Pack’s season of great expectations | NevadaAppeal.com

Pack’s season of great expectations

The Wolf Pack's Lindsey Drew (14) rejects CSU's Antwan Scott's shot during a Mountain West basketall game earlier this year.
STEVE RANSON / LVN FILE PHOTO |

The season of great expectations has officially begun at Lawlor Events Center.

A little over a year ago Eric Musselman was wondering if he had five or six players coming off a demoralized nine-win team who could run up and down the court three times in a row without passing out from exhaustion. Well, he found those five or six players plus a couple more and led the Wolf Pack to 24 victories and a College Basketball Invitation championship in his first year as head coach.

Hello unreasonable, unwarranted, irrational expectations.

“I’ve only been here less than 24 months,” said Musselman, who took over the program from the fired David Carter in late March of 2015. “We’re relatively new. I don’t know how many coaches who are in Year Two in a program that feel the need or pressure of making the NCAA Tournament.”

Well, we know of one. He’s the 51-year-old, five-foot-nothing ball of fire that made Nevada Wolf Pack basketball interesting once again.

“Right now it is all about Nevada style, Nevada tempo and building a Nevada identity,” said Musselman, who conducted the Wolf Pack’s first official practice of the 2016-17 season at Lawlor Events Center on Wednesday.

Right now it is all about style, tempo, identity and all things Nevada because the season is still a month away. The Wolf Pack will debut in front of fans on Nov. 4 at Lawlor in an exhibition against San Francisco State and will open the regular season on Nov. 11 at Saint Mary’s.

“This is the most difficult time for any team in college basketball because we’re a month away from competition,“ Musselman said. “We have to keep it fresh and not let the bordeom set in”

Boredom? Are you kidding? Boredom disappeared from Wolf Pack basketball the minute Musselman took the job 19 months ago. Wolf Pack basketball hasn’t been this fresh in a decade, since the 2006-07 team was the fourth consecutive Pack team to go to the NCAA tournament.

That was also the last time expectations have been this high around the program as they are right now. But there is one very distinct difference between 2006-07 and 2016-17. The expectations in 2006-07 were warranted. That team was coming off of three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a Sweet 16 showing in 2004-05 and three Western Athletic Conference regular season titles in a row.

This year’s expectations are born of hope and promise more than anything, not to mention a frustrated fan base that is desperate for something, anything to get excited about. The only tangible reason for these silly, over-the-top, the sky-is-the-limit expectations is the CBI championship run a year ago. But that was accomplished all at home against four (Montana, Eastern Washington, Vermont and Morehead State) mediocre teams.

That CBI title, while fun, also raised expectations to a ridiculous level in northern Nevada. The talk of going to the NCAA tournament in 2017 started even before all of the players and coaches could smear the CBI trophy with all of their fingerprint after beating Morehead State last April 1.

Never mind that the CBI has as much in common with the NCAA tournament as being named Homecoming King will get you a date with Scarlett Johansson. All national titles, after all, are not created equal. The Wolf Pack won the CBI by beating four mediocre teams (Montana, Eastern Washington, Vermont and Morehead State) all without ever leaving the comfort and safety of Lawlor Events Center. It was sort of like getting applause from your grandmother after singing a song for her n your living room and thinking that the next step was winning The Voice. The only way the CBI title of last year will translate into NCAA tournament success this year is if the Pack can somehow play a bunch of double-digit seeds all at home in the NCAA tournament.

That’s not going to happen. Musselman made miracles a year ago but that might even be beyond his reach.

“We farther ahead than where we were last year at this time,” said Musselman, who then flashed his patented I-know-something-you-don’t-know smile.

Make no mistake, last year was fun. Musselman transformed the program in just one year from an excuse-filled group of underachievers who annually quit on their coach and each other into a never-say-die, fight-to-the-end bunch of overachievers who played as if their shorts were on fire for 40 minutes. They had to play that way because Musselman coaches every game as if his hair is on fire.

