Joe Santoro: Pack has last chance to prove itself | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack has last chance to prove itself

Joe Santoro
Nevada's Caleb Martin (10), Cody Martin (11) and Tre'Shawn Thurman (0) react during Friday's game against San Diego State.
Isaac Brekken/AP | FR159466 AP

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team has never been as vulnerable and wounded heading into a NCAA tournament as it is right now.

“The last six minutes of our last game was some of the worst basketball we’ve played all year,” senior Caleb Martin said on Sunday shortly after the Wolf Pack learned it was a No. 7 seed and would play Florida on Thursday (3:50 p.m., TNT) at Des Moines, Iowa in the NCAA tournament.

Martin was referring to the final six minutes or so of the Wolf Pack’s 65-56 stunning loss to the San Diego State Aztecs last Friday in the Mountain West tournament’s semifinals. The Wolf Pack had rallied from a 13-point deficit early in the second half to lead 51-49 with 7:29 to go.

“The thing with our ball club is, down 15, no panic,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said last Thursday after the Pack rallied from a 15-point deficit to beat Boise State 77-69 to open the Mountain West tournament.

“You’re not going to beat Nevada in the first half,” Boise State coach Leon Rice said.

San Diego State beat the Pack late in the second half. After taking that two-point lead with 7:29 to go on Friday, the Pack proceeded to miss 10 of its final dozen shots, three of its final four free throws, commit nine fouls and turn the ball over three times while getting outscored 16-5.

Hello No. 7 seed.

“The NCAA tournament gives you a second crack at it, to kind of redeem yourself and show people you aren’t as bad as you’ve been playing (lately),” Caleb Martin said.

This is the first time in school history the Wolf Pack will head into a NCAA tournament with as many as three losses in its last eight games. Just three of the Pack’s previous eight NCAA tournament teams lost as many as two of its final eight games heading into the tournament, two only lost one of its final eight and three won all eight.

“With the talent we have there’s no excuse for us to be losing four games (three in the regular season, one in the tournament) in conference,” Caleb Martin said. “We know that. We know we didn’t do our job to the best of our ability.”

The three losses in the last eight games are, to be polite, disturbing. This is a team that started 14-0 and 24-1 this season, was ranked in the Top 10 nationally for much of the year and seemed destined for a Top 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Even Musselman, who repeatedly boasts his Pack teams get better as the season moves along, struggled last week in Las Vegas to put a positive spin on things.

“We stunk for 12 minutes,” Musselman said after beating Boise State. “It was hard to watch. I would have rather gone to the dentist and got some teeth pulled than watch us on both sides of the ball.”

That was after a victory. He was in a good mood. The next day, after a loss, Musselman refused to elaborate on why he held Jordan Caroline out of the game against San Diego State. There was also no word on whether or not he talked to his dentist about it.

“Our goal was to come down here and cut down nets,” senior Tre’Shawn Thurman said after the loss to the Aztecs.

We’re not accustomed to the Wolf Pack falling short of its goals in the Musselman era. In fact, it has never happened before. We’re a little stunned.

We expected the Pack to win the Mountain West regular season all by itself. They ended up sharing it with Utah State, thanks to an eye-opening 81-76 loss in Logan, Utah on March 2. We expected the Pack to win the Mountain West tournament. They ended up losing to San Diego State. Again. We expected much better than a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“Of course we would have liked to be a higher seed,” Cody Martin said.

Under Musselman, what the Wolf Pack has wanted, it has received. So, naturally, if we give them the benefit of the doubt, it now seems like they didn’t really want to win the Mountain West tournament.

The Wolf Pack, after all, has improved in each of the first four years of the Musselman era. The Pack won 24 games and a CBI national title in his first year. The second year saw Musselman win a Mountain West regular season and postseason tournament title as well as earn a trip to the NCAA tournament. Year Three saw the Pack win the Mountain West regular season title and make a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.

Every year better than the last. Every year an indication of better things to come. Well, if that trend is to continue this year the Pack needs to be playing for a chance to go to the Final Four in two weeks.

“We know we’re capable of playing better than the last game,” Caleb Martin said.

We know it, too. It’s time to show it.

As of right now the Pack appear to be exactly where they were at this time last year. Yes, the record is better (29-4 this year compared to 27-7 going into last year’s NCAA tournament) and, yes, Musselman and the Martin twins are national media darlings right now. And, we’re sure, little Mariah Musselman is about to take the nation by storm this week like she did last year at this time. The Pack have also lived in the Top 25 for all of this season when last year the voters didn’t discover the Pack on a consistent basis until February.

So there has been improvement already, no matter what happens this weekend. But, really, what did all of the hype, hoopla, national rankings, national media interviews and lofty expectations do for the program except increase the hype, hoopla and expectations?

The Pack are a No. 7 seed right now. Just like last year. The Pack get to play an overrated team from a Power Five conference in the first round this year. Just like last year (when it was Texas). The Pack lost to San Diego State in the Mountain West tourney semifinals. Just like last year. The Pack won the Mountain West regular season title outright last year. This year they had to share it.

