Pack coach is the ‘Musselman’
Sports fodder for a Friday morning… Eric Musselman simply turned in the best season for a first-year head coach in the history of Nevada’s three most high profile sports (football, men’s basketball, baseball). The Wolf Pack men’s basketball coach took over a nine-win team and won 24 games and a College Basketball Invitational championship. His best player (A.J. West) quit the team early in the season and it might have been the best thing for the team in the long run. The team’s leader (Marqueze Coleman) played on one good leg the last month of the season. Musselman took players who couldn’t shoot straight and turned them into the Golden State Warriors in the middle of the pressure of a postseason tournament. He made everybody on the roster better all season long, first physically and then mentally. The Musselman hiring was widely praised at the time it happened last March and then it surpassed most everyone’s expectations. He transformed and breathed life and hope into his program like no other football, men’s hoops and baseball coach has ever done at Nevada in his first year.
Musselman’s reward for such a remarkable debut season is the expectations surrounding his program are now soaring through the roof. We all need to pump the brakes a little. CBI titles are all well and good. But they are a mirage. Winning a tournament against mediocre, one-dimensional and limited teams at home means absolutely nothing as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned.
A lot of Pack teams in the past would have won five games at home against Montana, Eastern Washington, Vermont and Morehead State. A lot of disappointing, underachieving Pack teams. The last three CBI champions, don’t forget, didn’t qualify for any postseason tournament the next year. None of the three even had a winning record in the year following their championship. The CBI means nothing as far as the following year is concerned. Do you really believe any team the Pack plays next year is going to be frightened of the Pack because it sees the CBI banner in the Lawlor rafters? The CBI is just fast food. It tastes good and leaves you with a good feeling for about 10 minutes. But it’s just a lot of empty calories.
The Wolf Pack’s immediate future, however, would have been bright even if the Pack would have lost its first CBI game and finished with a 19-14 record and losses in four of its last five games instead of 24-14 with wins in five of its last six games. The Pack is losing just two players (Marqueze Coleman, Tyron Criswell) who made significant contributions to this year’s team and is bringing in, as of today, seven playerswho all have tremendous upside. Four of them — Marcus Marshall, Sam Williams, Jordan Caroline and Leland King — have practiced with the team all or most of the past year.
They know Musselman and he knows them. All four are experienced, have been successful at the college level already and could step right in and contribute right away.
The Pack team who won the CBI this year will look nothing like the Pack team of 2016-17.
Musselman is not an easy coach to play for. He doesn’t take losing well. He doesn’t take three bad possessions in the first five minutes of a game well. He has no problem with yelling and screaming at his players on the bench in front of an arena packed with people, not to mention for any television cameras and smart phones to record and post all over the internet faster than you can say or write #crazycoach. If you don’t hustle back on defense or if you get selfish and take a bad shot on one play you’re going to be on the bench next with Musselman as your coach. Playing for Musselman is sort of like going to dinner with a lion. Everything is good as long as the lion is eating and content. But you always know the lion could bite your head off if you make one false move. It will be interesting to see how all of that Musselman passion and intensity will work with a full roster overflowing with talent and egos next year, especially with the stakes and expectations ratcheted up about 10 notches.
What, therefore, are reasonable expectations for the 2016-17 Wolf Pack men’s basketball team? How about a Mountain West championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament? No matter how exciting it was this year, another trip to the fantasy land that’s the CBI next year will be a huge letdown. Even the NIT will be a punch to the gut. The rest of the Musselman era at Nevada will have an NCAA-or-bust feel to it. And there’s no reason why a Mountain West title can’t be a reality for the Pack next year. The conference was mediocre at best this year and it will likely be the same again next year. UNLV is in disarray. Half the league is awful. San Diego State is always good but they are always limited. And nobody else scares anyone. Even if a few of those new Pack egos fly off the rails next year, Musselman will find six or seven guys (Cam Oliver and Lindsey Drew are a good place to start) who play his brand of basketball and win a lot of games.
Don’t, by the way, write off the losses of Coleman and Criswell as no big deal. It’s a huge deal. The two seniors were the heart and soul of this year’s team. Criswell was the one who made Musselman’s blue collar, work-until-you-drop philosophy turn into tangible points and victories. Coleman, when healthy, was one of the best players on the west coast and the Wolf Pack’s security blanket on offense. When all else fails (and make no mistake, it failed often), let Marqueze drive the lane and draw a foul. Both Coleman and Criswell were the biggest reasons why Musselman was such a huge success in his first year at Nevada. They both bought into what the coach preached and they went out on the floor and made it happen night after night. They won’t be easily replaced.
There will be seven players off of this year’s Pack hoops team who played noticeable minutes who will come back next year. How will they all fit in with the new guys and the new expectations? Oliver and Drew, of course, will play significant minutes next year and their roles won’t change. But what about D.J. Fenner, Elijah Foster, Eric Cooper, Kaileb Rodriguez and Juwan Anderson? Rodriguez and Anderson barely played down the stretch and that also won’t change next year. That leaves Fenner, Foster and Cooper. They are all high-quality young men and likely won’t pitch a fit, stomp their feet and quit the team if their minutes and roles decrease. But those three are the ones whose roles could suffer a bit or a lot with all of the new guys coming aboard.