Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball needs to regain its identity says Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball needs to regain its identity says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is losing its identity.

This might just be a momentary lapse of memory. It’s not a reason for Wolf Pack fans to start pulling out their hair, biting their fingernails or stepping out onto a 10-story high window ledge. Not yet. The Wolf Pack, after all, has still won 16 of its 20 games and remains atop the Mountain West at 5-2 with Boise State.

But this brief state of amnesia that the Wolf Pack finds itself in has got to stop. That wasn’t the Wolf Pack we saw last week at Lawlor Events Center that has won 40 of its 58 games over the past two seasons under coach Eric Musselman. They won those 40 games because they played harder on both ends of the floor and showed as much or more toughness, desire and desperation than every team they played.

We didn’t see any of that last week at Lawlor Events Center in an 83-76 win over Air Force on Wednesday and an 81-76 loss to Fresno State on Saturday. We saw a team that walked like the Wolf Pack and talked like the Wolf Pack. But it sure didn’t stalk its opponents like a bunch of hungry wolves like the Wolf Pack we’ve come to know under Musselman.

“We just didn’t play hard enough,” senior guard Marcus Marshall said after the what-just-happened? loss to Fresno State.

“They out-toughed us,” Musselman said.

We thought we’d never hear any of those types of blasphemous words coming out of the mouths of Musselman players, let alone Musselman himself. Not play hard enough? Not tough enough? A Musselman team? In front of 18,698 fans over two games at Lawlor Events Center?

“We feel like we let a lot of people down,” senior D.J. Fenner said.

That’s the first time that has happened since Musselman became coach. It was the worst two-game performance in consecutive games by his Wolf Pack team since he took over. We don’t suspect it will happen again anytime soon.

“We just have to keep getting better everyday,” Musselman said.

That just what he said for the microphones and cameras after Saturday’s game. You can be sure Musselman’s players will hear a harsher, more direct message this week before stepping out onto the court Wednesday night at Boise State.

The Pack simply cannot let what took place this week ever happen again this season. And it’s all because this team simply forgot what it is and what it needs to be.

But who can blame them? The Pack went into Saturday’s game against Fresno with just one loss since the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It had won 11 of its last 12 games. It fashioned a miraculous 25-point comeback at New Mexico, a once-a-generation feat that garnered them national attention and praise for the first time since the 2004-07 NCAA tournament years. Associated Press voters even gave them a handful of votes (seven) in the national Top 25 rankings. The Biggest Little Team in college basketball was suddenly trending. It’s a wonder why we didn’t see Beyonce and Kim Kardashian end their Tweets last week with #gopack.

The Wolf Pack then went out this week in front of the home crowd and played like they forgot where they came from. The Pack built a 15-point lead against Air Force on Wednesday night by halftime because, well, that’s what teams do at home against Air Force. And then they stopped playing. They stopped hustling. They stopped playing defense. They stopped rebounding. They stopped contesting shots. They stopped playing Musselman basketball.

OK, fine. One bad half of basketball, especially when it results in a victory, is no big deal. Every team, especially one that has had to play with its shorts on fire and squeeze every ounce of energy and ability the basketball Gods have given it for more than a year, deserves to take 20 minutes off now and then.

Musselman, we assumed, would never let it happen again.

“Any game is hard to win,” Musselman said after the Air Force win.

The Pack then came out in the first half against Fresno State in front of 10,236 fans and acted like it was a NBA All Star game, like the second half against Air Force was just a dream and never happened. Fresno built a 17-point lead late in the first half and led by 13 at the break.

“Any game is hard to win,” Musselman said again.

Any game is hard to win when you try to be something you are not. The Pack this week tried to let their Associated Press votes, home court advantage and national media attention do their work for them. It worked against Air Force because, well, most everything works against Air force when they come into your building. It didn’t work so well against Fresno State.

That’s why it’s time this Wolf Pack team remembers why it got to the top of the Mountain West in the first place. Beating Air Force at home is one thing. But this Pack team needs to beat Fresno State, as well as Boise State and San Diego State and every other team that isn’t afraid of your Top 25 votes. The Pack needs to rediscover its identity as a team that knows it has to work its tail off for everything it gets. Top 25 votes, after all, can disappear faster than they appear.

Musselman, rest assured, is well aware that he has to go back to work on this team. His team needs some fixing and tweaking. It needs a dose of reality. Call it a tune-up, a 50,000-mile checkup. Call it what you want. He just needs to do it because the trends we witnessed against Air Force and Fresno State are disturbing. Some of the numbers in those two games show a complete disregard to the basic principles of Musselman basketball. In almost all of the areas where hustle, intensity, passion and focus show up, the Pack wilted against Air Force and Fresno State.

