Nevada begins quest for CBI crown | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada begins quest for CBI crown

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Cameron Oliver goes up for a shot against Vermont Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center.
Thomas Ranson/LVN |

The way Eric Musselman sees it, the Morehead State Eagles desperately need to beat the Nevada Wolf Pack Monday night in Kentucky in the first game of the College Basketball Invitational championship series.

“That first game is real critical for them,” the Wolf Pack’s first-year coach said of the opener of the best-of-three title series.

Consider the pressure clearly on the Eagles (22-12) of the Ohio Valley Conference on Monday night in Morehead, Ky. (ESPNU, 5:30 p.m.), Musselman said. The Wolf Pack, after all, will have the comfort of knowing Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) will be at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.

“The home team can ill afford to lose Game One because then they have to go on the road and win twice,” said Musselman, who has guided the Wolf Pack to a 22-13 record in his first season as head coach.

The home team has lost the first game in the previous eight CBI championship series just once. Fresno State lost at home in the opener of the 2014 title series to Siena and eventually lost the series in three games. Home is clearly where the victories are in the CBI overall. The home team has a record of 16-6 in the previous eight CBI title series. The home team in all CBI games overall since the tournament began in 2008 has a record of 106-42 for a winning percentage of 72 percent.

“It’s just a tremendous advantage if the road team can win Game 1 of the series,” Musselman said.

A loss for the road team in Game 1, though, is not all that critical. UTEP lost the first game on the road in 2009 against Oregon State and then won its two home games to win the series. Oregon did the same to Creighton in 2011 as did Pittsburgh to Washington State in 2012 and George Mason to Santa Clara in 2013.

“Having those two home games waiting for us does ease the pressure on us a little bit in that first game on the road,” junior guard D.J. Fenner said.

The road team has won just three of the previous 14 CBI games this year and Morehead State has two of those road wins. The Eagles won at Siena (84-80) in Albany, N.Y., and at Ohio (77-72). Playing in Reno, though, could be a difficult task for the Eagles. Morehead State hasn’t played a game farther west than St. Louis this year and is 9-10 away from home this year.

The Wolf Pack also loves playing at Lawlor Events Center. The Pack is 14-3 at home this year including CBI wins over Montana (79-75), Eastern Washington (85-70) and Vermont (86-72).

“We’ve become very comfortable at home,” Musselman said. “Home games are very important in this tournament.”

The game on Monday is the first time the Pack has played away from Lawlor since it was eliminated from the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas by San Diego State 67-55 on March 11. The Pack also hasn’t played in an opponent’s building since a 76-57 loss at Boise State on March 2. The game at Morehead State will be just the Pack’s second in the opponent’s building over a span of 37 days.

The Wolf Pack, though, isn’t required to win a game on the road to win the CBI title. The Pack could become just the third (after Tulsa in 2008, Oregon in 2011) team to win the CBI championship without winning a game on the road in the entire tournament.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say we feel invincible at home,” Fenner said. “But it does kind of give us that invincible feeling. We’re very confident at home.”

Morehead State averages just 2,836 fans a game at home. The Eagles have won two road games this year in the CBI but those came in front of 3,712 fans at Ohio and 2,061 at Siena. The Wolf Pack has averaged 5,570 fans for each of its three CBI home games this year and is expecting a huge leap in attendance next week as students return from spring break.

“We’re hoping to pack the place on Wednesday,” said Musselman, referring to Lawlor’s capacity of just more than 11,000 fans. “I can sense the excitement building in the community.”

“Our fans have been amazing lately,” Fenner said. “They help us so much.”

Morehead State, Musselman said, is clearly the best team the Pack has faced in the CBI this year. The Eagles were 11-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference this year and have won 10 of their last 11 games overall and have gone 16-5 since early January.

“They play real hard, they are a great offensive rebounding team and they do an unbelievable job of creating turnovers off of ball pressure,” Musselman said.

Morehead State coach Sean Woods said after his team’s 77-72 semifinal win at Ohio last Wednesday, “this team doesn’t want to stop playing. We’re fighting and scrapping because we want to win so badly. This team is just so relentless. We’re doing everything from a hustle and toughness standpoint that you can possibly do.”

Musselman has said similar things about his team this entire season.

“This has been a neat progression for us this year,” Musselman said. “We are playing better and better as the year goes on.”

Morehead State, Musselman said, will require the Wolf Pack to play its best basketball.

“Morehead State, no doubt, is the most athletic team we’ve seen in the tournament,” Muselman said. “The other three teams we’ve played were all kind of similar in that they were good three-point shooting teams that weren’t as athletic or physical. But Morehead State is as athletic as any team we’ve played all season long. And they attack the rim and can shoot the three.”