Nevada Wolf Pack could be better next season, and opponents will be ready | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada Wolf Pack could be better next season, and opponents will be ready

Darrell Moody
dmoody@nevadaappeal.com
Eric Musselman celebrates after Nevada defeated Cincinnati last Sunday. Nevada could be even better next season, but it will have a big target on its back.
Mark Humphrey/AP | AP

It’s been a few days since Nevada’s disappointing 69-68 loss to Loyola of Chicago.

What made the Loyola loss tough to take was that it was a game Nevada should have won. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Nevada wins seven of 10 times if they meet head-to-head.

An Elite 8 berth was doable this year, and I felt strongly about that after the Cincinnati comeback. Not sure if Nevada would have beat K-State or Kentucky, but one thing I’ve learned in covering this team is never count it out. Texas and Cincinnati fans found that out the hard way.

Despite the disappointment of the Loyola game, this was a tremendous season, Pack fans. You got to watch coach Eric Musselman guide the Pack to another 20-win season, his third straight, and to a second consecutive regular-season Mountain West title.

Nevada also tied the school record for wins (29) and it was ranked in the Top 25 for the last month of the season.

Nevada made the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2004 season when it upset Michigan State and Gonzaga before losing a thriller to Georgia Tech.

What made it so enjoyable to cover this team were the players themselves. It was a fun-loving, approachable and hard-working group. It was a group that was never satisfied. They were never going to settle for being good. They wanted to be the best.

It was a group that was all about improving each and every day of the season. Hard work never bothered them. The Pack had a “Bring It On” attitude. It certainly made Musselman’s job easier. In fact, he pointed out several times this year the players were very coachable.

Unselfishness is what made Nevada shine this year. Nobody cared who scored the points, nobody cared who had the ball in clutch situations. Nevada made watching basketball fun. The Pack resembled the Golden State Warriors with ball movement, and if you don’t appreciate the Warriors’ offense you aren’t a true basketball fan.

“I think we’re proud of representing our conference the right way,” Musselman said after the loss to Loyola. “This team played really hard all year, and that’s what I’m proud of.”

“We will remember all the hard work we put in,” Caleb Martin said. “This is something really, really hard to do. People (outside of Nevada) don’t realize that we’ve been doing with a six or seven-person rotation and without a true big man. I will remember all the relationships and all the work and stuff that we put in. It’s been a special year.”

Indeed. It’s also been one filled with adversity.

Nevada started the year with nine scholarship players, but 6-8 grad transfer Darien Williams was dismissed from the team, and the Pack moved on with just three scholarship players, Hallice Cooke, Elijah Foster and Josh Hall, on the bench.

Then the injury bug hit. Both Caleb and Cody Martin played through injuries this season, and Kendall Stephens suffered an injury to his shooting thumb that required wearing a soft splint the rest of the season. Jordan Caroline fractured the pinkie finger on his left hand.

The biggest injury, however, was losing Lindsey Drew to an Achilles injury late in the season at Boise State

Yet, the Pack persevered. It shook off a horrible conference tournament semifinal loss to San Diego State to beat Texas and Cincinnati in the biggest tournament of all.

The great thing is I think this team could be better next year, and much of that depends on when or if Drew is healthy enough to play.

The team’s top three scorers — Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline and Cody Martin — all return. Drew, if he’s able to come back, is capable of averaging double digits. So is top reserve Hall, who came on strong at the end of the season.

Drew won’t start the season, and we all know that, but he could return after the conference season starts. If he can’t, sit-out transfers Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua and Corey Henson will have to pick up the slack for Drew and Stephens, who set a conference 3-point record this year.

Nevada will rely on 6-7, 225-pound Tre’Shawn Thurman to team with Caroline and give Nevada some more muscle inside. Nevada certainly needs more of an inside presence on defense. The Pack blocked some shots this year, but none of the returners are true rim protectors.

Musselman did sign two freshmen — 6-10 K.J. Hymes from Arizona and 6-7 Vincent Lee from Texas. It will be interesting to see how quick of an impact they can have with the team. Hymes will give Pack some length off the bench, and length is one thing in short supply for Nevada.

Nevada has also signed Louisiana Tech transfer Jalen Jackson, who will have to sit out next season. Jackson averaged 15 a game last season.

My concern for the Pack next season is replacing Stephens’ 3-point shooting and rebounding. The Pack got just two rebounds per game each from Stephens and Hallice Cooke, and that isn’t enough.

I expect Nevada will be favored based on starters returning. The target on the Pack’s back will be even bigger next season, and everybody in the program knows that.