For Eric Musselman, there’s no substitute for winning, says Joe Santoro |

For Eric Musselman, there’s no substitute for winning, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
Nevada coach Eric Musselman takes down the net Saturday night in Las Vegas after the Pack defeated Colorado State.
Steve Ranson / LVN |

Eric Musselman just smiles, shakes his head a bit and lets out a little chuckle when asked about how thin his Nevada Wolf Pack bench appears to be on most nights.

“We’ve been kind of doing that for two years,” the Wolf Pack head coach said. “Last year we were kind of a six-man crew.”

Think of the Wolf Pack this season like a rock and roll band. Who needs substitutes? The Beatles, after all, didn’t substitute a new drummer for Ringo or a new lead singer for Paul McCartney or John Lennon mid-way through their concerts, did they?

“If we have five who are rolling and nobody fouls out we’d go that route, too,” Musselman said, again flashing a smile.

The 54-year-old Musselman coaches like he’s a 65-year-old John Wooden in the 1970s with players like Curtis Rowe, Sidney Wicks, Henry Bibby, Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes. The starters are going to play. A lot. Starters start and finish. That’s why they’re starters. The guys on the bench are there only to make sure nobody in the first few rows of the arena steals any towels or water bottles.

“There is way too much made about substitutions in college,” Musselman said.

No coach in the Mountain West, so far, substitutes as infrequently as Musselman. He’s much too busy yelling at referees and his assistants or going to get drinks of water behind the bench during a game to waste any time putting in an assistant. Half the time he does take a starter out of a game is only so he can yell at him for a minute before sending him back in the game. The Wolf Pack starters (Caleb and Cody Martin, Kendall Stephens, Lindsey Drew and Jordan Caroline) have played an astounding 674 minutes out of the 800 minutes available (84 percent) in the Pack’s first four Mountain West games. The Pack bench has played just 126 minutes over its first four conference games.

And the Pack is 4-0. There is, after all, no substitute for winning.

The Wolf Pack starters have played 165 or more of the 200 minutes available in each of the four league games this year. Only one other team in just one game has played its bench 35 or fewer minutes in any Mountain West game this year. That was UNLV, whose bench played just 32 minutes against Boise State. Every other bench in every other Mountain West game (there have been 20 so far) has played at least 40 minutes in every game this season.

Michigan had its Fab Five in the early 1990s. The Wolf Pack now has its Iron Man Five.

“When you get subbed in you have to produce,” Musselman said.

Too many Cookes, as far as Musselman is concerned, spoil the Pack’s broth. One is all the Pack has needed over the four league games. Hallice Cooke is the only Pack reserve player who has needed his uniform washed after a league game this year. The senior has played 83 out of the 165 minutes allotted to the Pack bench in league games this year and has scored 18 of the 22 points the bench has produced. The last Pack bench player to score other than Cooke was Josh Hall with a dunk with 11:34 to go in the first half in the first league game against Fresno State on Dec. 27.

The Pack bench has played an average of just 31.5 minutes a game in league games. UNLV is the second stingiest in the Mountain West when it comes to bench playing time with 38.6 minutes in each league game. Every other team in the Mountain West is using its bench, on average, 49.7 (Wyoming) or more minutes a game. New Mexico and San Jose have each relied on their benches the most in league play at 89.3 minutes a game. Air Force’s bench is at 70.3 minutes a game. San Diego State, Utah State, Fresno State, Colorado State and Boise State use their benches from 52 to 57.5 minutes a game in league play.

“Last year we did it the whole year,” said Caroline, who’s averaging 35.8 minutes a game in the Pack’s four league games (Cody Martin is at a team high 36.0). “I’m used to it. It’s not too bad.”

The Wolf Pack finished last year using just a six-man rotation with starters Cam Oliver, Caroline, Drew, D.J. Fenner and Marcus Marshall with Hall coming off the bench. It worked when the Pack clinched the Mountain West regular season title against Colorado State at home and when it beat Colorado State in the conference tournament title game in Las Vegas. It didn’t work as well in the NCAA tournament in a loss to Iowa State.

Using six players to beat Mountain West teams, after all, is one thing. But it just might take more than six to win a NCAA tournament game or two. Despite the 4-0 record in league games, the Pack bench is piling up some red flag stats so far. The Wolf Pack bench has been outscored 111-22 combined in its four league games against Fresno State, New Mexico, Wyoming and Air Force. Cooke (18), Hall and Elijah Foster (two each) have scored all of the 22 points the Pack bench has mustered in the four league games. So, basically, nearly half the Pack roster has scored roughly the same amount of points as a Lawlor Events Center usher in four league games.

What does it all mean? Well, so far, not much.

“Nobody cares,“ Cody Martin said, sounding like a guy who never wants to leave the floor. “The team you are playing doesn’t care if you have guys who are sick or don’t feel good. We just have to fight through it.“

Hall missed two games recently with the flu, giving Musselman little or no bench flexibility. But that didn’t force him to dig deeper into his bench. All it did was make him ignore his bench more than usual. Will Musselman use his bench more frequently when somebody doesn’t have the flu? Probably, but only slightly. Hall, after all, is talented enough to start for any other team in the Mountain West. But it seems the only factor that will increase the Pack bench’s playing time is if the starters start to blow some teams out.

“We could play better,” Caleb Martin said. “We’re nowhere close to where we should be playing.”

If you ask Musselman we’re making far too much about all of this. The Pack, after all, is 4-0 in league play. All of those other teams in the league that have used their bench more than the Pack all have at least one league loss. The Wolf Pack’s four victims in league play (New Mexico, Fresno State, Wyoming and Air Force) used their bench for an average of 64.8 minutes a game against the Pack. And all four went home with a loss.

“There’s no back to back games unless it’s in the conference tournament,” Musselman said. “These guys are 18-22-year-olds. They’re in great physical condition.”

History tells us you can indeed win a national title using just five or six players. Wooden did it in 1970, 1971 and 1975. The Villanova bench played just a total of nine minutes when it upset Georgetown in 1985. Loyola of Chicago didn’t substitute for a single second in beating Cincinnati in the 1963 title game and that game went to a five-minute overtime. You can certainly win a Mountain West title with five or six players.

So, unless you’re a mom or dad of one of the Pack’s seldom-used bench players, don’t worry about it.

“Maybe it’s (because of) coaches I’ve been around,” Musselman said. “Whether its Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, my dad (Bill Musselman), Tom Thibodeau. Not big substitution guys.”

If it was good enough for Hubie, Thibs, Papa Muss and The Czar of the Telestrator, it’s good enough for the Pack’s Muss. Cody Martin (36.2 minutes), Caroline (33.7) and Caleb Martin (32) are all in the Top 10 in the Mountain West in minutes played (all games) this season. Last year Marshall, Caroline, Drew and Oliver all averaged 30 or more minutes a game. In Musselman’s first year Drew, Marqueze Coleman, Fenner, Oliver and Tyron Criswell all averaged 28.8 or more minutes a game.

Is Musselman overdoing it with his starters? Not at all. He uses his starters the most in the Mountain West because, well, he has the best starting five in the Mountain West. There are 77 players in the nation averaging 35 or more minutes a game this year and just one (Cody Martin) is on the Wolf Pack. Syracuse, Oakland, La Salle and Princeton each have three players averaging 35 or more. A dozen other schools have two.

“We haven’t felt like we taper off (physically at the end of games) and it’s because of the conditioning we do in the summer,” Musselman said.

Maybe Musselman is right. Maybe we’re making far too much out of all this.