This year, though, the entire community will be on fire when it comes to Nevada basketball. The schedule, for the first time in a decade, is exciting again. In the first month alone Loyola Marymount, Oregon State and Iona comes to Lawlor. There are no glorified scrimmages against the likes of Fresno Pacific and Holy Names this year. Lawlor, once again, is the place to be on a cold northern Nevada winter’s night.

But don’t worry. The expectations will warm you up. Expectations bring a smile to everyone’s face. They sell tickets, lift everyone’s spirits and unite an entire community. They turn a drab, drafty and dark Lawlor Events Center into a lively disco with a buzz that can be felt out onto Virginia Street. But expectations can also be very cruel, especially for a program that is still very much a work in progress. Once success, after all, doesn’t always translate into another success the next time out. Godfather followed by Godfather 2 was a rousing success. Dumb and Dumber to Dumb and Dumberer? Not so much. Let’s hope the Pack is more Godfather 2 than it is Dumb and Dumberer.

It is only fair, though, that we let this team find its way before we start the NCAA whispers. Yes, the Pack won 24 games and a CBI title last year. But just four players that played significant minutes last year (Cam Oliver, Lindsey Drew, D.J. Fenner, Elijah Foster) are back this year. Yes, one of those players is Oliver, the 6-foot-8 All-World sophomore who just might be the best player in the Mountain West. And another is Drew, the 6-4 sophomore coach on the floor who just might be the best point guard in the conference.

But the rest of the team is mainly a group of new faces filled with potential, promise and hope. If they’ve done anything at the Division I level, they did it elsewhere (Marcus Marshall at Missouri State, Leland King at Brown, Jordan Caroline at Southern Illinois and Kendall Stephens at Purdue) for other teams in other conference and for other coaches. Musselman is a different animal. How it all blends together remains to be seen.

That’s why this is not the time for crazy expectations. Let this team find itself and discover who and what it is before we start to put labels on it.

“No starting spots are filled up,” said Musselman, who then proceeded to say that Oliver and Drew are definite starters and that Caroline is already “one of our best players.”

So that leaves two starting spots left to be filled by the remaining six players (Fenner, Foster, Marshall, King, Stephens and freshman Devearl Ramsey) that are expected to see noticeable minutes this year.

“We lost Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell off last year’s team so we lost a lot of our defensive identity,” Musselman said. “We have a lot of holes to fill.”

You can bet that Musselman by now knows exactly who is going to fill those so-called holes. Oliver and Drew are obviously going to see big minutes. Caroline, a robust 6-7, 235-pounds, is an active, hustling, A.J. West with a non-stop motor. Marshall and King, who (like Caroline) were with the program and practiced all last year with the team, can score with anyone in the Mountain West. The 6-3 Marshall averaged 19.5 points a game at Missouri State two years ago and the 6-7 King averaged 14.6 at Brown. And Musselman sang the praises of Ramsey, a slight 5-foot-10 freshman guard from Southern California on Wednesday.

“I’ve never been around a freshman who has exhibited such great leadership qualities,” Musselman said.

That is high praise coming from Musselman, one of the great leaders in the sport. That is sort of like Michael Jordan praising someone’s ability to compete, LeBron James praising someone’s ability to market himself and Stephen Curry praising someone’s ability to shoot threes from the fifth row of the arena.

So maybe all of the expectations are justified after all. Maybe it is reasonable to assume that this year is going to end in the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. Maybe it isn’t so pie-in-the-sky as it might have seemed just a year ago at this time.

“Our team feels like it has a different mindset than last year,” Musselman said.

That is as close as Musselman will get right now to saying that the goals are a bit loftier this year. What he won’t say for public consumption is that the CBI was great for last year with a guy who had never been a head coach in college basketball before, taking over a nine-win team. This year the expectations are that win number nine will come by the middle of December. And nobody in silver and blue wants to be in the CBI this March.

“We’re just different this year,” Musselman said.

Time will tell if they are better. Just remember that we owe it to them to take all the time they need.