Joe Santoro: Caroline’s passion is Pack’s foundation | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Caroline’s passion is Pack’s foundation

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

It didn't take long for Eric Musselman to discover Jordan Caroline's passion and intensity.

"On his official (recruiting) visit (the spring of 2015) we went right from the airport to Famous Dave's (barbecue restaurant)," the Nevada Wolf Pack head coach said. "He put down 40 wings. I'm not joking either. He was just downing wings."

Musselman, who was gathering his first recruiting class on the fly at the time, envisioned those wings as basketballs. If someone could lose a finger merely reaching for a chicken wing across the table from Caroline, imagine what would happen if they had the nerve to fight for a basketball against the 6-foot-7, 235-pounder.

"I just remember texting everyone, saying, 'We've got to get this kid,'" Musselman said.

Caroline, who averaged a workmanlike 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds a game in his one season at Southern Illinois as a freshman in 2014-15, committed to the Wolf Pack just days after digesting those wings. Musselman's Wolf Pack now had its passion, intensity, appetite, muscle, toughness and desire all wrapped up in one player.

"In the recruiting process, we were really concerned there were places close enough to (Caroline's hometown of Champaign, Ill.) where his family could have seen him play more than coming here," Musselman said. "But, for me personally, I felt the connection. We felt like when he was on his visit (wiping barbecue sauce from his chin) we were going to get him."

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There might not be a more symbiotic connection between coach and player in Wolf Pack basketball history. Think Pete and Jim Padgett in the 1970s and Billy and Sonny Allen in the 1980s without the family resemblance.

Caroline and Musselman couldn't look more different but scratch the surface and you'll discover a common intensity and passion for the game as well as a never-ending burning desire to win and succeed.

Caroline has clearly been Musselman's foundation for success at Nevada. Musselman has constructed his silver and blue building of championships on Caroline's broad shoulders.

Caroline practiced with the Pack during Musselman's first season at Nevada in 2015-16 but had to sit out the year after transferring. He still made a huge impact that season on the Pack program without scoring a single point. He wowed Pack fans that sit-out year with monstrous dunks during Musselman's Sweet Georgia Brown pre-game routine at Lawlor Events Center and earned himself a cheering section as big and loud as any enjoyed by any active player that year. Behind the scenes in practice he helped mold and chisel that first Musselman team into winners by season end (a CBI national title).

In two-plus seasons as an active player, Caroline has never missed a game (going into Tuesday night's game at Boise State), playing 89 in a row. The Wolf Pack has a record of 73-16 with Caroline on the floor. That's likely not a coincidence.

"Winning takes care of everything for me," Caroline recently told the Sagebrush, the University of Nevada's student newspaper.

With Caroline in two complete seasons, the Wolf Pack has won two Mountain West regular season championships and has been to two NCAA tournaments.

That, too, is likely not a coincidence.

And it all started with that original plate (followed by another and another and another) of wings that he devoured the first time he met Musselman. Had Caroline nervously fidgeted and merely picked at a salad that day, that might have been his last visit to Northern Nevada.

"I've had a great four years here so far," Caroline said recently. "It's a great community. I've met a lot of great people here. It's been a huge opportunity and blessing for me to be able to play here. I will always cherish Reno and the University of Nevada."

Northern Nevada has also fallen in love with Caroline. No other player in school history, after all, has had a song (Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline) sung in his honor during games.

"So good, so good, so good," the crowd screams at him during timeouts and even as play has resumed.

Good times, indeed, never seemed so good up on north Virginia Street before Caroline came to town. He's already among the best players in school history with likely another two dozen or so games remaining if all goes well this year.

The 73 victories he has been a part of (before Tuesday at Boise) are the 11th most in school history for a single player. His 37 double-doubles are fourth. His 1,493 points scored in a Nevada uniform are 10th, his 806 rebounds are eighth, his 406 successful free throws are fifth, his 3,120 minutes played are at No. 11 and his 500 successful field goals are No. 10. His most telling stat? His .820 winning percentage is the best in school history for players with 73 or more career victories (Ramon Sessions is second at .814 with a record of 79-18).

Caroline, with his toughness, grit and skill, is simply one of the most unique players in Wolf Pack history. Think some combination of players in recent years like Olek Czyz, Dario Hunt, Luke Babbitt, Kevinn Pinkney, Matt LaGrone, Corey Jackson, A.J. West and Cam Oliver, all 6-7 or taller, and 225 pounds or heavier.

Some have had better offensive skills than Caroline, outside the 3-point circle and under the basket. Some have equaled (none were better) his work ethic and intensity, on and off the court. Some have had his strength, toughness and leadership. But we're not sure any of them had as much of all of those traits like Caroline.

"It's just preparedness," said the soft-spoken Caroline, who works out twice a day in addition to going to practice. "I just try to work as hard as I can to keep myself sharp. I always tell myself I don't want to (work out twice a day). But I know I have to."

The work has paid off.

