Fuss over Eric Musselman and Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team just starting, says Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com

Fuss over Eric Musselman and Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team just starting, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
Nevada head coach Eric Musselman watches play against Loyola-Chicago during the second half of a regional semifinal NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
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Next season can’t arrive fast enough for the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.

Forget the Final Four this coming weekend in San Antonio. Everyone in silver and blue knows the NCAA tournament ended on Thursday with the burning of the Wolf Pack season in Atlanta. Forget the spring, summer and fall and let’s just fast forward to November. It’s all basketball, all the time in Nevada from here on out.

Better yet, let’s just forget the entire 2018-19 men’s basketball regular season all together and get right back to March. That’s all that matters with the Wolf Pack basketball program now. Next March. The Big Dance. One Shining Moment after another. National media exposure. Darling Mariah Musselman, a year older, and even more adorable. Eric Musselman’s abs even more toned and ripped.

A year ago at this time, when Wolf Pack basketball, little Mariah and even the frenetic, shirt-shredding, four-letter word dropping head coach was our own little secret, Musselman told us all, “My family and I love Northern Nevada and the Wolf Pack community. I’m extremely excited about the future of Wolf Pack basketball.”

Not even the 5-foot-nothing Musselman could’ve predicted the amount of excitement and hysteria around his biggest little basketball team just a year later. His team is now the wildest overnight sensation since Jeremy Lin, Aaron Judge, the Beatles and Game of Thrones all put together. Mariah Musselman has built an approval rating high enough to become a reporter on the Today Show and Cody and Caleb Martin are the most popular twins this nation has seen since Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.

And all that was accomplished after just seven whirlwind days and a mere two wins in the NCAA tournament.

“It’s a lifetime experience,” Wolf Pack center Jordan Caroline said after the we-refuse-to-believe-it-happened 69-68 loss to Loyola on Thursday.

Nobody in Northern Nevada can wait for it all to begin again. The 2018-19 season will without a doubt be the most anticipated in Wolf Pack sports history. The 2003-04 Wolf Pack men’s basketball team also went to the Sweet 16 and expectations were high for 2004-05 but head coach Trent Johnson left within a month after the season ended, leaving an air of unpredictability around the program. The team never returned to the Sweet 16 again until 14 years later.

The 2010 Wolf Pack football team finished 13-1, beat Boise State, won a bowl game, the pistol formation thrilled the nation and the team ended up ranked 11th in the country. But Wolf Pack fans were well aware the 2010 team was flooded with a ridiculous amount of talented seniors (such as Colin Kaepernick, Dontay Moch, John Bender, Ryan Coulson, Virgil Green, Vai Taua) that would not be around in 2011. That 2011 season was also sabotaged by a silly schedule that included Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State all on the road in the first month.

Other Wolf Pack seasons (baseball in the 1990s, football throughout the Chris Ault era, men’s basketball as long as Nick Fazekas was on the roster and this just completed men’s basketball season) had high expectations. But none of those expectations stretched the upper reaches of the atmosphere like this 2018-19 basketball season is about to do.

The next seven months until the Pack plays another meaningful game is going to be unbearable. It’s going to be Christmas Eve for the next seven months every single night. The opening of a new Star Wars movie every weekend. You think the two-week wait for a Super Bowl is long and over hyped? Well, get ready for the next seven months waiting for Mariah, the next season of The Sweet 16 Life of Caleb and Cody and Eric the Abs to come back into our lives.

Our Pack patience is going to be tested like never before from now until next November.

This is not just hype and false hope. The just completed 2017-18 basketball season isn’t going to be a once-a-generation lightning bolt thrown down from the heavens by the College Basketball Gods never to be seen again. We don’t need tales of mythic Gods performing unbelievable miracles to describe what the 2018-19 Wolf Pack might do. We just have to throw out some facts and numbers.

The rest of the country might believe the Wolf Pack was a Cinderella story this year and just another UMBC Retrievers (2018), Cleveland State (1986), Penn (1979) and Kent State (2002), never to be heard from again. We know better.

There are more than enough reasons to believe the progression the Wolf Pack has shown under Musselman — CBI national title in 2016, Mountain West championship and NCAA tournament appearance in 2017, Sweet 16 in 2018 — will continue to take a step forward a year from now.

The first reason is the Muss Bus has yet to put Northern Nevada in its rear view mirror. Yes, he’s still here. A year ago all of Northern Nevada held its breath as Musselman visited the California Golden Bears and then renegotiated a contract extension at Nevada. So far we haven’t been subject to that drama and anxiety this year. So, for now, he’s here. There’s nothing to fear. Don’t shed a tear. Go ahead and cheer. And let out a sigh of relief.

