Joe Santoro: What does Nevada Wolf Pack’s loss mean? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: What does Nevada Wolf Pack’s loss mean?

Joe Santoro
Nevada coach Steve Alford reacts to an official's call during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Saint Mary's on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)
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The Nevada Wolf Pack silver and blue sky is not falling. Northern Nevada is not going to start giving away its Wolf Pack men’s basketball tickets on eBay. Well, not all of them. Steve Alford is still a great coach. The Wolf Pack still can realistically compete for a Mountain West title. So, relax, Pack fans. Nothing important has really changed since the Wolf Pack’s eye-opening 70-68 loss at San Jose State on Wednesday night. All that really happened was a stark reminder that the 2018-19 season is over and done with. Those players are gone. The Top 25 rankings are gone. We are not allowed the luxury of worrying about NCAA tournament seeds and Top 25 rankings in January anymore. We are back to a year of living in the moment, where every victory should be savored and cherished. We got fooled a bit recently as the Pack whipped through the past month, winning eight of 10 games. It felt like 2018-19 all over again, with Jalen Harris doing his best Caleb Martin impersonation and watching a new and improved Jazz Johnson and Lindsey Drew flying around the court. That was a mirage. Cody and Caleb Martin weren’t at San Jose State on Wednesday to pull the Pack out of the fire. And that’s OK. This team will be just fine.

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If there is something to worry about, though, it’s that Wednesday night didn’t really look like a fluke. We’d like to blame the loss on San Jose State playing out of its mind. But the Spartans didn’t even play well, shooting just 35 percent from the floor and an ugly 8-of-33 on threes. Just two players (Seneca Knight and Brae Ivey) seemingly scored all of the Spartans’ points. We’d like to blame the loss on the Pack digging itself a huge early hole. But that didn’t happen. The Pack, in fact, led for a great portion of the game. We’d like to blame the loss on an ugly Pack shooting night. But it was a typical Wolf Pack shooting night, making 38 percent from the floor and 40 percent from beyond the arc. We’d like to blame the loss on a rowdy road crowd. But there were just 1,459 fans were in the stands. What happened to the Pack on Wednesday just might happen on any given night of the season. That, too, is a big difference between last year and this year. The Pack had not lost to San Jose State in six years. It hadn’t lost at San Jose State in a dozen years. This year is different.

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The one area the Pack needs to address immediately is free throw shooting. This team, for some reason, refuses to go to the line. The Pack lost to San Jose State at the free throw line. The Spartans were 24-of-31 from the line while the Pack was 12-of-19. Are the officials out to get the Pack? Sorry, can’t blame it on that either. Over the past four games (losses to Saint Mary’s and San Jose State and wins over Colorado State and Boise State) the Pack has treated the free throw line like a poodle treats an invisible electric fence. The Pack has been just 32-of-43 from the line in the four games combined. The Pack’s opponents were 66-of-90 from the line in those same four games. In those same four games the Pack was 39-96 on threes. You can’t win every game by simply shooting threes.

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You can bet Alford will correct the Pack’s free throw problem. Alford, after all, is one of the greatest free throw shooters in NCAA history. He led the nation as a freshman at Indiana in 1983-84 by making 91 percent from the line. Alford made 89 percent of his free throws in his four seasons at Indiana, draining 535-of-596. His “socks, shorts, 1-2-3 swish” routine became a chant for Hoosier fans. He once made 64 free throws in a row while in high school. You can be sure that the Pack’s 32-of-43 production from the free throw line over the past four games is keeping him up at night.

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A loss at San Jose State on Wednesday doesn’t necessarily mean a loss to an even better Utah State team on the road on Saturday. But there is cause for concern. You can bet more than 1,459 fans will be in the stands at Utah State. And even last year’s Wolf Pack, after all, lost at Utah State (though they did make a fire extinguisher pay for it). But if there is a good time to play a game at Utah State, this might be it. Utah State is having problems of its own right now. It’s best player, 7-foot center Neemias Queta, never seems to know when his gimpy knees will deceive him. And while the Aggies are 13-5, they have also lost three games in a row, falling in ugly fashion to UNLV by 17, San Diego State by nine and Air Force by 19. The Pack won at Air Force by 15 in early December. The winner on Saturday will emerge as the favorite to earn the No. 2 seed behind top-seeded San Diego State in this year’s Mountain West tournament.

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If you want another difference between this year’s Wolf Pack and the Pack of the four previous seasons, it is a lack of production in the paint. Cam Oliver and Jordan Caroline took their fair share of threes the past four years but when the game demanded it they would go back inside, throw a few elbows, hips and forearms around, knock down or soar over opponents and dominate the paint inside. Oliver and Caroline were a sea of dunks and free throws and an easy source of points when those 3-pointers weren’t falling. This year’s team, so far, does not have anything close to an Oliver or Caroline.

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Not having Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in the NFL playoffs is a breath of fresh air. There are great quarterback matchups this weekend. Patrick Mahomes against DeShaun Watson. Russell Wilson against Aaron Rodgers. All four games are intriguing. Can the Tennessee Titans deal with Lamar Jackson? Is Jimmy Garoppolo ready to become an elite quarterback? Can we really end up with a Ryan Tannehill vs. Kirk Cousins Super Bowl? This is what happens when you get rid of the Patriots. The NFL has suddenly become interesting again.