Joe Santoro: (March) Madness of Pack schedule | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: (March) Madness of Pack schedule

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Texas Tech and TCU didn't beat the Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team last week.

Blame it on the schedule.

"When you play a team like Texas Tech, who is right there, a Top 25 team, when you play a TCU, you are playing against great teams," Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said last week. "It challenges your team."

It also knocks you out of the Top 25. The Wolf Pack, in the Top 25 last week for the first time in a decade, lost at Texas Tech in overtime 82-76 last Tuesday and lost to TCU in Los Angeles 84-80 late Friday night.

Say good-bye to the Top 25. For now.

"We learn a ton," said Musselman of the reasoning behind the Pack's demanding schedule. "It's a great challenge."

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It was also a great week for Wolf Pack basketball. Yes, it could have been even greater with a pair of victories over Texas Tech and TCU but don't let the two losses fool you. The Wolf Pack is a much better basketball team this morning after having played those two Top 25-caliber teams.

And that, more than anything else, was Musselman's goal all along.

"I still think we're a really, really, really good team," Wolf Pack junior Cody Martin said after the loss to TCU.

The Pack was merely really, really good before the losses to Texas Tech and TCU. All the losses did was add a "really" to the Wolf Pack's resume and prepare them to sail through the next two-plus months and into the NCAA tournament. The losses to Texas Tech and TCU in a span of 72 or so hours just might represent the greatest two-game losing streak in Wolf Pack history. The Pack will be in a far better place this March come the NCAA tournament because it played and, yes, lost to Texas Tech and TCU back in December.

And, that, keep in mind, is indeed the goal all along.

"We can keep getting better," Musselman said. "In our first two years I felt like we kept getting better and better every game. We'll keep getting better for sure."

When Musselman says better, he's talking about the NCAA tournament. The Pack won the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles last year and went to the NCAA tournament. Been there, done that. This year is all about exploring new territory. The Sweet 16 is a nice goal. A win or two in the NCAA tournament in March — and not just an invitation to the party — is the definition of better for this Wolf Pack basketball team.

"We feel like we can win," Musselman said. "I feel it."

He should feel it now more than ever, especially after the losses to the two Texas schools. The Wolf Pack went to Lubbock, Texas, to face Texas Tech and was the better team for 90 percent of the game. The Pack simply lost a tough game on the road at the free throw line. That's not a sin. That's just college basketball.

Just three days later the Pack was faced with playing an even tougher TCU team in a strange place (the Staples Center) almost in the middle of the night (10 p.m. start). The Pack came out like a bunch of wide-eyed tourists in Los Angeles for the first time, seemingly suffering from jet lag. That, too, isn't a sin. That's just big-time college basketball.

Against Texas Tech and TCU the Wolf Pack wasn't overwhelmed by greater talent, effort or coaching. The only thing that overwhelmed the Pack was the schedule and the travel. Play those games anywhere or anytime else and the Pack is probably 10-0 this morning and likely in the Top 20.

"Going back out on the road is not fun," Musselman said.

But it's necessary if you want to play deep into March.

The TCU game ended a stretch of six games away from Lawlor Events Center for the Pack in a span of just 24 days. Toss in home games against Davidson and Illinois State during that same stretch and, well, it's a wonder the Pack is still standing upright right now.

Eight games in 24 days, with trips to northern California (Santa Clara, Pacific), the middle of the Pacific Ocean (Hawaii), Texas (Lubbock) and Southern California (Irvine and Los Angeles), would be considered cruel and unusual punishment for even Musselman's old teams in the CBA, USBL and D-League.

"When you play three games in a week it's kind of like a NBA schedule," Musselman said.

Make that a NBA schedule without the first class air transportation, five star hotels and restaurants and seven-figure paycheck.

Looking back, you could surmise Musselman kind of saw what was coming against TCU and Texas Tech. The Wolf Pack won at UC Irvine last Monday but looked flat and a bit lifeless and won a disjointed game 76-65 over a bad team.

It was obvious, especially to Musselman, the Pack wasn't going to bring a rested and energized team to Lubbock and Los Angeles.

"We looked a little tired," said Musselman after the win over Irvine. "For the first time all season we looked a little worn out. The travel kind of caught up to us."

The travel then overwhelmed the Pack at Lubbock and Los Angeles over the following four days. The Pack against TCU and Texas Tech, at times, looked like weary travelers who were recently stuck in airport security checkpoints before stuffing their 6-foot-7 and growing bodies into coach seats for long plane rides. They were running on fumes in the overtime at Texas Tech and the first 30 minutes against TCU before getting a second wind.

"We just got a little lackadaisical," Cody Martin said.

"The energy, effort and enthusiasm was too late," said Musselman after the TCU game.

"We didn't have the energy we needed," said forward Jordan Caroline, who's normally a gallon gulp of 5-hour energy all by himself.

Don't forget the Pack's exhausting 24-day stretch also included a Thanksgiving holiday and, oh yeah, going to classes. Tell me again why you don't think college athletes should be paid.

"The great thing about our guys is that they want to get better," Musselman said. "That's the neat thing about this team."

You get better by playing teams better than you are when you can play them.

"We got behind in our scheduling this year," Musselman said. "But we did a great job in that time frame putting this thing together."

The schedule this year was designed to turn the Pack into battle-hardened steel come tournament time. Talk about Battle Born. Musselman should tattoo those words on each one of his player's forehead this year. Oh, sure, there were the obligatory glorified scrimmages against the likes of Idaho, Santa Clara, Pacific, Illinois State and UC Irvine. But those were just competitive practices for Rhode Island, TCU, Texas Tech and Davidson. Musselman gave his team a thankless CBA schedule the past three weeks because he wants it to be the best team it can be three months from now, not in November or December.

"We can't control the rankings," said Musselman, whose Wolf Pack received 13 votes in Monday's latest Associated Press poll and just one vote in the USA Today Coach's rankings. TCU, by the way, is now No. 14 in both polls and Texas Tech is 24th in the AP rankings and 27th in the coach's rankings.

Don't let Musselman fool you. He's a guy that likes to control everything surrounding his basketball team. This guy leaves nothing to chance. It's why he has won 41 of his last 51 games at Nevada. And it's why he gave his team a demanding, no-nonsense schedule over the last three weeks even though there was a good chance it would hurt that fancy record.

"We did it (the schedule) because we feel we have real good players," Musselman said.

And you don't get better by playing Holy Names, Fresno Pacific, Idaho, and Pacific. You get better by pushing yourself to the limts. Hey, nobody ever said playing for a goal-driven coach like Musselman was going to be comfortable.

"The NCAA committee told us there's more weight on road games," Musselman said.

The good news for the Pack is the schedule now becomes a bit more friendlier. Think of it as Musselman's holiday Christmas gift to his team. The Mountain West schedule is just around the corner, starting Dec. 27 at Fresno State, and Musselman doesn't want his team to be running on fumes at that point. A Mountain West regular season and tournament title, after all, are the minimum requirements for this team.

The next four games, home against Radford and UC Davis and in Las Vegas against Southern Illinois and San Francisco, should leave the Pack well rested and energized and with a neat and tidy 12-2 record going into league play.

"We have a confident group," Musselman said, "one that respects the game and respects the opponent."

And nobody in silver and blue is more confident than the coach.