Joe Santoro: Pack can plant the seed of success in MWC | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack can plant the seed of success in MWC

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack came home from Las Vegas last weekend after the most confusing and bewildering loss (66-64 to San Francisco) in the Eric Musselman era. It turns out the loss to the Dons was exactly what the Pack needed to recharge its batteries and refocus for the start of the Mountain West season. Leave it to Musselman to turn a negative into a positive. The Wolf Pack played with passion and purpose and whipped Fresno State, 80-65, on Wednesday and, well, don't be shocked if the Pack never spends a day out of first place in the Mountain West this year. The last time the Pack went wire-to-wire in first place while winning a conference title was 2011-12 in the Western Athletic Conference. Leave it to Musselman to always add new accomplishments every year.

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Fresno State was the Wolf Pack's biggest conference test until Boise State comes to Lawlor Events Center on Jan. 20. The Pack now gets to play New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah State at home, a place where it never loses, and Mountain West bottom feeders San Jose State and Air Force on the road. Boredom, like we saw in Las Vegas against San Francisco, just might be the Pack's biggest opponent between now and the Mountain West tournament. Winning the Mountain West, though, is all well and good but it's not the ultimate goal this year. The Pack's biggest challenge this year is positioning itself to get the highest seed possible for the NCAA tournament. A Top 10 seed (last year the Pack was a 12 seed) is indeed possible if the Pack sails through the Mountain West.

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The Wolf Pack clearly looked like a Sweet 16 team against Fresno State, dominating a solid team on the road. The ball movement was sharp and precise, leading to 10 successful 3-pointers in 17 attempts. But what makes this Pack team truly special is when point guard Lindsey Drew helps out in the scoring column. Drew scored 13 points and took eight shots (draining five) against Fresno State for his highest scoring game since he had 14 against San Jose State late last year. It was just the sixth time in his career he's scored 13 or more points. When Drew scores in double digits in his career the Pack is 11-2.

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Kendall Stephens, who's already on his way to establishing himself as one of the best 3-point shooters in school history, hit five threes against Fresno State. The senior transfer from Purdue has filled a huge role with the Pack with the loss of senior Marcus Marshall after last year. Stephens, though, is also trending in another less desirable direction. The Fresno State game was his third game in a row without an assist. Three of Stephens' seven assists this year came in a uncharacteristic four-minute stretch in the second half against UC Davis. The senior has no assists in six of his 15 games this year and none in six of his last seven games. Stephens, who had 102 assists in three years at Purdue, has just seven assists all year in 345 minutes, an average of one every 49.3 minutes. Take away that four-minute stretch in the Davis game and he'd have four assists in 341 minutes. You have to go back to Jerry Evans in 2010-11 to find a Wolf Pack non-center or power forward to have fewer assists per minute than Stephens does right now. Evans had just 10 assists in 591 minutes in 2010-11.

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Jimmy Garoppolo is now 4-0 as a San Francisco 49ers' starter and 6-0 in his career as a starter. As a frame of reference, don't forget Joe Montana was just 2-6 as a starter over his first two years in the NFL and Steve Young was 3-16 over his first two years (in Tampa). The 26-year-old Garoppolo has clearly transformed one of the worst franchises in the NFL in recent years and he's done it in just a month. Trading Garoppolo the Great to the 49ers for a second round pick already ranks as the worst trade in Bill Belichick's Hall of Fame career as the New England Patriots coach. Overlooked in all of this Garoppolo mania, though, is the job 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan did in getting his new quarterback ready to play. Shanahan is everything (a quarterback savant) the 49ers thought he was when they made him head coach a year ago.

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We're going to be robbed this weekend of what should have been the first installment of a great 49ers-Los Angeles Rams quarterback battle throughout the next decade. The Rams, though, are going to rest quarterback Jared Goff to make sure he's healthy for the playoffs in two weeks. The G-Men Battle between Garoppolo and Goff just might become the best quarterback war in this heated rivalry since John Brodie and Roman Gabriel went head to head in the 1960s. It's been rare when both teams had great quarterbacks at the same time. Joe Montana usually went up against Dieter Brock, Pat Haden, Vince Ferragamo or Kurt Warner. Steve Young was challenged by Everett, Chris Miller and Tony Banks. The Rams' Kurt Warner only had to outduel Jeff Garcia most of the time. The first years of the rivalry had great QB wars as Y.A. Tittle of the Niners met Norm Van Brocklin and the Niners' Frankie Albert had to deal with Bob Waterfield. Goff-Garoppolo could turn out to be the best of all.

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There's nothing NFL teams like to do more than fire head coaches as soon as the regular season is over. It happens every year and this year should be no exception. Cleveland's Hue Jackson, Indianapolis' Chuck Pagano, Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, Chicago's John Fox and Tampa's Dirk Koetter seem to be the ones with their heads on the chopping block right now. But do any of them truly deserve to get fired? You could argue Fox, Koetter and Jackson haven't been given enough of a chance to succeed. This is only going to be Pagano's first losing year. And Lewis has proven to be one of the most successful regular season coaches in the NFL in recent years. But that's what happens when you get paid a tremendous amount of money. You give up the right to actually build a program.