Joe Santoro: Pack dreams the impossible dream | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack dreams the impossible dream

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

The Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team no longer simply belongs to Northern Nevada.

The program that not too long ago didn't have an impact outside of the Lawlor Events Center concourse, now does not solely belong to the university, the community or even the state of Nevada. The Wolf Pack has outgrown us all right before our eyes.

What happens in Reno, apparently, doesn't stay in Reno. The Wolf Pack has become a national phenomenon. What used to belong solely to Northern Nevada, could very well belong to college basketball history in two short months.

"We feel that everybody that's really involved in college basketball has respected us," said Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman recently when asked if his 21-1 No. 6-ranked wonder team is getting the respect it deserves. "It's pretty fair what's been going on."

A No. 6 national ranking is indeed pretty fair. The Wolf Pack isn't the biggest little secret in college basketball anymore. It's no longer a heartwarming Cinderella story, the little engine that could or a giant killer. It has become one of the giants.

"We've been in the Top 10 from the preseason to today," Musselman said proudly after whipping Boise State 93-73 last Saturday afternoon in Reno at The House that Muss Filled.

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The next 62 days, from Tuesday through the April 8 NCAA tournament title game in Minneapolis, could change college basketball forever. Yes, it would change Wolf Pack basketball forever but, remember, this program is about more than just Wolf Pack basketball now. It's about changing the face of the sport. The program that was sitting on a nine-win season just four years ago, hopes to win nine games in the postseason alone this year.

Musselman, who knocks on wood, crosses all 10 of his fingers and makes the sign of the cross when asked about anything but the game just completed or the next one on the schedule, is smart enough to not talk about the future. Even if the future is just eight weeks away.

But we can. We can dream. We can remind everyone what's truly possible. This Wolf Pack team, after all, is forcing us to dream the impossible dream because, well, it's becoming apparent there's no unbeatable foe or unreachable star for this team.

It's about to get good, Pack fans. Real good. This Wolf Pack team has a chance to join the greatest teams in college basketball history.

That's what winning 21 of your first 22 games can do for you. No other Pack team in history has done it. Every other Wolf Pack team, from the humble beginnings in 1913 through last season, was ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press rankings for a total of two weeks (late in the 2006-07 season). This year's team has done it for all 14 weeks of the season. No other Pack team has been seeded higher than five in the NCAA tournament (2006). We'd be shocked if this team is any lower than a No. 2 come March. A No. 1 is entirely possible.

The Wooden Award has named Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline as two of the Top 20 players in the country. The Bob Cousy Award has named Cody Martin as one of the Top 10 point guards in the country. That's three of the best players in the country on one team. Last time I checked, you only have to play five at a time.

Amazing things are possible, Wolf Pack fans. Amazing things have already happened. We're in the first week of February and things you once thought were only possible for the Dukes, North Carolinas and Kansases of the world aren't only possible for the Wolf Pack, they're there for the taking.

The Wolf Pack has 18 games remaining this season. That's nine in the regular season, three in the Mountain West tournament and six in the NCAA tournament. Put all of those games in the win column and the Pack would finish 39-1 with a Mountain West regular season title, a Mountain West tournament title and, yes, a NCAA tournament title.

OK, we know what you're thinking. Little old Nevada from the Mountain West, a school that has never gotten past the Sweet 16, winning a national title and going 39-1 is crazy talk. We're drinking the silver and blue Kool-Aid, right? Well, right. And it's tasting pretty good right now.

Don't bet against 39-1 and a national title happening. The odds, don't forget, were much greater against Musselman turning a nine-win team into a Top 10 team in four short seasons than they are against winning these final 18 games. Did you think this team would be 21-1 right now? Did you think it would be among the Top 10 teams all season long? Just four years ago the Pack was barely in the top 10 of the Mountain West.

It's not like all 18 of the remaining games are going to be against Duke. The Wolf Pack could very well be favored in the first 15 (the first 10 or 11 for sure). The last three (maybe just the last two or one) will likely be pick 'em. You don't like Musselman's odds in 15 or 16 games when he's the favorite and two or three when he has a 50-50 chance of winning?

Yes, we understand that's asking a lot out of any basketball team, even one with three of the Top 20 or so players in the country. The Pack, after all, has already won seven in a row, so we're suggesting Nevada can finish the season on a 25-game winning streak.

That would be amazing. It would be almost unprecedented. But this team specializes in amazing.

The last NCAA tournament champion to finish a season with a winning streak that long was the 1994-95 UCLA Bruins, which won its last 26. That UCLA team actually did lose once over its last 26 games. But the loss to the California Golden Bears was later turned into a victory because of NCAA sanctions against the Golden Bears.

The last team to actually win at least its last 25 games on the way to a national title is the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. That Bobby Knight team won all 32 of its games and is the last team to go undefeated in a season. Yes, that's the world in which the Wolf Pack is in right now.