The Wolf Pack was outrebounded in the two games by a combined 72-49. They were outscored in the paint 70-52. Air Force and Fresno State combined to have more offensive rebounds (20-12), second chance points (27-17) and fast break points (16-13). The Wolf Pack’s 22 rebounds against Fresno State is its lowest total since it had 21 at Boise State on Feb. 27, 2013. No Pack player had more than three rebounds against Fresno State. You have to go back at least to the 1998-99 season (Pack statistics before the 1999-00 season are not readily available) to find a game when not even one Pack player pulled down at least four boards. The Wolf Pack’s 12 offensive rebounds combined last week in the two games is their lowest total in consecutive games since they had 10 in two games on Jan. 26 and 29, 2013 against Boise State and UNLV.

Notice that all of the above numbers are the Pack’s worse since before Musselman arrived after the 2014-15 season. That’s not a coincidence. Hard work, intensity, hustle and playing every possession like your scholarship depends on it are not coincidences. They are Musselman requirements. But the Pack’s case of amnesia last week even made them forget who their coach was. You can be sure Musselman will remind them before the tip-off in Boise.

“We’ll rebound from this,” Fenner said.

All this Wolf Pack team needs to do is remember who they are.

“We definitely need to get our defensive identity back,” Fenner said. “At this point (58 games into the Musselman era) everybody should be bought in on the defensive end. If not, then we got to get them on board because the five (players) on the court on defense, we’re only as good as the worst defender.”

If that is the case then the Pack probably should have given up 100 points against Fresno State. It was one of the Pack’s worst defensive efforts of the Musselman era. The Bulldogs shot .549 from the floor and .455 on threes. Only two teams have shot better from the floor against the Pack (Saint Mary’s, Washington) and only two (Washington, Iona) have shot better on threes.

“We’re a different team (this year),” Musselman said. “We score easier.”

So does the other team. Opponents are scoring almost a point more (72.9 – 72.1) and shooting 30 percent better (.430 – .400) against the Pack this year than they did last year. Those numbers aren’t disturbing yet. But they are headed in the wrong direction, if the past week is any indication. Air Force and Fresno State combined to make almost half their shots (53-of-109, .486) against the Pack. Opponents had shot just .394 (184-of-466) in the seven previous games at Lawlor this year.

It might not be a coincidence that the Pack turned in its worst two-game performance at home in the Musselman era. The team, after all, came into the week basking in the glow of its greatest national success and standing since Musselman took over. Those types of things – Associated Press votes, national attention, everyone telling you how great you are – tend to make impressionable college basketball players forget to listen to their coach. And, you can be sure, the Pack didn’t listen to their fiery coach last week.The Pack came out of the locker room against Fresno State with a huge home crowd on hand and, well, soiled the court in the first half. And that was after they played like they were shooting 3-pointers and dunking the ball on a makeshift court outdoors on Virginia Street in the second half against Air Force.

Nobody is saying Musselman is losing complete control of his team. All we’re saying is he better get all of his control back before Wednesday night. And his first target needs to be Cam Oliver.

Oliver, because he is one of the most talented players to ever wear a Pack uniform, is the Pack’s LeBron James. He gets a ton of the credit and attention when the team wins and most of the blame when it loses. Against Fresno State and Air Force, Oliver looked like a young man fighting his own personal demons. He played 57 minutes combined against Air Force and Fresno State and scored 18 points, pulled down just eight rebounds and turned the ball over four times. He had just one more offensive rebound over the two games than Alphie the mascot.

Even Musselman is getting frustrated.

“Cam has got to play consistent basketball,” Musselman said. “I have no idea what he’s going to do on a nightly basis.”

Oliver’s emotions, intensity and passion, it seems, are connected to the accuracy of his 3-point shot. When the shot is not gong in he tends to disengage from the game and his teammates. He loses his intensity and disappears on the court. Against Fresno he spent the bulk of the game on offense about 18 feet from the basket near the top of the 3-point circle. Nobody could find him on defense.

Oliver was the first Pack player to come out of the halftime locker room against Fresno State and the first thing he did was work on his 3-point shot. At that point he had missed his last 12 3-point shots in a row and hadn’t made one in over two weeks. When he finally made one against Fresno State, with 7:47 to go in the game, the light in his eyes and the fire in his belly seemed to return immediately. He violently punched the air a few times and let out a scream that could be heard above the noise made by the 10,236 fans in the stands. It was like all was right in the Wolf Pack world again. He made another 3-pointer with 5:41 to go and seemed to be ready to lead the Pack to a comeback win.

But, for some reason, he didn’t so much as attempt a single shot in the final 5:41. His teammates didn’t look for him and he didn’t demand the ball with the game on the line. It was a reminder that Musselman not only doesn’t know what he’s going to get from his best player on a nightly basis. He doesn’t know what he’s going to get on a minute-by-minute basis.

That has to change if this Pack team is going to realize all its dreams this year. The Pack needs Cam Oliver to be the best player on the floor on a nightly basis, not the biggest question mark.

“We’re obviously searching (for answers),” Musselman said. “I wish I could give you an answer. I’m at a loss (for words), which doesn’t happen often.”

Losses also don’t happen often with Musselman as the Pack coach. The team has lost as many as two games in a row just twice since he became coach. They’ve never lost three in a row with Musselman on the bench.

He’ll tweak this Pack team. He’ll remind Oliver of how good he can be. He’ll also remind this team of what it needs to be.