Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack needs to focus on positives | NevadaAppeal.com
YOUR AD HERE »

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack needs to focus on positives

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada guard Jalen Harris shown against San Diego State on Jan. 18. Harris "deserves to be in the conversation for Mountain West Player of the Year," Joe Santoro writes.
Denis Poroy/AP | FR59680 AP

Sports fodder…

The time has come for the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team to look at the positives rather than the negatives. Yes, the Wolf Pack lost a heartbreaking 92-91 game at Colorado State on Wednesday on a last-second shot by the Rams’ Isaiah Stevens. Yes, the Pack led by 10 with under eight minutes to play and lost. And, yes, the Pack played absolutely no defense the entire game, refused once again to go to the free throw line and lost for the sixth consecutive time away from Lawlor Events Center. But if the Wolf Pack focuses on all of those gut-wrenching things right now the season is over. The game was full of forgotten heroes and moments for the Pack and those are the things that need to be emphasized. Jalen Harris scored 31 points and proved once again he deserves to be in the conversation for Mountain West Player of the Year. Nisre Zouzoua scored 17 points and made all five of his 3-point shots, including one with 18 seconds to go to cut the Rams’ lead to just 89-88. Harris, once again doing his Caleb and Cody Martin impression, drained a clutch three from the top of the circle for a 91-90 lead with six seconds to go. Freshman K.J. Hymes scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting against one of the better big men (Nico Carvacho) in the conference. The Pack scored 91 points on the road and made 14 3-pointers. And the Pack did force Stevens to take a difficult 18-foot jumper to win the game. The season is definitely not over.

•••

It would, however, take a Mountain West miracle for the Wolf Pack to now win its fourth consecutive regular-season title. The Pack is now 6-4 in league play with eight games to play, lumped together with UNLV (6-3), Utah State (6-4), Colorado State (6-4), Boise State (6-4) and New Mexico (5-5) behind unbeaten (11-0) San Diego State. The Pack goal now is second place and avoiding San Diego State until the conference tournament title game. At 13-9, the Pack will now have to win the conference tournament to get to the NCAA tournament. That would not take a miracle. Yes, it would likely take a little bit of defense and more than seven free throws, but a tournament title is not out of the question. San Diego State, now 22-0 overall, will likely have secured at least an at large NCAA bid going into the Mountain West tournament and might simply not care enough to win it. See the Wolf Pack the past two seasons. That’s why it is important for the Pack to focus on the positive and treat Wednesday’s game as if it ended after Harris 3-pointer with six seconds to go.

•••

Eric Musselman is the gift that just keeps on giving to the Wolf Pack. Harris was brought to the Wolf Pack by the former Pack coach in February 2018. The 6-5 guard transferred to Nevada in the middle of his sophomore season at Louisiana Tech when he was averaging 15.3 points a game. His freshman year he averaged 10.9 points a game. This year Harris just might be the best all-around player in the Mountain West, averaging 19.5 points (second in the league), 6.1 rebounds (ninth), 1.1 steals (14th), 4.2 assists (fifth), 43 threes (10th) and 5.2 defensive rebounds (seventh). He is also seventh in field goal percentage (.436), third in free throw shooting (.837) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.98). The Martins might have actually been triplets.

•••

The Wolf Pack’s season, so far, has been a story of 3-pointers and free throws. The Pack has made 52-of-118 threes over its last four games (44 percent) and leads the Mountain West with 225 successful 3-pointers and a .393 percentage. The 225 threes are the fifth most in the nation. Getting to the free throw line, though, has been a problem that doesn’t want to go away. The Pack lost to Colorado State because it was outscored 23-7 at the line. The Wolf Pack is a good free throw shooting team (.751 success rate) but it has made the fourth fewest free throws in the league (281) and has attempted the fourth fewest (374). The good news is that unbeaten San Diego State also struggles to get to the line, making just 272-of-361. So a ton of free throws isn’t always necessary to win. The Aztecs, though, allow just 57.2 points a game while the Pack allows 72.1.

•••

Nisre Zouzoua, another Musselman find in May 2017, has revitalized his career under new Pack coach Steve Alford. Musselman barely played Zouzoua a year ago, limiting him to just 126 minutes all year. In Muss’ defense, though, Zouzoua was awful last year, making just 3-of-29 threes and 11-of-50 shots overall. Zouzoua has played 500 minutes this year already and is averaging 9.4 points a game. He is showing us why Musselman was absolutely right in bringing the 6-foot-2 guard to Nevada in the first place. Zouzoua, who made 152 threes for Bryant in two seasons before coming to Nevada, is 34-of-79 on threes this year (.430) and is 13-of-16 over the Pack’s last three games.

•••

Freshman K.J. Hymes is also finally showing us why the media picked him as the preseason Freshman of the Year in the Mountain West. Hymes scored just 58 points over his first 19 games this season, battling serious foul trouble in most games. He has been whistled 73 times this year in just 305 minutes, or one foul every 4.2 minutes. The 6-foot-10 center from Phoenix, though, is blossoming right before our eyes lately. He scored a season-high 13 points at Colorado State and has now scored 28 points over his last three games on 13-of-17 shooting with six blocks. The best news is that he had just two fouls in 21 minutes against Colorado State. “I’m starting to learn how to pick and choose my battles,” Hymes said last week, referring to his foul trouble. “I feel like I am finally getting a feel for my game. I’m just trying to build on this and add more to my game. I am confident in my game. I think I can be as good as anybody when I’m playing my role.”

•••

This might be the most difficult Super Bowl to predict in the history of the game. But no matter what you think will happen on Sunday it likely all revolves around Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is simply one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the history of the game. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if he comes out and throws four touchdowns on Sunday. The San Francisco 49ers defense can play extremely well and Mahomes can still throw four touchdowns. But if the 49ers can put consistent pressure on Mahomes and force him to panic and make mistakes, the 49ers can squeeze out a 27-20 victory. Jimmy Garoppolo has to play error-free football, the 49ers have to get the early lead (28-0 would be nice) and then use the ground game to chew up the clock and keep Mahomes off the field. All the Chiefs need to win is Mahomes to be Mahomes. And he usually is. The pick here is Chiefs 34, 49ers 24.