Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack women rise with Levens at the helm
March 8, 2018
Doug Knuth has done it again. The Nevada Wolf Pack athletic director has breathed life into a dormant Nevada Wolf Pack basketball program for the second time in just three years. Knuth hired Eric Musselman to run the men's basketball program in the spring of 2015 and Musselman is now about to put the Pack into its second consecutive NCAA tournament. Knuth hired Amanda Levens last spring to take over the women's program and now Levens is one victory away (the Pack plays Boise State today in the Mountain West tournament title game) from putting the Pack into its first-ever NCAA tournament.
This is just the second time the Pack has even reached a conference tournament title game in the school's history. The first time was 2009 when it lost to Fresno State 56-49 in the Western Athletic Conference championship. This year's Wolf Pack, a No. 7 seed, has already set a school record for the most victories in a conference tournament with three, beating San Diego State, UNLV and Wyoming. Levens, who took over a program that had gone 58-124 over the past six seasons, now has the Pack at 17-15 overall and on a five-game winning streak. The Pack split its two games with Boise State this year, winning in Boise 72-68 and losing in Reno, 63-55 (the Pack didn't score in the final six minutes). It is sometimes amazing what one coaching hire can accomplish so quickly. And one athletic director hire.
The Mountain West men's basketball coaches did a much better job selecting the Mountain West All Conference teams this year than the Mountain West media. The media picked Boise State's Chandler Hutchison as Player of the Year and Wyoming's Alan Herndon as Defensive Player of the Year. The coaches picked the Wolf Pack's Caleb Martin as Player of the Year and the Pack's Cody Martin as Defensive Player of the Year. Coaches obviously respect winning more than the media. The coaches also placed the Pack's Lindsey Drew on the All Defensive team (the media didn't pick an All Defensive team).
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Both the media and coaches, though, undervalued Cody Martin, Stephens and Drew. Cody Martin was named to the Second Team All League and Stephens was put on the Third Team by both the media and coaches. Drew didn't even get an Honorable Mention from either. Cody Martin should've joined his brother Caleb and the Pack's Jordan Caroline on the First Team and Stephens, the best shooter in the conference, if not the entire western United States, should've been on the Second Team. Drew, who missed just five games because of an injury, also should've been named Second Team, let alone Third Team or certainly Honorable Mention. Nobody in the conference, other than maybe Caleb and Cody Martin, does as many things as well as Drew.
ESPN's Joe Lunardi, who has made a career out of predicting the NCAA tournament field throughout the regular season, currently (as of Thursday morning) has the Wolf Pack as a No. 6 seed and playing Texas in the first round. Texas, which might not even make the tournament, is certainly a team the Pack can beat. A win over Texas would also give the Pack some measure of revenge over the state of Texas and the Big 12 Conference. The Pack, now ranked No. 22, would likely be ranked in the Top 10 right now if not for back-to-back losses to the Big 12's Texas Tech and TCU back in December.
The more the Wolf Pack men's basketball team wins in the NCAA tournament, the more rumors you'll likely hear about Eric Musselman's coaching future. Musselman, who just signed a five-year extension with the Pack last spring, will probably return to the Pack next year if he doesn't win a game in the NCAA tournament this year. The same would likely be true if the Pack wins just one game. But if Musselman and the Pack gets to the Sweet 16, well, all bets are off. The 53-year-old coach would be attractive to a big-time program that could certainly justify hiring Musselman to its fan base if the Pack gets to the Sweet 16 or beyond. That sort of program, which would likely be fortified by Power Five Conference football money, would have no problem buying out the final four years of Musselman's deal (a million a year) at Nevada.
Expect the Wolf Pack football team to win at least seven games this year and return to a bowl game. The season might come down to home Mountain West games against Colorado State, Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. If the Pack can simply split those four games, we could be looking at a breakout season for the Pack. The non-conference schedule is manageable with the likes of Portland State (an FCS team), Toledo, Oregon State and Vanderbilt. Toledo was 11-3 in the Mid-American Conference last year but Vandy was just 5-7 in the SEC and Oregon State was 1-11 in the Pac-12. The Pack, which won just three games in Jay Norvell's first season as coach in 2017, also could very well sweep its four road Mountain West games (UNLV, San Jose State, Hawaii, Air Force).
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