Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack can win without Drew, but it won’t be easy
February 15, 2018
The Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team is going to miss Lindsey Drew. But that doesn't mean the Wolf Pack can't win without him. The Pack, after all, outscored Boise State 40-38 in the second half on Wednesday without Drew to win 77-72 on the road. So they know it can be done. That's why the second half against Boise was the Pack's most important 20 minutes of the season. Drew, who suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury at the end of the first half, was already lost for the rest of the season. A loss on Wednesday could have crushed the Wolf Pack's confidence moving forward. If the Pack can win at Boise State without Drew, it can win anywhere else in the Mountain West.
But it won't be easy at either end of the floor. Yes, Drew didn't score much (8.1 points a game) or take a lot of shots (six a game), but he allowed everyone else to perform at maximum efficiency on offense. But the area where Drew's absence hurts the most is on defense. The Wolf Pack, even with Drew, was already a fragile defensive team. Drew was, without question, the Wolf Pack's best defensive player. He blocked shots, he rebounded the ball, he deflected passes. His enormous wingspan seemingly allowed him to cover about a third of the court. Who picks up the defensive slack with Drew gone? Good question. And now, without Drew, the remaining Pack players can't even become more aggressive on defense for fear of getting into foul trouble. This Pack team might simply have to outscore teams to win.
The challenges now facing the Wolf Pack are enormous. Coach Eric Musselman said this week he would lose sleep if any of his starters had to miss a game. Musselman now likely won't sleep the rest of the year. Caleb and Cody Martin, who have already suffered injuries this year, already were playing huge minutes along with Jordan Caroline. It might not be possible to increase their minutes. Caleb Martin, who has a tender left foot, is already an awkward step away from seeing his season end. That's why the bulk of the 30 minutes a game Drew was playing will likely go to Josh Hall and Hallice Cooke. An already thin and fragile team with Drew, the Wolf Pack now has absolutely no margin for error.
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Nothing is guaranteed for the Wolf Pack the rest of this season. A Mountain West regular season title. A Mountain West tournament title. A spot in the NCAA tournament. All three of those goals could slip away if the Pack can't figure out a way to play without Drew. Nothing was easy even with Drew. Don't forget the Pack already has five losses. Do they get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament with seven or eight? The NCAA selection committee has been known to disrespect the Mountain West before. If the Pack wins the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles and goes to the NCAA tournament, Eric Musselman should be the national Coach of the Year.
With Drew, the Pack would have cruised to a Mountain West regular season title. The Pack is basically three games up on second-place Boise State with just five games to play because it swept its two games against the Broncos and owns the tie-breaker. The Pack should be able to beat Colorado State and San Jose State at home without Drew. But the road games at Utah State, UNLV and San Diego State will be difficult. Those games likely would've been difficult even with Drew. Don't forget the Pack lost at Utah State last year, 74-57. A victory on Saturday at Utah State will relieve a lot of pressure on the Wolf Pack. A loss and, well, the last four games will be interesting.
Josh Hall might be the biggest hidden source of talent and production on the team. He'll now have to tap into that talent and production. Hall can score from anywhere on the floor. This might be the opportunity that turns Hall from a solid bench player into a player who deserves 30 minutes a game. Cooke also has more skills than he has been allowed to show this year. He's a tenacious competitor and plays with an aggressive fearless style that fits in well with what Musselman wants to do. He's also one of the team leaders, despite the fact he's usually on the bench. He can be a calming influence on the floor.
Kendall Stephens has established himself this year as one of the greatest 3-point shooters in Wolf Pack history. Stephens is already tied for third in Wolf Pack history for the most 3-pointers in a season with 94. By the end of the year he'll almost certainly break the school record of 115 set by Marcus Marshall a year ago. His .448 success rate on threes is currently fifth in school history. His six 3-pointers on just eight attempts, were the reason the Wolf Pack beat Boise State. Boise had just five (on 26 attempts) as a team. Cody and Caleb Martin are the Wolf Pack's heart and soul. Everything this team does flows through them, mentally and physically. That will be true now more than ever. But Stephens' ability to shoot threes makes everything this team does on offense work as well as it does.
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