Caroline is fifth in the Mountain West this season in scoring (18.4) and second in rebounding (9.8) and should be on the short list of players discussed after the regular season for the conference's Player of the Year award. He's already been the Mountain West Player of the Week three times this year and six times over the last two-plus seasons. His first year he was a Second Team All-Mountain West member and last year he was named to the First Team.

Where does the work ethic come from? The first place to look is Caroline's grandfather, J.C. Caroline, who starred at the University of Illinois in the 1950s and then played 10 seasons (1956-65) with the Chicago Bears.

"They are a lot alike," Caroline's mother and J.C.'s daughter Jayna, herself a former track star in high school, once told the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette. "They're both tenacious and quite determined when it comes to something they want to do. They find a way to accomplish it."

Caroline's father is Simeon Rice, a former NFL great, mainly with the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996-07. But it was J.C. Caroline, who passed away in November 2017, that had the most influence on young Jordan growing up.

The two would regularly devour hamburgers (sound familiar?) together at the Steak 'N Shake in Champaign and then go back home to watch sports on TV and talk about life.

"He's one person I can honestly call my hero," Jordan said recently. "He always told me, 'Keep a level head, work hard and always stay hungry."

That hunger for wings, burgers, rebounds, points, victories and championships still drives Caroline to this day. When asked to describe himself as a player, Caroline said without hesitation, "High energy. Plays with a lot of heart. That's about it."

That's enough, as far as Musselman is concerned.

"When we got him I felt he was a mature kid," Musselman said. "I just think the work ethic, the toughness, the competitiveness, all things that no one can coach, just the things a guy either has or doesn't have, he exhibits them."

He exhibits them like a mound of chicken wings. And he has always been a coach's dream.

Caroline played his final two high school seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14) at Montverde Academy just outside Orlando with future NBA players Ben Simmons and D'Angelo Russell and won a pair of national championships at Madison Square Garden in New York. The second title came against Oak Hill Academy of Virginia against future Wolf Pack teammates Caleb and Cody Martin.

Caleb and Cody, though, went to North Carolina State after that game. Caroline's choices were Mount St. Mary's and Southern Illinois.

"He has a smile that can light up the room," Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said in the spring of 2014 when announcing Caroline was becoming a Saluki.

Sound familiar?

"He has that perfect personality," Musselman said. "He's always smiling. He was upbeat the entire time he was on his visit. He just has a magnetic personality and you want to be around him."

Despite the smile, the magnetic personality, the off-the-chart work ethic, toughness, desire and all-around skills, Caroline, who turned 23 years old on Tuesday in Boise, has always been an afterthought. Ben Simmons went from Montverde to one season at LSU and then to the NBA. D'Angelo Russell went from Montverde to one season at Ohio State and then to the NBA. Five years later Caroline is still in college. Not even his "dream school," the University of Illinois, where grandpa J.C. and father Simeon became heroes, wanted Jordan Caroline. They didn't want him out of Montverde in 2014 and they didn't want him out of Southern Illinois in 2015.

"The biggest thing is I was always overlooked," Caroline said. "I was never really recruited. I've always had that chip on my shoulder and I have never forgotten how I felt then. That's the biggest driving factor."

Caroline, who could become one of just five Wolf Pack players in history along with Edgar Jones, Pete Padgett, Nick Fazekas and Dario Hunt with at least 1,000 points and 1,000 career rebounds, has found the perfect blend of team, coach, community and opportunity with the Wolf Pack. And everyone — team, coaches and community — appreciates him in return.

"We laid out a vision and a plan of how he could have a big impact on who we were," Musselman said. "We tried to lay out a little bit of a blueprint of player development of how he wouldn't just be a 5-man (a center), which he was at his former school (Southern Illinois). We told him we wanted him to play some 3 (small forward) and wanted him to improve his 3-point skills, his ball handling. We wanted him in isolations, play pick and roll as a ball handler and a screen-setter and he's been able to do all those things."

Caroline attempted just three 3-pointers his entire one season at Southern Illinois. At Nevada in two-plus seasons he's 87-of-252 (35 percent) and now spends just as much time on offense outside of the paint as inside.

"I feel I'm a much improved 3-point shooter," Caroline said. "I'm a lot more confident in my shot."

A confident Caroline is an unstoppable Caroline. Caroline, who once scored 45 points against New Mexico two years ago, has now scored 10 or more points in 30 consecutive games dating back to last year and has 31 games of 20 points or more in his Pack career. He's also had five or more rebounds in 83 of his 89 Wolf Pack career games.

It's as if the words of J.C. are always in his head each time he steps on the court: Keep a level head, work hard and always stay hungry.

"I just think he maxes out his potential every night," said Musselman, who has never played Caroline less than 24 minutes in any game over the past two-plus seasons. "He plays so hard. He doesn't have lulls in his competitive nature or his motor. Since he has such a high motor, such a high competitiveness, he's consistent during the games."

So good, so good, so good.