Is this the point where all mid-major dreams fade away, with a season full of fancy national rankings, winning streaks and broken dreams in March? So far this Pack season is a bag full of sweet candy with no nutritional value. A lot of empty calories.

Well, now it’s time for some steak and potatoes.

“It (the NCAA tournament) is all about who feels confident on that night,” Musselman said.

Nobody in silver and blue will admit it but the Pack’s confidence right now just might be at its lowest point of the season. There were some nervous twitches and fidgeting in the seats on Sunday as the Wolf Pack watched the NCAA tournament selection show on Television. The Pack’s part of the bracket was the last one unveiled and, well, the unimaginable was floating about the room. Would the Pack and their 29-4 record and season-long Top 20 ranking get left out of the tournament?

Of course not. The NCAA selection committee couldn’t have explained that one away. But confidence is a fickle thing.

“I was sweating a little bit,” Cody Martin said with a nervous smile.

The Pack’s confidence is still high for a normal human being. Musselman, his precocious family, the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline, after all, were born on Planet Confidence.

“The greatest quality of Nevada basketball is their toughness,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said last Friday.

That toughness translates into mental and physical confidence. But, make no mistake, the Pack’s confidence isn’t as high as it was when it was ranked No. 5 in the nation, undefeated and coming off wins on the road against Loyola Chicago, USC and Arizona State back in December. It’s not as high as it was when Nevada was 24-1 and riding a 10-game winning streak back in February. It’s not as high as it was just two weeks ago.

“We’ve had some losses that shouldn’t have been losses,” Cody Martin said. “But you just have to keep going and have short-term memory.”

The team that seemed unbeatable now can’t beat San Diego State away from Lawlor Events Center. How is it going to beat Michigan on Saturday in Big Ten country?

How did this happen? The team at one point that flirted with an undefeated record and a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed is now just another mid-major that has to prove itself against the big boys. In other words, Wolf Pack basketball is right where it has always been.

“Who we are is who we are,” Musselman said.

Who, exactly, is this Pack team? Is it the one that was 24-1 and ranked in the Top 10 most of the season? Or is it just another over-inflated mid-major from a mediocre conference that benefited from some crafty scheduling and a tremendous home court advantage?

We’ll find out starting now.

“We have to feel good going in,” Musselman said. “We can’t let a lingering loss affect us. It didn’t last year. That has to be our mentality.”

Here’s the deal with this Wolf Pack. Losing makes them better. It makes them mean, bloodthirsty and lethal. The Martin twins turn into Twin Terrors. Caroline tries to punch his fist through walls. Musselman goes from a smiling dad, loving husband and owner of a dog named Swish into a guy who would drive the Muss Bus over that dog in the driveway and rename it Squish. When you beat this Wolf Pack, they come out in the rematch and take your girlfriend, your house, your car and your 65-inch TV. And the game.

The Wolf Pack lost at New Mexico 85-58 on Jan. 5. They embarrassed the Lobos 91-62 in the rematch in Reno on Feb. 9. The Pack lost at San Diego State 65-57 on Feb. 20. They trashed the Aztecs 81-53 in the rematch in Reno on March 9. Loyola Chicago ended the Pack season (69-68) last year in the Sweet 16. The Pack went to Chicago this year, beat the Ramblers 79-65 and took all of their Chicago Cubs’ autographs and ate all of their deep dish pizza.

It’s the victories — all of the monotonous victories against overmatched opponents — that have given this Pack team the most trouble. Think Dorothy, Toto, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion falling asleep in the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz.

A string of 14 victories in a row to start the season produced that 85-58 loss at New Mexico. A 72-49 whipping of Utah State in Reno on Jan. 2 led to a stunning 81-76 loss in Logan, Utah on March 2. That 28-point Pack party over San Diego State on March 9 gave us that nine-point kick to the shins against the Aztecs just six days later in Las Vegas.

“We played San Diego State great at home,” said Musselman of the ridiculously easy victory on March 9. “Throttled them. But there was no carryover.”

Well, there was no positive carryover. The poppies took over on March 15.

Musselman has talked about the pressures his team has faced this season constantly over the last month or so. He told us before the Mountain West tournament those pressures were over, his team could now play free and easy. He said the same thing on Sunday.

“There’s like a relaxation,” he said. “You’ve got to be relaxed. You’ve got to play free. You can’t play with a burden on your shoulders.”

How nice. If only the real college basketball world worked that way. Like it or not, this is the most pressure packed moment of this Wolf Pack season. Playing Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, San Jose State and Air Force with a Top 25 ranking on your back is nothing compared to what is coming. The next three weeks is how this Pack team is going to be judged for all of silver and blue eternity. This is a legacy moment for the 2018-19 Wolf Pack.

So how is this Wolf Pack team going to be remembered? Is it the team that had to share the Mountain West regular season title and didn’t even get to the Mountain West tournament title game? Is it a team that peaked in December, January and February and limped to the finish line in March? Is it a team that will close out the year by losing the two most important games of the season in a row in the conference tournament and NCAA tournament?

Or is it the team Pack fans have been waiting for their entire lives?

“We’re going there to win,” Cody Martin said.

Now that’s confidence.