Finisher has one more job to finish
Few coaches in the history of Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball finish a job as well as Eric Musselman.
In Musselman’s first year at Nevada in 2015-16, he immediately changed the culture and the direction of the program, winning the College Basketball Invitational. A Mountain West regular season and tournament title and a trip to the NCAA tournament followed his second year. And this season we’ve already witnessed Musselman’s wife Danyelle write the words “MW Champs” on Musselman’s bare and taut stomach after the Pack clinched the conference regular season championship once more.
That’s four championships in a span of less than three full seasons. This is the same program that won one championship (the Western Athletic Conference regular season title in 2011-12) over the previous seven years.
“I was raised only one way,” Musselman said last week after the Pack clinched the Mountain West regular season title. “And it was to try to win every single game.”
And every single championship. It must be noted, though, the last time we saw Musselman and the Wolf Pack everyone in silver and blue was walking off the court Saturday night after a 79-74 loss at San Diego State’s Viejas Arena. So, no, try as it might, the Pack in the Musselman era hasn’t actually won every single game.
It only seems that way because Musselman’s Pack rarely loses a game — especially one of the Mountain West variety — that means anything of note. Saturday was another one of those meaningless Wolf Pack conference losses. The Wolf Pack had already clinched the Mountain West regular season title. It was coming off a 26-point pounding of hated rival UNLV just three nights earlier. The last time the Pack played San Diego State it strolled to a ridiculously easy 25-point win just three weeks earlier in Reno.
A loss at San Diego State on the road to end the regular season? Yawn. Nothing was on the line. Snooze. Nothing of value was lost. Snore. Nothing to worry about.
Remember, Musselman is a finisher. When the Pack played at San Diego State, the job — winning the Mountain West regular season title and wrapping up the No. 1 seed for the Mountain West tournament — was already finished.
You don’t judge college basketball coaches and teams on the play-out-the-string portion of their schedule after the nets have already been cut down. Heck, Danyelle had already sent out the best stomach tweet to the rest of the conference last week. The only thing missing on hubby’s abs was a little smiley face at the end of that stomach tweet.
You judge college basketball coaches and teams on the games when a championship is on the line and, well, it’s been two years since the Pack lost that sort of Mountain West game. That was March 11, 2016 in Las Vegas when the Aztecs beat the Pack in the second round of the Mountain West tournament. Since then the Pack outlasted Colorado State to win the regular season and tournament championships last year and slapped runner-up Boise State around twice to win the regular season title this year.
Yes, Musselman finishes the job. He’s the best finisher since Mariano Rivera. The job this week that needs finishing is to become just the second Mountain West team in the history of the league along with New Mexico in 2012 and 2013 to win regular season and tournament titles in successive years.
“We’ve got to keep playing at a high level,” The Finisher said a couple weeks ago.
The Pack certainly did that this week, blitzing UNLV and fighting San Diego State (and the officials) to the final buzzer. That was the job this past week, to keep everyone sharp, motivated and healthy for the conference tournament.
In fact, the loss to the Aztecs likely benefited the Pack more than a victory would’ve done. The Finisher, you see, works in mysterious ways. There’s more than one way to finish a job and Musselman knows them all.
The Wolf Pack, you see, accomplished more last week than merely wrapping up the regular season schedule. First of all, the Pack broke the spirit of UNLV. The Rebels, thanks to a once-in-a-millennium type of victory at Lawlor Events Center just three weeks before, probably went into Wednesday night’s game feeling good about itself. Hey, if they can beat the Pack in Reno, something just one team (Fresno State in January 2017) had done in the last 30 games, well, they certainly could do it in Las Vegas in the Mountain West tournament next week.
Yeah, well, that was before Wednesday’s 101-75 not-as-close-as-the-score-suggests Pack victory at the Thomas & Mack Center. Any confidence the Rebels might have had playing the Pack this week in Las Vegas was crushed last week by the Pack.
“Give kudos to UNR,” UNLV coach Marvin Menzies said after the game. “Tip your hat to UNR. They played like the (then) number 21 team in the country, to be honest.”
