Joe Santoro: Believe the hype around the Nevada Wolf Pack
Special to the Appeal
Nevada Wolf Pack opens season with 88-64 win against Idaho
You can believe the hype. The hype is real.
The Nevada Wolf Pack opened its men’s basketball season Friday night by handing out its 2017 Mountain West championship rings and hanging three new banners in the Lawlor Events Center rafters, one each for its conference regular season and tournament titles and its NCAA tournament appearance.
If the 88-64 victory over the Idaho Vandals that followed the pre-game ceremony is any indication, next season will begin with three more banners and some more jewelry.
“We feel we have the potential to be a better team than last year,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack toyed with the Big Sky Conference’s Vandals, hitting nearly half its shots and forcing 17 turnovers. The Pack also showed off all its new toys as nine players saw the court for at least 10 minutes each with four of them scoring in double digits.
“We’re going to play a lot better than we did tonight,” said Musselman, who has lost just four home games in his Wolf Pack coaching career over the last two-plus seasons. “We have a lot of new faces. We’ll get better. The ball will flow better on offense. But we were better tonight than we were last year on the first night.”
One reason the Pack just might be better than the 28-7 team that won the Mountain West and went to the NCAA tournament a year ago is its pair of 6-foot-7 juniors, Cody and Caleb Martin. The twins combined for 41 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and five steals in their Wolf Pack debut and looked like they’ve been in Northern Nevada for years.
“Both Martins played a phenomenal game,” said Musselman, who stole the Martin twins off the North Carolina State roster a little over a year ago. “Both those guys are great players.”
The Martin twins took over the game in the final minutes of the first half, breaking open what was a close game. The Wolf Pack trailed 20-16 with just under eight minutes to play before the twins took over the team, the game, the Vandals and the crowd. Caleb scored 18 points in the final 7:36 of the first half and Cody had three assists as the Pack walked into its halftime locker room with a 43-30 lead.
“They are both so versatile,” said Pack point guard Lindsey Drew, who played just seven minutes in the first half because of foul trouble and because the twins were playing so well. “They play both defense and offense. They play so well together. I look at them and I think they are just one guy. They have that twin connection.”
The Martins looked like the only players on the court in the final minutes of the first half. That twin connection was never more apparent than when Cody fed Caleb for a dunk and a 41-28 lead with 2:04 to play in the first half.
“That alley-oop was phenomenal,” Musselman said.
It was so phenomenal and smooth, Musselman ought to bring back his Sweet Georgia Brown Harlem Globetrotters pre-game routine from two seasons ago just so the Martin twins could rev up the crowd before home games.
“That’s just from when we were little,” Caleb said. “I look at Cody and he looks at me and, I don’t want to give away all our secrets, but I just open my eyes a little wider and he knows what to do.”
Caleb then put an exclamation mark on the first half when he undressed Idaho’s Jordan Scott from just beyond the free throw line, draining a jumper as the half ended.
“We need a guy who can manufacture his own shot and Caleb can do that,” Musselman said. “Cody can, too. I’d love to say that was all because of the play calling from the bench but we had nothing to do with those two guys getting hot.”
The Martins beg to differ. The reason the Martins were able to hit the court running in their first Pack game, the twins said, was because of all the work they put in with Musselman all last season during practice when they had to sit out a year.
“Nobody in the country prepares like we (the Wolf Pack team) do,” Cody said. “The biggest reason this game feels so good is because of all the work we’ve put in.”
There might not be a coach in the country better than Musselman at allowing his players to have fun playing the game.
“I remember one time during the game I said to (Lindsey Drew), ‘Man, I love playing with y’all,’” Caleb Martin said. “’Lindsey just said, ‘Yeah, we’re just getting started.’”
“I just loved watching my brother play free tonight,” Caleb said. “I was playing free. We’re out there playing with great teammates. We’re just all brothers.”
Last year’s Wolf Pack basically just outscored teams and broke their spirit with Cam Oliver blocking shots and draining threes and Marcus Marshall hitting shots from all over the arena. Against Idaho the Pack walked out on the court, puffed out its chests, put on a scowl, almost daring Idaho to make a basket. The Pack showed a physical toughness, especially on defense, that we didn’t really see all last season during any extended period. The Pack pushed the Vandals around, knocked them to the floor and made their presence known.
“We just wanted them (Idaho) to know we were in the building,” Cody Martin said.
Musselman seems to enjoy coaching his newest version of the Wolf Pack.
“I can’t talk enough about the defensive effort this team put forth,” Musselman said.
The Pack coach already feels this year’s team is ahead of last year’s championship group in one very important aspect.
“I don’t think I’ve seen team chemistry like that since I’ve been here,” Musselman said. “I don’t think I’ve seen the locker room that happy.”
That is saying a lot for a program that is coming off a year in which it won the Mountain West regular season and tournament championships.
“They were just happy for each other,” Musselman said.
It could end up being a very happy season up on north Virginia Street.