Joe Santoro: Reality (TV) bites for Nevada | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Reality (TV) bites for Nevada

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada forward Jordan Caroline, center, goes up for a shot as New Mexico's Corey Manigault, left, and Vance Jackson defend during the first half Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M.
Andres Leighton/AP | FR171260 AP

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team got a healthy dose of reality television this past Saturday night.

The 85-58 loss at New Mexico welcomes the Wolf Pack to The Real World. The fantasy of an undefeated season has vanished. In one game the Pack went from Dancing With the Stars to Dancing With its Own Mortality. The Pack lost its aura of invincibility. And we all lost our Wolf Pack innocence.

“We just had a bad night all around,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman told the Associated Press minutes after the game.

That’s all it was. A bad night. No big deal. It was bound to happen. It’s just we thought the Pack wakeup call this season would be more like finishing second in American Idol, with hugs and kisses all around and confetti falling from the ceiling.

Instead, it was The Biggest Loser.

The 27-point loss is the second largest in Musselman’s three-plus years and 125 games at Nevada, since a 29-point blowout (98-69) at Wichita State on Dec. 22, 2015. It’s Musselman’s biggest Mountain West loss ever. A Wolf Pack team 14 or more games over .500 hasn’t lost this badly since an 84-56 loss in the National Invitation Tournament at Stanford on March 21, 2012.

So, yes, this wasn’t just any loss. It was the sort of moment that could send you to Celebrity Rehab.

“We weren’t our normal selves,” Musselman told the Albuquerque Journal last Saturday.

Thank goodness. That wasn’t the undefeated, national media darling Wolf Pack that lost to the 7-6 Lobos by 27 points. That was some overconfident, non-competitive, prima donna version in silver and blue that went down to Albuquerque thinking its Top 10 national ranking, undefeated record and national media interviews would carry it to victory.

That’s a relief. So, relax and come in off that ledge, Pack fans. Nothing important changed last Saturday night. Walter White might have met an ugly end in Albuquerque a few years back but Pack Dynasty is still a distinct possibility this year.

Then again, it’s that sort of everything-will-be-turn-out-all-right thinking that led to that punch to the gut in The Pit last Saturday.

We all — everyone but Musselman, of course — ignored the warning signs as if they were just some staged plot twists designed to keep us interested throughout this supposedly drama-free Mountain West season. And all of those warning signs came into play at New Mexico.

In the Pack’s first seven games this season it built a lead at halftime six times and was tied once. Over the last eight games, the Pack has led at the half four times and trailed four times. Three of those halftime leads were by three points or less and three of those halftime deficits were by seven points or more.

Even Musselman, a guy who likes to control and orchestrate the narrative about what may or may not be wrong with his team, downplayed the first-half struggles earlier this year.

“The bloggers or on Twitter, whatever, the fans, my wife, my daughter, they go to a game and they come home and (they say), ‘Wow, we got off to a bad start,’” Musselman said last month. “And it’s like, ‘We really didn’t. The other team played real well, the other team made their first five shots.’ Throughout the course of a 40-minute game, it evens out. Our guys have done a great job of having maturity throughout the 40 minutes.”

That was all well and good before last Saturday when the Pack fell behind by 12 at the half, equaling its biggest halftime deficit of the year. The Pack won over Arizona State the first time it got down by 12 after 20 minutes. And it played on Saturday as if it was going to happen again.

“I was disappointed in the lack of fight down the stretch,” Musselman said. “The one thing we prided ourselves in was really competing until the end. We didn’t play hard. We splintered and we came apart.”

Halftime scores during the Musselman era have proven to be a fairly reliable predictor of Wolf Pack success or possible failure. Musselman’s Pack teams are 67-4 after leading at the half. They’re a mediocre 26-25 after losing at the half and 2-1 after playing to a halftime tie.

Halftime deficits or ties, though, hadn’t meant much to the Pack before Saturday, having won all four games when they weren‘t winning at the half.

“An analogy is boxing,” Musselman said recently. “Teams are throwing haymakers right out of the gate and we’re just kind of throwing jabs and seeing which mismatches we want.”

New Mexico, which blew a 25-point lead with 11 minutes to play the last time the Pack came to the Pit two years ago, knew it had to throw haymakers for the entire 40 minutes. They never let the Pack punch back.

The game against the Lobos was just the fourth time in the last two-plus seasons the Pack lost both halves of a game. It happened six times in Musselman’s first season of 2015-16. But it happened just twice last season (March 3 at San Diego State and Feb. 8 at home to UNLV) and just once in Musselman’s second season (the 2016-17 season opener at Saint Mary’s).

There were red flags for the Wolf Pack all over The Pit on Saturday.

The game in Albuquerque is just the fifth in the Musselman era at Nevada when his Pack failed to score at least 60 points. Offense is what this Musselman empire is built upon, no matter how much he tries to say it’s the other way around. And this Pack offense has taken a turn for the worse over its past nine games, averaging just 72.7 points a game. The average over the first six games was 92.0 a game. We expected a decline in production as the season and schedule toughened up, but 20 points a game is disturbing.

