Nevada Wolf Pack aces first test of the season, says Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada Wolf Pack aces first test of the season, says Joe Santoro

The pressure is off the Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team. This great expectations season is now, officially, a success.

"Year One was really, really easy," Pack coach Eric Musselman told Wolf Pack radio announcer John Ramey after Sunday's 92-83 victory over Colorado State. "There were no real expectations (in 2015-16). All we wanted to do was make any tournament we could. Last year I felt a little pressure. But, this year, I felt it. We were the pre-season number one pick (in the Mountain West). There's pressure."

That pressure blew away in the wind on Sunday. It was like Lawlor Events Center was a huge balloon on Sunday and somebody popped that balloon and let all the air out as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

"I felt tight tonight," Musselman told his radio audience. "I think our players felt tight."

Exhale, breathe, exhale again. And smile. The Pack is now back-to-back champions in a conference that just two years ago few believed this school could ever win once.

"This was our No. 1 goal going into this thing," Musselman told Ramey.

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That is why this season, no matter what happens over the next few weeks, is a success. Yes, there are more goals ahead. There are always more goals for a Musselman team. The Pack could win the NCAA tournament next month and Musselman would text them a day later and tell them they had to run a three-minute mile by June 1.

But all you need to know right now is that the Pack has already accomplished its most important goal this year. Tournaments, whether the conference or NCAA variety, are just random series of events based on matchups, kind or cruel referees and the bounce of a ball. An 18-game conference regular season is the only true test of a team's heart, character, will power, talent, confidence, intelligence and work ethic. The Pack aced that test this season.

So smile, Pack fans, smile. This season is something to be proud of. It is important right now to remember that when a Wolf Pack teams wins a Mountain West title, it is a reason to celebrate. Don't get caught up in NCAA tournament office pools, whether the Pack is a six, seven or eight seed in the big dance or even if the Pack gets revenge against UNLV this week.

All those things are fun and exciting. But they are just the spoils of a great season. Right now this is all you need to know. This Pack team is firmly entrenched among the greats in school history. It won a conference championship. It is one of the Top 20 teams in the nation. It is going to the NCAA tournament.

So go ahead and enjoy. It's OK. Let your silver and blue pride show through. The Pack is now playing with house money and cannot lose.

"We just have a really, really tough-minded group and a group that believes in itself," said Musselman, who came to the post-game press conference on Sunday wearing a piece of his basketball net trophy around his neck.

When we tell you that the Pack cannot lose, we are not saying they are going to breeze through the two road games at San Diego State and UNLV this week, sweep the Mountain West tournament next week and then become the greatest Cinderella story in the history of college basketball and win the NCAA tournament next month. We're just saying this Pack team Pack cannot lose its standing as one of the best teams in school history, no matter what happens in the coming weeks.

This is not the time to point out the potential dangers ahead on the highway, not the time to point out that the Wolf Pack we saw this week wouldn't beat any team with a single-digit NCAA seed attached to its name. This is, however, the time to pull off that highway into a grassy meadow, sip a cool drink and enjoy the journey.

This season is already one of the 10 best in Wolf Pack basketball history. The Pack is now 25-5. It is ranked among the elite teams in the nation. It won a Mountain West championship. This team's place in Wolf Pack history is secure. After all this team has endured this year — crazy expectations, a tough schedule, injuries, a maniacal head coach, a paper-thin bench — it deserves to know that it has already accomplished great things. This team has earned the freedom to attack the remaining games, no matter how many remain, with a free and clear mind void of stressful tension and pressure, like an accomplished college professor with tenure.

"These guys grind," Musselman said. "They do everything we have asked them to do."

Musselman, who is obsessed with success, asks them to do one thing above all else. Win. Yes, he shows them how to win and expects them to follow his instructions. But if they go rogue and play their own disjointed way, like this week against San Jose State and Colorado State, and still win the game, the manic Musselman is smiling after the game. But if the Pack loses and doesn't do what he tells them to do, well, he can be Bobby Knight on a bad day.

"We had a couple times (this season) when we had the most confidence and somebody smacked us in the mouth," said junior guard Cody Martin, who, to be clear, was talking about an opponent and not Musselman. "You could have folded right there. But the biggest thing is our guys came together, stayed confident and had each other's backs."

This Wolf Pack team is, if nothing else, a bunch of confident fighters. The Pack basically made like Muhammad Ali this week and played rope-a-dope with San Jose State and Colorado State. And they threw enough punches to win in the end.

