Joe Santoro: Pack has best shot at unbeaten season | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack has best shot at unbeaten season

Joe Santoro
Nevada's Jordan Caroline (24) drives against Akron during their game in Reno on Dec. 22.
Tom R. Smedes/AP | FR171463 AP

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is currently 12-0 and ranked No. 6 in both major polls with just one non-conference game (Saturday at Utah) remaining on the schedule. The Pack, as of Thursday morning, was one of just five unbeaten Division I teams in the nation, along with Houston, Virginia, St. John’s and Michigan. There’s almost no way Virginia of the Atlantic Coast Conference, St. John’s of the Big East and Michigan of the Big Ten, will go unbeaten in conference play. That leaves Houston of the American Athletic Conference and the Pack of the Mountain West as the only two teams remaining in the country with a legitimate chance at a perfect regular season. The Associated Press voters aren’t convinced about Houston’s invulnerability as evidenced by ranking it No. 22 in the nation. That leaves the Pack as the team with the best chance in the nation of going undefeated in the regular season.

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The Mountain West’s football honor will be on the line when the Nevada Wolf Pack takes on the Arkansas State Red Wolves on Saturday (10:15 a.m.) in the Arizona Bowl. OK, not really. Honor is far too strong a word for such a contrived game. But, hey, we thought we’d play along and create some fake drama for yet another meaningless Mountain West Wolf Pack bowl game. The Mountain West is 2-2 in bowls so far this year and a Wolf Pack victory will prevent the conference’s first losing bowl season since seven teams combined to go 3-4 after the 2014 season. The Pack started that disappointing 2014 Mountain West bowl season with a 16-3 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl so a win today will be sort of the Wolf Pack’s payback to the conference. Is that enough incentive to make you turn on your TV early this morning to watch the Breakfast Bowl?

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The Pack-Wolves Arizona Bowl was supposed to be the Mountain West’s sixth bowl this year. But the Boise State-Boston College SERVPRO First Responder Bowl in Dallas this week was canceled late in the first quarter by weather. Yes, weather. The first Division I bowl game in NCAA history wiped out by weather as if it was just another late July Texas Rangers-Kansas City Royals game. And you thought that 2015 Arizona Bowl was a black mark on the Mountain West’s bowl history. SERVPRO, a company that specializes in fire and water cleanup restoration, has a slogan in its ads that says, “Like it Never Really Happened.” Just like the First Responder Bowl.

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It has been a while since the Wolf Pack has been involved in a bowl game that has had any actual meaning to anyone other than Pack players and employees. You have to go back to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Boston College after the historic 2010 season for a Pack bowl game that had any real importance. Since then there has been one Wolf Pack forgettable or disastrous bowl game after another. There was the forgettable loss to Southern Miss in the 2011 Hawaii Bowl, the nightmarish come-from-ahead loss to Arizona in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl that convinced Chris Ault to retire, the sleep-inducing 16-3 loss to Southern Miss in the 2014 New Orleans Bowl and the 2015 inaugural Arizona Bowl when the Pack had to play fellow Mountain West member Colorado State in quite possibly the most embarrassing matchup in NCAA bowl history. The Mountain West, no doubt, wishes that game never really happened.

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Saturday’s game against Arkansas State dredges up some unpleasant memories of the Wolf Pack’s Big West Conference years. The Red Wolves and Wolf Pack, don’t forget, were Big West competitors for four seasons (1993-95 and 1999). Don’t get me wrong. The Wolf Pack, a Big West member from 1992-99, had some terrific players, coaches, seasons and, yes, even bowl games during those years. You could argue the 18-15 Las Vegas Bowl win over Ball State in 1996 is the greatest Pack bowl game ever. But the overall Big West experience for the Pack was a negative. The Pack couldn’t get out of that league fast enough by the end of the decade. The conference seemingly was always in a state of chaos. It forced Pack fans to get excited over fake rivalries against faraway schools like Northern Illinois, Louisiana Tech, Southwest Louisiana, North Texas and Arkansas State. The Big West experience was just an ugly wake-up call that taught everyone in Northern Nevada Pack football was now forever trapped in the money grab world of Division I-A college football. The conference would eventually dry up after the 2000 season (to nobody’s regret) and all it did was make Pack fans long for the wild, wonderful and meaningful Big Sky Conference and Division I-AA playoff days.

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The Wolf Pack is 5-10 in bowl games, 4-9 since jumping to Division I-A. It has lost seven of its last nine bowl games. Bowl games are simply not worth all of the extra work and headaches they create for everyone involved. Far more often than not, they’re just a reminder your favorite team had a disappointing or mediocre season (like Nevada-Arkansas State). They’re exhibitions created simply to fill television programming schedules and satisfy sponsors who have money to throw away. The NCAA sells its soul to those sponsors and, for some reason, allows those attention-greedy sponsors to shower players with expensive gifts during bowl weeks. It’s time the NCAA treats these games for what they are. Exhibitions. You know, as if they’re a mid-March San Francisco Giants-Oakland A’s game in Arizona. The NCAA shouldn’t count the exhibition bowl game win or loss in the team’s actual record. That will put these games in their proper perspective. The Pack will no doubt make a big deal on Saturday if victorious because it will be their eighth win of the year. Is it really such an accomplishment to win eight of 13 games? If the Wolf Pack men’s basketball team loses five of 35-40 games this year, we will have to take all sharp objects away from coach Eric Musselman.

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Musselman, by the way, should be the frontrunner right now for national coach of the year. And it shouldn’t even be close. Yes, the Wolf Pack was supposed to be good this year. But that’s what makes the 12-0 record even more remarkable. There’s nothing like unreasonable expectations to foul up a season. The Pack hasn’t been able to sneak up on anybody this year. It has taken everyone’s best shot and knocked everyone out. USC, for example, treated a close loss to the Pack this season as if it was a positive for its program. That’s USC of the Pac-12, by the way. That’s how lofty the expectations are on this Pack team. And Musselman and the Pack have exceeded those expectations.

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There’s a good chance the Oakland Raiders have played their last game in Oakland. The Raiders’ new stadium in Las Vegas won’t be ready until the start of the 2020 season so where will the team play in 2019, if it isn’t Oakland? How about Mackay Stadium? Don’t laugh. Musselman University could probably squeeze 35,000 or so seats inside The House that Chris Ault Built and, well, 35,000 fans is plenty for the Raiders right now. It would also establish the Raiders in their new home state and maybe convince the Raiders Reno is the perfect place to train every July and August. Diehard Raider fans from Northern California could easily travel to the games in Reno. The Raiders could also continue to practice in Northern California and just travel to Reno for the home games if they want. The Chargers currently play in the 28,000-seat (or so) Stub Hub Center in Los Angeles while they (and the Rams) wait for their new stadium to be finished. Why not Mackay for the Raiders?