Pack on verge of championship berth
Special to the Appeal
The goal of every college basketball team each season is to go to a postseason tournament. The Nevada Wolf Pack has been more than happy to let the tournament come to them this month.
The Wolf Pack (21-13) will play its third consecutive College Basketball Invitational game at home when it hosts the Vermont Catamounts (23-13) at Lawlor Events Center tonight (7 p.m.). At stake is a spot in the best-of-three CBI championship series March 28, 30 and April 1. Morehead State (21-12) is at Ohio (23-11) today in the other CBI semifinal.
“Anytime you get a home game it’s an advantage,” said Wolf Pack senior guard Tyron Criswell, who scored 32 points in an 85-70 win over Eastern Washington on Monday at Lawlor. “You are just more confident and more comfortable.”
CBI home games are fitting the Wolf Pack as comfortably as an old pair of jeans right now. The Pack, who beat Montana last Wednesday at Lawlor 79-75 to open the CBI, are now 13-3 at home this season.
“I want to play all the games at home,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “Our crowds are helping us win these games.”
A team staying at home through the first three rounds of the CBI is nothing new. The Wolf Pack is the 12th team to get three home games to start the CBI over the tournament’s eight-year history. Just four of the previous 11 lost in the semifinal round. Five of the other seven teams — Loyola of Chicago last year, Siena in 2014, Oregon in 2011, Oregon State in 2009 and Tulsa in 2008 — ended up winning the entire tournament.
“Playing at home is big,” Musselman said. “Not only are your guys more rested and comfortable but you have the crowd behind you. And our crowds have been great.”
A win over Vermont will give the Wolf Pack three victories in one postseason national tournament for the first time in school history. The 2012 Wolf Pack won two games in the NIT and the 2004 Pack won twice in the NCAA tournament.
“I’m just trying to make my career last as long as I can here,” Criswell said.
The comfort and confidence that comes with playing at home has been apparent in the Wolf Pack’s shooting percentage over the last game and a half. The Pack shot just 34.6 percent (9-of-26) in the first half against Montana but have been red hot ever since.
In the second half against Montana coupled with the entire game against Eastern Washington the Pack have shot at a 52 percent clip (47-of-90) and have made 15-of-34 (44 percent) 3-pointers. This is the same team who was shooting .416 from the floor and just .287 on 3-pointers heading into the CBI.
“I think it’s all the reps that we put in, especially the guards,” Criswell said. “We’re all staying 30 or 40 minutes after practice working on our shots.”
The Wolf Pack has been practicing or playing games at Lawlor since it returned from the Mountain West tournament on March 12. This is the first time the Pack will have played three consecutive games at home since December when they played and beat Fresno Pacific, Drake and Santa Clara.
“The improved shooting is because of all the work we’ve put in,” said freshman center Cam Oliver, who was 12-of-15 from the floor for 28 points against Eastern Washington.
“But our identity still is defense. On offense, we just want to do what comes naturally for us.”
“We’re getting better as a team,” Musselman said, attempting to explain the improved shooting recently. “I think our team is getting better in a lot of areas. We’re different than what we were before.”
The Wolf Pack have never lost to Vermont in three games, beating the Catamounts 69-49 at Lawlor Events Center on Nov. 17, 2003, 74-64 at Lawlor on Feb. 19, 2005 and also 77-62 at Vermont on Nov. 23, 2006.
“They are really well-coached and they have excellent execution,” Musselman said. “Against Montana and Eastern Washington we played great defense in the second half of both of those games to win. Against Vermont we will have to play great defense for the entire 40 minutes.”
The Catamounts, of the America East Conference, don’t have a player who’s averaging as many as 30 minutes a game or scores more than 12 points a game. Point guard Trae Bell-Haynes is averaging 12.0 points, 3.5 assists, 2.7 rebounds a game and makes 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Ethan O’Day, a 6-foot-9 senior, averages 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds while Kurt Steidl, a 6-6 junior, averages 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds. Ernie Duncan, a 6-3 freshman, is averaging 11.3 points and makes 44 percent of his threes. Cam Ward, a 6-2 sophomore, scores 9.3 points a game.
“Their point guard does a great job of getting into the teeth of the defense,” Musselman said. “They are a very difficult team to defend.”
The Catamounts average 75 points a game and shoot 48 percent from the floor and 38 percent on threes. Vermont started the year 4-6 but has won nine of its last 10 games. Two of its losses this year were to Purdue 107-79 and Florida 86-62 back in November.
Catamounts coach John Becker is now in his fifth year and has won 20 or more games every year. He’s 110-62 at Vermont and has been to five postseason tournaments (3 CBI, one NCAA, one NIT) in five years. The Catamounts got to the CBI semifinals last year and lost 71-65 at Louisiana Monroe.
The Wolf Pack are 2-2 this year when they have one or two days to prepare for an opponent. “One day to prepare is hard,” Criswell said. “We definitely have to lock in even more.”
“It just comes down to who is really dialed in,” Oliver said.
Musselman said he didn’t sleep at all Monday night after the victory over Eastern Washington because he had to start his preparation for Vermont immediately.
“Our focus is all on Vermont right now and it’s not about trying to clean up our own end,” Musselman said. “A lot of programs just do what they do and don’t worry too much about the opposition. But we’re not like that. We’re not going to just go out there and play Nevada basketball no matter what the opposition does. We’re going to figure out what that team does and try to take things away from them.”
The biggest thing the Pack want to take away from Vermont is a berth in the CBI finals next week.
“We’re excited,” Musselman said. “We’re one game away from playing in a championship series.”