We also saw what happened when the Spartans and Rams connected with a punch that the Pack actually felt. The Pack buried them with blows to the nose, mouth and gut. Against San Jose State it was a downpour of threes. Against Colorado State it was a relentless energy that finally showed up on the defensive end.

Colorado State had the nerve to go up 52-49 on a 3-pointer by Prentiss Nixon with just under 15 minutes to play. The crowd of 10,273, which came to Lawlor expecting to celebrate an easy, breezy conference title, was now a bit anxious. When 10,273 start to murmur, well, it can sound like a freight train. That freight train woke the Pack up.

The Martins, Cody and Caleb, took over. Caleb hit a 3-pointer off an assist from Cody 16 seconds after Nixon's shot to tie the game. A half minute later Caleb stole the ball away from Colorado State's Deion James. Five seconds after that Cody pulled down two offense rebounds and put in a layup for a 54-52 lead. That murmur was now a Wolf Pack howl. Rumor has it a few fans started to recite The Law of the Jungle almost as if on cue. Caleb then had a layup and a free throw for a 3-point play off another assist from Cody for a 57-52 lead with 13:32 to play.

The flurry made your Wolf Pack fur stand up on your back and arms. No team can turn a 52-49 deficit into a 57-52 lead quicker than this Wolf Pack team. Punch them in the mouth and the next thing you know that pack of wolves are chewing on your hands.

It happened again six minutes later when Nixon started the murmurs again. His 3-pointer sliced the Pack lead to just 68-66 with just 7:25 to go. This time the Martins got the entire pack involved in the carnage.  Jordan Caroline scored in the paint off an assist from Cody. Kendall Stephens drained a 3-pointer off a feed from Caleb. Caroline converted a 3-point play thanks to an assist from Caleb. Cody then blocked a Nixon jumper and Caleb followed with a couple free throws. The Wolf Pack had stretched that dangerous 68-66 lead into a game-over 78-66 lead with a 10-0 run over a span of just 82 seconds.

"It was energy on defense that really got us going," Caroline said.

That energy wasn't coming from Musselman, who spent the majority of the game holding his head in his hands, slamming the scorer's table, yelling at anyone within earshot, pulling out his hair, folding his arms over his chest in disgust or simply looking like he longed for the good old days of coaching in the CBA, USBL and NBA D-League. Talk about emotions in motion. At one point Musselman leaned over in front of Ramey and radio sidekick Len Stevens and put his head down on the table, afraid to look at the latest Pack misdeed.

"We didn't play very good," Musselman told Ramey after the game. "We didn't defend like we are capable. We didn't shoot well at all."

The Pack energy on Sunday came from the realization that Colorado State didn't come to Lawlor Events Center on Sunday to merely play the role of Washington Generals to the Wolf Pack's Harlem Globetrotters. So when the Rams merely inched too close late in the game, the Pack had to remind them that, yes, it's OK for Red Klotz and the Generals to hit a shot now and then. But the fans came to the arena to see Meadowlark Lemon (Caleb Martin), Curly Neal (Cody Martin), Nat Sweetwater Clifton (Jordan Caroline), Sweet Lou Dunbar (Kendall Stephens), Goose Tatum (Josh Hall) and Marques Haynes (Hallice Cooke) put on a show.

Stick to the script, Rams. Or else.

"The lack of depth we have, to be able to cut down the nets in a conference like this, is big time," Caleb Martin said. "I think about it all the time how if we had everybody healthy, if everybody was 100 percent, it (would be) scary. So to see we're still being successful, still doing what we need to do, still being able to cut down the nets with a lack of depth, it's a good sign."

There have been as many good signs as there have been bad signs over the last three games. Yes, the Wolf Pack has yet to lose in its three-and-a-half games without starting point guard Lindsey Drew, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury two weeks ago. But the last three games all we've seen is a bunch of timid sheep (Utah State, San Jose State and Colorado State) try to enter the Pack's wolf den and steal their prey. They not only didn't get a taste of that precious meat, the Wolf Pack made sure they went home without their wool.

"There's a lot of teams in this conference that are hungry for our position," Cody Martin said.

Being hungry and having the necessary fangs to satisfy that hunger are two different things. Cody Martin summed up this Pack team perfectly on Sunday. "I was just kind of feeling it out and see what I have to do,"  he said.

That is what this team does best. It does what it has to do.

It wins. And that's all that matters right now.