for us to seriously discuss whether or not this is the greatest attendance season in Pack history.
The Pack would have to average 10,120 over its final three regular season home games against Utah State (Feb. 18), Boise State (Feb. 22) and Colorado State (March 4) to set the all-time school attendance record at 8,904. Is it possible? The last three Wolf Pack crowds at Lawlor have been 11,841 (UNLV on Feb. 8), 10,727 (New Mexico on Jan. 28) and 10,236 (Fresno State on Jan. 21), for an average of 10,935.
Yes, there is no UNLV in there. And Michael Buffer likely won’t grab the microphone at Lawlor again anytime soon and bellow “From Oakland, California, the 6-8 sophomore who wears the big zero, here’s Space Cam Cameron Big Ooooooh Oliver.”
But this year’s fan base might not need UNLV or Michael Buffer to get excited. A Mountain West regular season title will hinge on all three of the remaining home games. The arena will be dripping with drama those three nights. So, yes, it is more than possible that Pack fans will break down Lawlor’s doors like it’s a Black Friday sale for each of the remaining three games.
They’ve already done it four times this season. Only the 2006-07 season, with five, has had more crowds of 10,000 or more. No other season has produced more than three. The Pack had 13 crowds in excess of 10,000 through its four NCAA tournament years (2004-07) but had just two from 2007-08 through 2014-15. In David Carter’s six seasons as coach the Pack drew as many as 10,000 just once (10,317 on March 8, 2014 against, of course, UNLV). Musselman’s teams have done it five times over his first 30 home games.
“It’s great to see how Reno has our back and gives us support,” sophomore Cam “Big Ooooooh” Oliver said.
It all starts (and maybe ends) with an exciting, winning basketball team, emphasize on winning. It’s not a coincidence that the top four average attendances at Lawlor came in the four NCAA tournament years. The Wolf Pack played 66 home games in those four seasons combined and averaged 8,315 fans. Attendance, though, dropped four consecutive years after 2006-07 to a disturbing low of 4,628 in 2010-11 when Carter was coach. In Carter’s six seasons as coach (2009-10 through 2014-15), the Wolf Pack averaged 5,682 fans a game.
Musselman took over last year and the Pack jumped to 6,554 a game (from 5,497 in Carter’s last year). The crowds are still climbing. The jump from Carter’s final year to this year’s 8,572 is the biggest jump in two years in program history.
“The program is building in the right direction,” Musselman said. “And it takes everybody. It takes the players on the floor to play hard to gain the city’s respect, it takes the administration to do things like bringing in Michael Buffer and it takes a lot of pieces to come together to create an environment like this.”
The evening of the UNLV game was the perfect storm of Wolf Pack support. The Wolf Pack had an 18-5 record. UNLV was coming to town and the Wolf Pack was expected to roll over the Rebels. There’s nothing Wolf Pack fans like more than to destroy the Rebels, even if it was one of the worst UNLV teams in history. The students filled up their end of the arena more than an hour before the game. “To see the entire student section completely and utterly packed is what a big-time college basketball atmosphere is like,” Musselman said.
It was indeed a magical evening, even if it didn’t mean much in a basketball sense. We saw what the UNLV game meant, after all, on Sunday afternoon in San Diego. That game against the Aztecs is a stark reminder of just how fragile Wolf Pack support always has been and likely always will be. If the Pack follows up the San Diego State loss with an even more disturbing loss at Air Force on Wednesday, it’s likely the streak of 10,000-plus attendance games ends at three Feb 18 when Utah State comes to town.
Wolf Pack fans love this team and coach. But, make no mistake, they will always love winning even more than any one team or coach. Or even Michael Buffer. Pack fever has cleared up quickly in the past. It can happen again.
“If our guys can continue to do what they need to do on the floor and play hard every night, this city will continue to rally around this ball club,” Musselman said.
Just win, baby.