Joe Santoro: It won’t come easy for Pack | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: It won’t come easy for Pack

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack reminded us once again on Thursday no tournament game, be it in the Mountain West or the NCAA, is going to be easy. The Pack fell behind the Boise State Broncos 27-12 about 13 minutes into Thursday's Mountain West tournament opener before dominating the last 27 minutes (65-42 Pack) for a 77-69 victory. Is it a cause for concern for the Wolf Pack? Not at all. In fact, it's a reason for the Pack to be optimistic. We saw on Thursday the magic the Pack had last year come tournament time, falling behind by double digits to Texas and Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament before winning.

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The Wolf Pack doesn't beat the Broncos without Tre'Shawn Thurman's 17 points. It doesn't beat the Broncos without Jazz Johnson's 20 points and five 3-pointers. It doesn't beat the Broncos without Cody Martin's 10 points and nine assists. It doesn't beat the Broncos without Caleb Martin's 19 points. It also doesn't beat the Broncos without Jordan Caroline's nine rebounds, even though Caroline was just 2-of-7 from the floor for seven points. But that's the strength of this Pack team. It doesn't have one superstar that's going to carry it night after night. It has five guys who usually contribute to a victory each and every game. That is how you win tournaments.

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The Wolf Pack basically beat the Broncos with five players. Caleb and Cody Martin, Caroline, Johnson and Thurman played 184 of the 200 minutes and scored 73 of the 77 points. Well, get used to it. That's just how coach Eric Musselman functions. He's going to play the best five or six players in every game. Can a team play five players three days in a row and still win the Mountain West tournament? Absolutely. Can that same team play five guys for six games over three consecutive weekends and win a NCAA tournament title? We'll find out.

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The Wolf Pack couldn't have played any more poorly than it did in the first nine minutes against Boise. The Broncos jumped out to a 20-7 lead and the Pack was 2-of-13 from the floor with four turnovers. But nobody should ever panic with this Pack team, no matter what the score might be. It taught us all that lesson last year in the NCAA tournament. The Pack outscored Boise 70-49, shot 24-of-41 (59 percent) and outrebounded the Broncos 26-15 over the final 31 minutes. That's what good teams do. That's what this Pack team has done all year.

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Good news, Wolf Pack and Musselman fans. Your idol talked about the 2019-20 season last Saturday night after clinching the Mountain West regular season title. Musselman talked to the Pack's underclassmen out on the court last Saturday while the seniors were cutting down the nets. "I told them, 'I hope you are soaking this all in because the goal is to do this again next year,'" Musselman said. "We lose a lot (seven seniors). We know we lose a lot. But we're going to replenish and work hard to replace the talent and, more importantly, the character of the guys we lose. Now it's the coaches' job to try to find some guys who can carry the torch for these guys." Whether or not Musselman is one of those coaches next year remains to be seen. But he did say "we."

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Musselman, a long-time coach in professional basketball at all levels, is beginning to appreciate the college atmosphere. Last Saturday's Senior Night clearly made an emotional impression upon him. "It's a lot different coaching guys like this," said Musselman, who has coached nine seasons in the NBA. "This is only my fourth year (as a college head coach). It's just a lot different experience than coaching at the NBA level. I don't think after the last game with the (Sacramento) Kings (in 2006-07) I was hugging everybody and crying and telling them I love them. I don't think that happened with Metta World Peace."

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The Wolf Pack has now been in 36 conference postseason tournaments since playing in its first after the 1981-82 Big Sky Conference season. The Pack has an overall record of 40-30 in conference tournament games with just five championships. Ten of the 36 tournaments were in Reno and 11 have now been in Las Vegas. The Pack won just one conference tournament in Reno (2005-06) and one (2016-17) in Las Vegas. So it's not easy to win a conference tournament, no matter where it's played. The best Pack coach in conference tournaments? Sonny Allen holds the school record for most victories (10) and conference championships (two). Len Stevens was 1-5, Pat Foster was 6-5, Trent Johnson and Mark Fox were both 7-4 with one tournament title each, David Carter was 3-6 and Musselman is now 6-2 with one title (2016-17).

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The Pack is now 6-5 in Mountain West tournament games. The Pack was 11-9 in Big Sky Conference tournament games, 7-6 in the Big West and 16-10 in the Western Athletic Conference. The Pack's victory over Boise State is its first over the Broncos in the postseason since a 79-67 win in March 1985. The Pack is now 2-2 against the Broncos in conference tournament games with losses in 2005 (in Reno) and 2014 (in Las Vegas). The Wolf Pack is now 11-9 in conference tournament games in Las Vegas.