Joe Santoro: Pack hoops carrying Mountain West
October 18, 2018
Sports fodder …
The Nevada Wolf Pack, at least according to the media, should cruise to another Mountain West men's basketball regular season championship. Three Pack players (Cody and Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline) were named to the preseason All Conference team this week and another (Jordan Brown) was named the preseason Freshman of the Year. The Wolf Pack is, simply, Mountain West basketball royalty right now. The Pack, actually, is the best thing the Mountain West has going for it in any sport when it comes to promoting the conference. Football is a mediocre snooze-fest and is getting almost zero national attention. Pack hoops is carrying the league.
The Wolf Pack has gone 29-7 over the last two seasons in Mountain West play, finishing first both years. And nobody would be surprised if that record was 47-7 by the time the conference tournament starts in March. The only thing that will keep the Pack from its first perfect conference season since it went 10-0 in the Far Western Conference in 1965-66 is boredom. There's enough talent for two teams. You could, in fact, split this Pack team in two and both of them would likely finish in the top four of the conference. There's no question this is the deepest team in Wolf Pack history and, yes, that includes the 2004-07 NCAA tournament teams. How the players handle the pressure of wearing a bullseye and listening to everyone tell them how good they are will determine if it is the best team in school history.
The regular season and conference tournament, of course, is only for seeding in the NCAA tournament. This entire Wolf Pack season, whether it's historically great or historically disappointing, will be determined by what happens in the NCAA tournament. A Sweet 16 appearance is the minimum requirement. Is that fair? Of course not. But it's reality. The 2005-07 Pack teams never lived up to the lofty expectations after the 2004 team went to the Sweet 16. The 2005 team lost to Boise State at home in its first Western Athletic Conference tournament game and then had to face the No. 1 team in the country (Illinois) in its second NCAA tournament game. The 2006 team didn't even win one NCAA tournament game. The 2007 team won 26 of its first 28 games and then lost three of its last six. Those teams all had great seasons. But all three left Northern Nevada disappointed in the end. Is that fair? Of course not. But it's reality.
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The Wolf Pack football team just might be on the verge of turning the program around. The Pack is just 3-4 overall and 1-2 in the Mountain West but it's facing five winnable games (Hawaii, San Diego State, Colorado State, San Jose State, UNLV) to close out the regular season. Hawaii can't stop anyone, San Diego State can't score and, well, Colorado State, San Jose State and UNLV can't do anything well. This season might turn out to be similar to 2009 when the Pack lost its first three games and then went on an eight-game winning streak. The following year it went 13-1. Winning five in a row is never easy, no matter who you play. The Pack hasn't even won two in a row since 2016 and hasn't won five in a row since 2012. But a win at Hawaii on Saturday night (or, more likely, Sunday morning) might be all this team needs to get it going in the right direction.
The key to Wolf Pack football success just might be what happens after halftime. The Pack has been outscored 112-44 in the second half by its six Division I-A opponents this year. The numbers in the fourth quarter are even more startling. The Pack has been outscored 50-13 in the final 15 minutes this year by I-A teams. The Pack hasn't scored at all in the fourth quarter in four of its six games against I-A teams. Head coach Jay Norvell's Wolf Pack over the last two seasons has scored more than seven points in the fourth quarter just once (Air Force last year) in 17 games against I-A teams and has been shut out seven times.
The attendance at Mackay Stadium is becoming a serious issue. Just 21,431 showed up to see Boise State last Saturday. It's the smallest crowd to see a Boise State game at Mackay Stadium since 2002 (20,247). Just 15,367 showed up to see Fresno State the week before. The Pack has averaged 18,696 fans for its four home games this year, the fourth smallest home attendance in the Mountain West. Why are Pack fans staying away? The team is fun to watch, the opponents have been attractive enough (Oregon State, Fresno, Boise this year). The Boise State game on Saturday was one of the best and most competitive Pack-Broncos games ever. Is it just because the community is waiting for the team to win a big game (like Fresno or Boise)? Or is everyone just waiting for basketball season to start?
In his final game in a Wolf Pack uniform at the end of the 2016 season, running back James Butler carried the ball 32 times for 196 yards in a victory over UNLV. Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme took over the offense the following year and, well, running backs have had to beg to get the ball. In 17 games against Division I-A opponents (nothing that happens against a I-AA teams matters), Norvell's teams have given the running backs just 32 carries in a game one time (36 against San Jose State last year). The last two games (against Fresno and Boise) the Pack backs have gotten the ball just 41 times combined. Yes, Butler was special two years ago. But Toa Taua, Kelton Moore, Jaxson Kincaide and Devonte Lee can also be special this year. They are averaging 5.3 yards a carry combined. Norvell is always saying he wants to run the ball. It's time to prove it.