Not only do the odds favor Muss coming back in November, so will the bulk of the team that went to Atlanta last week. Four starters — Cody, Caleb, Caroline and Lindsey Drew — will be back as will Josh Hall, who clearly deserves starter’s minutes given what we saw in three NCAA tournament games this month (13 points a game on 65 percent shooting). Those five alone will be good enough for the Pack to win its third consecutive Mountain West regular season championship.

But they won’t be alone. The Wolf Pack, as things look now, will have its deepest team in 2018-19 since Mariah Musselman came to town.

The Pack loses 3-point shooter Kendall Stephens, super utility man Hallice Cooke and seldom-used Elijah Foster off this year’s team but they’ll be replaced by four talented and hungry newcomers who just spent the last six months serving their Wolf Pack apprenticeship under Muss, Cody, Caleb, Caroline and company.

Tre-Shawn Thurman, a transfer from Omaha, will bring some much-needed bulk (6-foot-7, 230 pounds). Thurman, a senior next year, started 90 games for Omaha and averaged 12.5 points. He once scored 18 points for Omaha in a 78-54 win over the Wolf Pack in November 2014. His last year at Omaha (2016-17) he dumped 20 points on USC, 17 on Iowa and 18 on Pitt. As a sophomore he scored 20 against Wyoming and 16 against Minnesota.

Corey Henson, a 6-3 guard, averaged 12.4 points over 93 games for Wagner. He once scored 17 against Seton Hall and 16 against St. John’s and is a 36 percent 3-point shooter. Nisre Zouzoua, a 6-2, 200-pound junior, played two seasons for Bryant, averaging 16.5 points over 62 games. He once scored 16 against Duke, 19 against Notre Dame, 22 against Gonzaga and 24 against Northwestern and is a 37 percent 3-point shooter.

Jazz Johnson, a 5-10 junior, played two seasons for Portland in the West Coast Conference, averaging 11.4 points in 65 games. He also shoots the three well (40 percent accuracy) and has already left his mark on UCLA (25 points), BYU (17 points), Colorado (18), Boise State (11), San Francisco (22) and Saint Mary’s (12).

As you can tell, the Pack’s greatest strength this past season (offense) might be even better next year. An 0-for-8 3-point shooting performance (Stephens against Loyola) by one shooter might not doom the team again next year. The Pack’s problem area this year (defense) might also improve dramatically if only because there will be enough able bodies for the team to actually play a little defense without fear of fouling out.

The Wolf Pack will also have the added benefit of two other factors going into next year it didn’t have just two weeks ago. This program now knows that it can be a serious contender in the NCAA tournament. Before 10 days ago, the program hadn’t won a tournament game in 11 years. It is now a program that came within two points of going to the Elite Eight and, yes, possibly beyond.

The second factor that will help the Pack next March is the pain of losing to Loyola. Musselman won’t have to do anything to motivate his team next season other than say 69-68. Pain is the greatest motivator. It will also be the final season for Cody, Caleb, Caroline and Drew (if he doesn’t sit out next year) and also Henson and Thurman. You can be sure they’ll all play next season like it’s an extended version of those final 10 minutes against Cincinnati a little over a week ago in Nashville.

Musselman, you see, isn’t a guy who likes to stay in the same place for long. Don’t worry, Pack fans. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon (we think). Musselman knows as well as anyone you don’t necessarily have to physically leave your present location to find a new place. You can also create a new place right where you are. Musselman has done exactly that in each of his three seasons in Northern Nevada, teaching the team how to win in 2015-16, turning it into the best team in the Mountain West in 2016-17 and making it one of the best 16 teams in the nation last week.

Trent Johnson was like Musselman, always improving the team year after year. Mark Fox, though, took a good basketball team and kept it good and even showed flashes of greatness. But he just never took the next step. David Carter’s tenure was like a rollercoaster ride.

Musselman’s rollercoaster is still climbing.

“We’re still kind of evolving into who we are,” Musselman said during one of his seemingly non-stop national radio interviews in the three off days leading up to the Loyola game. “It’s amazing.”

Amazing has become commonplace at Nevada under Musselman. But who knows what changes 2018-19 will bring? But there’s one thing you can be sure of. Musselman and the Pack will never stand still.

Loyola coach Porter Moser said it best after his Ramblers stunned Northern Nevada on Thursday.

“When you have that winning gene, they (the players) just keep believing, they keep buying in,” Moser said. “And it’s just grown. We’re hungry, we’re greedy, we want more.”

We can’t wait for 2018-19.