Nevada showed its simply the best in MWC |

Nevada showed its simply the best in MWC

Joe Santoro
Joe Santoro

Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .

The best men’s basketball team in the Mountain West plays its home games at Lawlor Events Center. That is what the Nevada Wolf Pack reestablished with a resounding 76-57 win at Boise State on Wednesday night. We saw on Wednesday when this Wolf Pack team plays well, with energy and passion, it’s the best team in the conference by far. And when it doesn’t, like in two lackluster games last week at home against Air Force and Fresno State, it can lose to anybody. The effort, intensity and sense of urgency that has been a trademark of coach Eric Musselman’s Wolf Pack teams the past two seasons, was nowhere to be found last week. Well, it’s back. And we don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon. Those two games last week, especially the loss to Fresno State, will serve as motivation for this Pack team for the rest of the year.

Did you really think Musselman was going to let Cam Oliver sleepwalk, float around in a fog and mope through the rest of the season? Musselman obviously lit a fire under his talented 6-foot-8 sophomore after the loss to Fresno State and we saw the result against Boise State. Oliver had one of his best games in a Pack uniform with 17 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks. His five offensive rebounds against Boise were more than he had (three) in his last four games combined. Oliver is the biggest talent in the Mountain West. When he plays with passion and energy he makes the Wolf Pack special. That’s what we saw on Wednesday.

We might have seen the turning point of Oliver’s Wolf Pack career on Wednesday night. The key is whether or not he can become consistent. Oliver’s combined total of 36 points (17), rebounds (15) and blocks (4) against Boise is his highest this season. He’s only had seven games in his career with at least 36 combined points, rebounds and blocks in his Pack career. The other six all came last year. Four of those games came in the Mountain West tournament (against New Mexico) and College Basketball Invitational (Vermont, Eastern Washington and Morehead State). Another came at UNLV. His other top game came against an overwhelmed Fresno Pacific team when he could have had 30 points, 30 rebounds and 15 blocks if he really wanted to (he had 20 points, 24 boards, three blocks).

It’s probably not a coincidence six of Oliver’s seven best games in his college career came in either the CBI, Mountain West tournament, at UNLV or Wednesday in Boise. Oliver thrives when the pressure is at its greatest and when the lights are brightest. When he’s motivated, nobody the Wolf Pack plays (until the NCAA tournament and maybe not even then) can control him. But it’s time he does it every night. When Oliver consistently starts to play as well as he did Wednesday night when it’s not in a tournament setting or against his top rival (UNLV) or when his coach publicly challenges him (like at Boise) that’s when the Pack will become truly special. And it’s when Oliver will turn into that first-round NBA draft pick he wants to become.

The win at Boise just might be the best in Musselman’s Wolf Pack career so far. Yes, the 25-point comeback at New Mexico earlier this year has all the fancy bells and whistles and will likely never be repeated. The overtime win in the CBI title game last year will never be forgotten. And anytime the Pack beats UNLV, like last year at Lawlor, it’s memorable. But there was a ton of pressure on the Pack Wednesday night. The two teams were tied for first place in the conference. The Pack was coming off its worst two-game stretch of the season. The Pack had lost three of its last four games at Boise. Musselman was 0-2 against the Broncos and didn’t come close to beating them either time. The Pack’s best player (Oliver) was in a funk. And they went out and blew the Broncos off their own court in the second half with a 20-4 run. We saw Musselman at his best Wednesday night. That’s how you motivate your players and put them in position to win on the road.

Don’t overlook the contribution of freshman Josh Hall in the Boise game. Hall, playing his first significant minutes (19) since falling on his shoulder, head and neck under a Lawlor basket on Dec. 28, had six points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal off the bench. It was one of the best performances off the bench by a Pack player not named D.J. Fenner this season. Hall had a big offensive rebound and an assist that led to a Jordan Caroline jumper and a 17-13 lead eight minutes into the game. His 3-pointer gave the Pack a 33-27 lead and his jumper gave the Pack a 37-28 lead. Nobody else on the bench, since Fenner was inserted back into the starting lineup when Hall was injured, has been consistent enough for Musselman to trust on a nightly basis. The 6-foot-6 Hall, who has a world of talent, just might be that player.

Will Musselman put Hall, who started seven games in a row from Nov. 29 to Dec. 28, back into the starting lineup in place of Fenner? That might be a mistake. Fenner is a true team-first player, a leader and arguably the team’s hardest worker. He will no doubt play hard whether he starts or comes off the bench. But this is his senior year. He has said he prefers to start. He has earned the right to start. He meshes well with the other four starters, filling whatever role needed (shooter, defender, playmaker) depending on the opponent. So why change something that’s working? Hall is a younger version of Fenner, a player who can do anything you want him to do on the court. His youthful energy off the bench might be the spark this team needs over the next two months.