The 1994-95 UCLA team might have a lot in common with this Wolf Pack team. It's the last NCAA tournament champion west of Tucson. That Bruin team featured a pair of talented and productive brothers (not twins), Ed and Charles O'Bannon. That Bruin team's last official loss was on Jan. 5, 1994 at Oregon. This Wolf Pack team's last loss this season? Yeah, you guessed it, Jan. 5 at New Mexico.

A 39-1 record would give the Wolf Pack the most victories in one season in NCAA history, breaking the record of 38 by Kentucky in 2012 and 2015. Memphis also won 38 in 2007-08 but later had to forfeit them all because of NCAA sanctions. A 39-1 record would also give the Pack the best record (a .975 winning percentage) in college basketball since the 32-0 Hoosiers.

It's a lot to ask. But it's possible. If you don't think it's possible then you haven't believed what you've seen this year from Musselman's wonder team.

We're here to remind you it's perfectly OK to believe.

We've gotten to the point where it would be stunning if the Pack doesn't get to the Final Four. Nevada will likely play its first four games in the NCAA tournament in San Jose or Salt Lake City and Anaheim. That means, basically, four home games before the Final Four April 6-8 in Minneapolis.

And the Pack simply doesn't lose at home.

The Wolf Pack, don't forget, won't need a miracle run to the Final Four like the one Loyola Chicago enjoyed last year. This Pack team hasn't come out of nowhere this season to become a Cinderella, feel-good story with divine help from above. This Pack team was supposed to be great this year. Just look at the preseason national rankings. This team was near-great last year. Just ask Cincinnati. A 39-win season this year would give the Wolf Pack 68 victories over the last two years. Just 17 teams in NCAA history have won 68 or more over two seasons. It would also give the Pack 96 victories over the last three years. Just 28 teams in NCAA history have done that.

That's where this Wolf Pack team is right now. It lives in the land of giants.

"I think we're playing really good basketball right now," Musselman said.

This program is playing great basketball right now. A 20-point first half against Air Force 3 1/2 games ago woke this team up. Since that point the Pack has been as good as any team in the country, burying Air Force in the second half and then blitzing Colorado State, UNLV and Boise State.

"We still could have played better," Cody Martin said after the win over Boise.

That statement right there is why this team is special. Musselman will never allow the team to become complacent, stale and bored. This team shows us perfection and tells us there's still another higher level to perfection. Musselman is that rare coach who can make great players even greater, even in the last two months of their fifth year in college basketball.

Both Martins, who already had NBA scouts watching their highlight videos on YouTube, have gotten markedly better and more efficient in the last two weeks or so. In his last three games Caleb has made 15-of-30 3-pointers and 22-of-43 shots overall while scoring 74 points (24.7 a game). In his previous 11 games he was just 33-of-118 on threes (28 percent) and had shot 61-of-172 (35 percent). He was still scoring well (16.8 points a game over those 11 games) but there was no efficiency to his game. You can win the Mountain West without efficiency. But you can't go 39-1.

Musselman, envisioning a special season evaporating in a sea of Caleb Martin threes bouncing off the rim, told his best player to go visit the paint at least 30 times a game. He turned a good college basketball player into a great one.

"It has forced me to seek contact, to just go towards the rim," Caleb said. "I'm kind of in attack mode now. It's put a not-settle mentality on me."

Not settling is how a team can win its last 25 games and finish 39-1. And make college basketball history.

Cody Martin, already one of the most versatile players in college basketball, also is playing at a higher level recently, ever since he hit a game-winning 3-pointer at Boise State on Jan. 15.

"That shot did help in terms of confidence," said Cody, the older twin by a minute, probably because he wanted to help welcome Caleb to the world. "But the big thing is just knowing that you have taken all the reps in practice from the summer to now and knowing its paying off."

Cody, since his game-winner at Boise, has made 6-of-9 3-pointers. Before that shot he had made just 8-of-42 threes on the year. Over his last five games Cody has averaged 15 points a game and has made 30-of-46 field goals as well as dishing out 25 assists.

"He's playing as well as anyone in the country at his position," Musselman said of Cody.

Cody Martin, like his younger twin, could play any position on the floor and still be as good as anybody in the country. The Martin twins, after all, took over the Wolf Pack program the first moment they stepped onto the court at the start of the 2017-18 season. They're now taking over all of college basketball.

The Martins, arguably the greatest one-two punch in northern Nevada history since the invention of neon and dinner buffets, might be all the Pack needs to achieve 39-1. All of their teammates, as well as the entire northern Nevada community, feeds off them.

"It's a snowball effect," Caleb Martin said, describing the feeling he gets when the Pack just takes over a game. "It's not like guys are just getting lay-ups. Guys are getting lobs, guys are getting threes, guys are getting and-ones. When you see that possession after possession after possession you get kind of wide-eyed. It's kind of a snowball effect. And it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger."

Bigger and bigger and bigger.