“Defense, that’s the identity of our team this year,” said Musselman a few weeks back when he was visibly upset with his offense. “We’ve become a team that struggles to score and make shots.”

That’s not a good thing when you want a starring role in Keeping Up With the Dukes and Michigans.

“Our UMass game (110 points) and our Loyola game (79 points on 58 percent shooting) were as good as we’ve played since I’ve been here from an offensive standpoint,” Musselman said.

That was in late November.

The last time the Wolf Pack played at the Lobos’ Pit, by the way, they scored 94 points in regulation and another 11 in overtime in a 105-104 win two years ago. They scored 56 points (almost as many as they scored all game long this past Saturday) in the final 16 minutes.

“It was just a terrible game for all of us,” said Musselman of Saturday night.

The Pack was out-rebounded by New Mexico 47-37 and has now been out-rebounded in each of its last five games and six of its last seven. It was never outrebounded in its first eight games.

The Wolf Pack has turned the ball over 30 times over its last two games. It’s the most Pack turnovers over two games since it had 31 against Texas Tech and TCU in December 2017.

The Wolf Pack shot just .333 from the floor overall, .182 on threes and .593 from the free throw line against New Mexico for its worst shooting performance of the year by far. It’s the worst Wolf Pack shooting performance under Musselman since it shot .319 from the floor, .154 on threes and .450 from the free throw line in a 74-57 loss at Utah State on Feb. 1, 2017.

But it’s just one game, no matter how ugly the numbers are. And it was bound to happen. A perfect college basketball season, after all, hasn’t happened since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, when players wore short shorts, coaches wore plaid jackets and no shot was worth more than two points.

Even Musselman, it seems, figured a loss was bound to happen eventually. “We know that one loss changes things,” he said a few weeks back. “You then have to figure out a way to regroup and figure out a way to get better.”

That’s where the Wolf Pack is right now. It has joined the cast of Extreme Makeover, Musselman Edition.

“He wants to win as much as anybody,” senior Jordan Caroline said earlier this season of Musselman. “He wants to be more prepared than each and every coach. He takes so much pride in trying to out-coach the other coaches. He’s always watching film every day, trying to get you better.”

The Wolf Pack will get better. Under Musselman the Wolf Pack has always gotten better. Last Saturday isn’t the beginning of the end. It didn’t expose the Pack as Top 10 frauds. In fact, the loss to New Mexico will likely only serve as the catalyst for making this team even better. It’s hard to get better, after all, when you think you can’t possibly lose.

“There’s always a lot we can improve on,” Caroline said. “The biggest thing is not to take a step back in any area.”

That’s not going to happen. The Pack, after all, never takes a step back under Musselman.

The loss at New Mexico will only benefit this Pack team, if only because it will quiet the hype to a manageable level. Musselman thought his Pack had learned how to deal with it. Last Saturday proved him wrong.

“Once we got to that 10-game mark, it’s out of all our heads,” he said recently. “It’s now just about going out and playing basketball. I felt there were nights we did have some pressure (early in the season) but that’s been lifted now. We’re playing with the target on our backs and the understanding, everywhere we go on the road, it’s the biggest game of the year for our opponent. I think we’re ready for it. It doesn’t mean we’ll win every night. But, mentally, we’re in the right frame of mind.”

They are now.

The next test will be Wednesday night when the Pack takes on the 3-10 San Jose State Spartans at home. The Pack thinks it can beat the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers at home. Before last Saturday, it probably felt it could start one Martin twin, two cheerleaders, Musselman’s wife Danyelle and daughter Mariah and beat the Spartans at home.

They probably don’t think that now. It might take both twins, a cheerleader and two Musselman family members.

“When we’re at home we have a comfort level,” Musselman said. “Even me, I drive to the arena, I’m like, ‘Yeah, we got our crowd here. It’s going to be rocking and it’s the place to be tonight in Northern Nevada.’ Our players feel that way and maybe we take that for granted. We just can’t walk into the game and feel like we’re at home and we’re going to win. That’s not how it works.”

Odds are Musselman won’t allow this Pack team to feel comfortable the rest of the season.

“We have to stay hungry,” warned senior Tre’Shawn Thurman last month. “That’s the biggest thing for this team.”

The Pack obviously forgot what Thurman said last Saturday. The Lobos were the hungry wolves at The Pit. The Pack played as if it had just eaten a half dozen deer, goats and elk.

“We’re everybody’s biggest game of the year,” Musselman said. “You’ve got to know that. There’s big-time responsibility that comes with people circling you on the schedule.”

The Dukes, Michigans, North Carolinas and Kentuckys of the world know that. They are born with that knowledge. This is a world the Wolf Pack is still beginning to understand.

Lesson learned.