And UNLV played like, well, a school that had to resort to its petty and childish tradition of calling the Wolf Pack “UNR” every chance it can get.
Even the loss to San Diego State will likely benefit the Pack this week in Las Vegas and, yes, next week in the NCAA tournament. No team, after all, uses a loss as a motivator better than the Musselman Wolf Pack. Musselman has coached 105 games for the Wolf Pack. He has lost two games in a row just three times.
It would be easy for a team like the Wolf Pack, which cuts down the nets as often as it blows out the candles on its birthday cakes, to be a little overconfident heading into the Mountain West tournament this week. The tournament, after all, is comprised of teams against which the Pack had won 32 of its previous 39 games since that loss to San Diego State in March 2016.
The San Diego State loss Saturday eliminated the possibility of any Wolf Pack overconfidence this week. That’s because a loss reminds this Wolf Pack of the job at hand. Just ask the Rebels, who beat the Pack 86-78 on Feb. 7.
“They came out angry,” Menzies said after the Pack’s 26-point win in Las Vegas last week. “They were very aggressive offensively and shot the you-know-what out of the ball. They were just a buzz saw.”
Go ahead, beat the Wolf Pack. If you dare.
San Diego State just might have done the Pack a favor Saturday. And then the Aztecs tossed gasoline on that fire with some Wolf Pack-motivating comments late Saturday night.
“I told the team two weeks ago that we’re the best team in this conference,” Aztecs coach Bran Dutcher said in his post-game press conference Saturday. “We believe we’re the best team in this conference.”
The Aztecs finished just 11-7 in Mountain West play this season, by the way. The Pack has lost seven league games over the last two seasons combined.
Dutcher was asked by CBS Sports Network after the game, “What do you want to work on leading into the Mountain West tournament?” Dutcher just smiled and confidently said, “Cutting down the nets.”
You know the Pack heard that. Cutting down the nets, after all, is in their job description.
“It was a game we expected to win,” Aztecs player Trey Kell said. “We believe we’re the best team.”
The Pack has been saying that all season long and went out and proved it. The Aztecs just started saying it and — check that 11-7 league record and No. 5 seed next to their name this week — have yet to prove it, no matter what happened Saturday.
That might be the words of a team puffing out its chest after beating the regular season champion. Or it just might be the Aztecs whistling past the graveyard. And that graveyard just might be Thomas & Mack Center Friday when they might play the Wolf Pack in the Mountain West tournament semifinals.
The Aztecs probably shouldn’t have tried to anger the Wolf Pack with words Saturday. The scoreboard was more than enough. No team gets as angry after a loss as the Wolf Pack. That’s because no coach gets as angry during and after a loss than Musselman. Ask the officials at Viejas Arena, who experienced the Musselman fire in the final minute of the game after they had the nerve to call a double dribble on the Pack’s Kendall Stephens with 16.8 seconds to play.
It doesn’t matter the officials were right. It was at that moment Musselman knew his team was going to lose the game. And history tells us losses tend to make a Musselman angry. Musselman’s father Bill, don’t forget, became famous for the slogan, “Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat.” He even put a plaque over the door leading to his Minnesota Gophers shower so they had to read that sentence after every home game and practice. don’t be shocked to learn Eric asks Danyelle to write that same sentence on his chest so his Pack players can be reminded of what’s at stake in the coming weeks.
That’s because there are still championships to be won and jobs to be finished. The job for Musselman to finish now is simple: To coach the first Wolf Pack team in history to win regular season and conference tournaments in successive years. The 1984 and 1985 Wolf Pack won the Big Sky Tournament in successive years but only won the regular season title in 1985. The 2004-07 Wolf Pack won the WAC regular season title all four years but only won the conference tournament in 2004 and 2006.
“There’s going to be a scoreboard,” Musselman said a couple weeks ago.
There will also be a net ready to be cut down this week. And The Finisher, you can be sure, has the scissors and some extra room on his abs for another message.