Joe Santoro: 2 seed may not be what Pack wants
December 20, 2018
The Nevada Wolf Pack is projected by ESPN as a No. 2 seed in this year's NCAA basketball tournament. It would be the lowest seed ever for a Wolf Pack team in the tournament by three spots (No. 5 in 2006). Be careful what you wish for, Wolf Pack fans. Since 2005 there have been just 10 No. 2 seeds out of a possible 56 (over 14 tournaments) to get to the Final Four. Just one of those No. 2 seeds since 2005 (Villanova in 2016) won the national title. Just two other No. 2 seeds starting in 1992 won a national title (Connecticut in 2004 and Kentucky in 1998). Since 1991 there have been eight stunning upsets when a No. 15 seed beat a No. 2 seed in the opening round. The Wolf Pack, currently 11-0 and ranked No. 6 in the nation, might want to try the No. 1-seed route to a national title. No less than 20 No. 1 seeds have won the tournament since the field was expanded to 64 (or more) teams in 1985.
The key to a No. 1 seed for the Wolf Pack will likely be an undefeated record. Since 1979, when the NCAA began seeding every team in the tournament for the first time, just four teams (Indiana State in 1979, UNLV in 1991, Wichita State in 2014 and Kentucky in 2015) entered the tournament undefeated. And all were rewarded with a No. 1 seed and all of them except Wichita State advanced to the Final Four. None of them, though, won a national title. The moral of this story for the Wolf Pack? Don't worry about seeding. It means nothing. Just ask No. 2 Cincinnati last year and No. 2 Gonzaga in 2004, which both lost to a higher-seeded Pack team.
The Wolf Pack's schedule this year demands the Pack be perfect or close to it to get a No. 1 or 2 seed. The Wolf Pack, as things stand now, won't play a Top 25 team the rest of the season after playing just one (No. 20 Arizona State) so far. Rankings are constantly changing but as things stand now the five teams ahead of the Pack in the Top 25 rankings play much more difficult schedules the rest of the year. Kansas and Tennessee will each play four games against teams in the Top 20, Virginia will play six games against teams in the Top 15, Duke will play seven games against teams in the Top 12 and Michigan has to play nine games against teams in the Top 25. Any loss the Pack might suffer from now until the start of the NCAA tournament would be a stunning upset. The good news for the Pack is an undefeated record is a distinct possibility and everyone ahead of them in the rankings right now will likely lose more than once from here on out.
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The Pack played a non-league schedule this year that, well, had much more bark than bite. It wasn't filled with the likes of Holy Names, Fresno Pacific, Portland State and Montana State, but it also wasn't filled with Top 25 vote-getters either. Gonzaga took the opposite approach this season and scheduled a ferocious non-conference schedule. But did the Zags bite off more than it could chew? The Zags might have been a bit too ambitious in scheduling before it takes on the weak West Coast Conference. Gonzaga has already played Illinois, Texas A&M, Arizona, Duke, North Carolina, Creighton and Tennessee. It paid off early with a No. 1 ranking after a win over Duke but losses to Tennessee and North Carolina dropped the Zags (now 9-2) to No. 8. The moral of this story? Nobody will remember who you played in November and December when March rolls around.
This season, with just one Top 25 opponent (so far) on the schedule, isn't uncommon for the Wolf Pack. The Wolf Pack played just 15 games (before the NCAA tournament) against Top 25 teams over 15 seasons (2003-04 through last year). And they went 1-14, with the only victory coming over No. 6 Kansas in the 2003-04 season. A schedule without an abundance of Top 25 teams isn't Nevada coach Eric Musselman's fault. It's just difficult for teams in the western one-third of the country to schedule games against Top 25 teams located east of the Mississippi River. North Carolina (three consecutive years from 2007-10) is the only Top 25 school located east of the Mississippi River to play the Pack before the NCAA tournament since 2003-04. Even Gonzaga, a team that has already been to a Final Four, this year had to go to Maui to play Illinois and Duke, had to go to North Carolina and Creighton and play tough road games and had to go to Phoenix to play Tennessee.
The Wolf Pack's 2019-20 roster shrunk by one this week when freshman Vincent Lee, who was red-shirting this season, announced he has requested a transfer. That leaves just six scholarship players (Lindsey Drew, Jordan Brown, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Jalen Harris and K.J. Hymes) as returners for next year. Drew will be coming off two major injuries (Achilles and hip) over the last year and a half and only Johnson from that group will likely play significant minutes this year. The Pack will still win 20-plus games and compete for a Mountain West title and a NCAA tournament spot as long as Musselman is coach. But this might be the last season we're concerned with things like No. 1 or No. 2 NCAA tournament seeds and Top 10 rankings for a while.
Jay Norvell might be taking part in his first bowl game as a head coach when his Wolf Pack meets Arkansas State in the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 29. But Norvell is no stranger to bowl games. His Iowa Hawkeyes went to four bowls in a row from 1982-85 when he was a player, including the 1985 Rose Bowl against UCLA. And Norvell went to 12 bowl games as an assistant coach. And, oh yeah, he also went to the Super Bowl as a member of the Oakland Raiders staff after the 2002 season. Norvell this year is trying to become just the third Pack coach to win a bowl game in his first two seasons as Pack head coach. Joe Sheeketski won the Salad Bowl after his first season in 1947 and Jeff Tisdel won the 1996 Las Vegas Bowl in his first season. Sheeketski and Tisdel, however, never won another bowl.
Toa Taua, the Wolf Pack's Freshman Flash, needs 184 yards against Arkansas State to become the first Wolf Pack freshman to rush for 1,000 or more yards in a season since Matt Milton in 2002 (1,108). The Wolf Pack record for rushing yards in a bowl game, by the way, is 189 by James Butler in the 2015 Arizona Bowl against Colorado State. Arkansas State has allowed an average of 200 yards rushing a game this year.
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