Joe Santoro: Pack should have a ton of talent back | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack should have a ton of talent back

Joe Santoro

Nevada’s Jazz Johnson (22) drives against the Aztecs’ Jeremy Hemsley in the first half this past season.
Steve Ranson/LVN

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team still has a ton of talent. It will still likely compete for a Mountain West regular season title and NCAA tournament spot next year. Relax, Wolf Pack fans. The era of winning isn’t over. There’s no secret the Wolf Pack has lost three of its greatest players in school history (Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline) and two others (Tre’Shawn Thurman, Trey Porter) who played a significant role on this past season’s 29-5 team. The most productive player from last year’s team who will return in 2019-20 is sixth man Jazz Johnson (71 3-pointers). Replacing five starters is never easy. So it is safe to say the Pack won’t start next season in the Top 10. But that’s about all that will change next season. The Pack will still be talented and successful because coach Eric Musselman is still around. And Musselman, thanks to 110 victories and three NCAA tournament appearances in four seasons, has earned northern Nevada’s trust.

•••

Rebuilding a roster is nothing new for Musselman. Yes, this is the biggest rebuilding project he has faced at Nevada by far. But the cupboard isn’t bare. Johnson is back along with point guard Lindsey Drew, center Jordan Brown and shooting guard Nisre Zouzoua. Jalen Harris, K.J. Hymes and JoJo Anderson practiced with the team this past season. Transfers Michael Lewis (Duquesne), Darryl Edwards (LSU), Shamiel Stevenson (Pittsburgh) and Eric Parrish (Akron) are already signed and are ready to produce. Stevenson, at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, is a Caroline type. The 6-6 Parris, 6-3 Edwards and 6-1 Lewis can all shoot and score. And, if last year is any indication, Musselman isn’t finished adding talent.

•••

Musselman just might be the best recruiter in Wolf Pack history. His first year he added Cam Oliver and Drew. His second year brought in Caroline, Marcus Marshall and Josh Hall. His third year saw the debut of Caleb and Cody Martin, Kendall Stephens and Hallice Cooke. And this past season we were treated to newcomers Johnson, Porter, Thurman, Brown, Zouzoua and Corey Henson. Musselman, who cut his basketball teeth by building rosters in basketball’s minor leagues, knows how to construct a team. Next year won’t be any different.

•••

The two biggest questions — and maybe the two biggest keys to the 2019-20 season — are Drew and Brown. Can Drew still play like the player he was the last time he stepped on a court in February 2018? The 6-foot-4 point guard has undergone two serious injuries in the past 14 months or so (Achilles and hip) and, well, his basketball future is still in doubt. If Drew is anything close to the player he was his first three seasons at Nevada (200-plus points, 100-plus assists, around 50 steals, 30 blocks) everyone on the roster will benefit. Also, is Brown coming back? The 6-foot-11 center wouldn’t be the first former McDonald’s All American to become frustrated by playing just 10 minutes a game while scoring a mere three points and pulling down two rebounds a game his freshman year. It’s hard to imagine he would accept a similar role again this year. It’s also difficult to imagine he wouldn’t have at least two dozen or so offers to play elsewhere, if he so chooses.

•••

Forget the seven seniors the Pack lost off last year’s roster. It turns out the biggest star on the Wolf Pack this past season was the fans. And they’ll be back. They might not show up in the record numbers of last year (10,878 a game) but there likely won’t be that many more open seats at Lawlor this year also. Lawlor Events Center, it’s now obvious, masked a lot of Wolf Pack sins last year, sins that showed up away from home when the Pack lost four of its last nine games overall. The Pack was 15-0 at home this season. It outscored the opposition, on average, 83-61 at home (away from Lawlor it was just 78-71). All five losses and a couple wins that nearly became losses all took place away from North Virginia Street. That home court advantage will still be around next year, even if Cody, Caleb and Caroline aren’t.

•••

This just might be the most boring and uneventful NCAA tournament in history. The first weekend’s games produced no stunning upsets. The top three seeds in each region all advanced to the Sweet 16 (the top four in the West and East advanced). The biggest so-called Cinderella still alive (as of Thursday morning) is 12th-seeded Oregon, if you can call a Pac-12 team a Cinderella.

•••

UNLV’s hiring of former South Dakota State head coach T.J. Otzelberger is refreshing. Otzelberger seems like a solid coach. He’s young (41) and has a solid resume. And he nearly beat Musselman and the Wolf Pack on Dec. 15 at Lawlor, losing just 72-68. But, at the same time, he’s had just three seasons as a head coach with just two 20-win seasons. And that was in the mighty Summit League against the likes of Western Illinois, North Dakota and North Dakota State. So there’s a bit of a risk here. But give UNLV credit for thinking a bit out of the box. Get ready for Coach Muss against Coach Otz, Pack fans.

•••

What can we expect out of the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s this season? Well, probably not a World Series. The biggest issue surrounding the Giants is how many players they will unload before the July 31 trade deadline. The present and future looks bleak for the Giants unless the organization can replenish the farm system with young talent by trading established but fading stars like Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Evan Longoria, Brandon Belt and others. The A’s will still be good but it will be difficult to repeat last year’s 97-win season. Expect something more along the lines of 85-88 wins, falling just short of the playoffs.