Nevada hopes third time is charm vs. New Mexico | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada hopes third time is charm vs. New Mexico

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

Eric Musselman insists he isn’t counting on Marqueze Coleman to actually play in a Mountain West tournament game this week.

“I have no hope that he will play,” the Nevada Wolf Pack coach said. “Some people might think that’s just gamesmanship on my part. But if he couldn’t even practice on Monday, how can he play on Thursday? I haven’t even seen him run yet.”

The fifth-seeded Wolf Pack (18-12) will take on the fourth-seeded New Mexico Lobos (17-14) today at 2:30 p.m. at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas in search of the school’s first Mountain West tournament victory.

Coleman, who injured his ankle in the second half against Utah State on Feb. 24, has missed the Pack’s last three-plus games. The Wolf Pack beat Utah State in overtime and beat Colorado State four days later but heads to Las Vegas with a two-game losing streak after losses at Boise State (76-57) on March 2 and at home against New Mexico (71-66) last Saturday.

“I haven’t given up hope of playing,” said Coleman, who leads the Wolf Pack in scoring (17.0) and assists (3.7). “There’s still time. Hopefully it will get better.”

Coleman described the injury (he landed awkwardly after hitting a 3-pointer against Utah State) as more of a bone bruise than a sprained ankle. “When it happened I couldn’t walk,” Coleman said. “I thought I broke something.”

Coleman, who has been cleared to play by doctors and the Wolf Pack’s training staff, will be the final judge of whether or not he can play this week. “It’s up to me,” Coleman said.

Musselman, though, added, “It’s up to him whether or not he can play but it’s up to me whether or not he plays one minute or he plays 40.”

Musselman also said he’d like to see Coleman put in a complete practice sometime this week before today. “It’s not fair to the other guys to play him if he doesn’t practice,” Musselman said.

Coleman had 26 points, five assists and five steals against New Mexico in an 88-76 loss in Albuquerque on Dec. 30. “I’d like to get at least one practice in to see how it feels,” Coleman said. “I want to see how it feels when I cut.”

“His game is based so much on athleticism,” Musselman said. “Running, quickness, cutting, jumping. That’s why this is so difficult.”

Coleman seemed confident this week before the Pack left for Las Vegas he would play in the tournament. When asked if there would be any chance he wouldn’t at least play if the Pack gets to Saturday’s championship game with a NCAA tournament berth on the line, the senior point guard just smiled and said, ‘No way. No way at all.”

Beating New Mexico with or without Coleman will be a tall order for the Wolf Pack. The Pack has lost to the Lobos twice already this season and has lost six of seven games to New Mexico since joining the Mountain West in 2012-13. New Mexico has won four Mountain West tournament titles (2005, 2012-14) while the Pack’s record in the tournament is 0-3, after losses to UNLV, Boise State and Wyoming the last three years.

The Lobos have out-rebounded the Wolf Pack 81-60 in two games combined this year. Obij Ajet, a 7-foot-1 junior, has averaged 12.5 rebounds in the two games. Elijah Brown, a 6-4 sophomore, has averaged 20.5 points against the Pack.

“They are going to come into the game on Thursday with a lot of confidence against us and they should,” Musselman said. “We just have to do a better job against their inside people. The thinking is if you want to beat New Mexico, your focal point has to be to stop (guards) Elijah Brown and Cullen Neal (16 points against the Pack on Saturday). But, for some reason, they’ve done a great job against us inside with their big men. Aget, we haven’t had an answer for him.”

The Wolf Pack did outscore New Mexico 18-6 over the final five minutes of Saturday’s game with a lineup that featured guards Tyron Criswell, Eric Cooper and D.J. Fenner and forwards Cameron Oliver and Elijah Foster. Fenner scored nine of the 18 points while Oliver had two dunks, Cooper had a 3-pointer and Criswell had two free throws.

Lindsey Drew, who was expected to pick up the slack at point guard after the injury to Coleman, didn’t play the final 9:49. The Pack outscored New Mexico 28-13 without Drew on the floor the rest of the game. Drew, a 6-4 freshman, finished with two points, two rebounds, two steals, four assists, a block and two turnovers in 28 minutes and left the game with New Mexico leading 58-38.

“Lindsey was benched the last nine minutes based on a lack of production,” Musselman said. “On Thursday we will need Lindsey to play well. He’s been our defensive stopper from Day One.”

Coleman has a lot of confidence in Drew.

“Lindsey always will make the right play,” Coleman said. “He can get the job done. What I tell him is that he just needs to be a little more assertive (on the offensive end) more than he is sometimes. He has to make teams guard him more to make all the other things open up.”

The last time the Wolf Pack lost to the same team three times in one season was 2012-13 against Wyoming.

“All we need for motivation is to just look back and know we’ve lost to them twice,” Oliver said. “We just have to go into that game knowing we can win and not just believing it.”

“We can’t lose to those guys three times in a row,” Criswell said. “We’ll be ready for the challenge. At the end of the day it just comes down to effort and who wants it more?”

The Wolf Pack, which hasn’t won a tournament game since it beat San Jose State in the Western Athletic Conference tournament on March 8, 2012, might want it more than any team in the Mountain West. The Pack hasn’t been to any postseason tournament since it went to the National Invitation Tournament in 2012.