Nevada Wolf Pack saves its worst for last, says Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com

Nevada Wolf Pack saves its worst for last, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada head coach Eric Musselman questions a call against his team during a first round men's college basketball game against Florida in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
AP | AP

Sports fodder … The Nevada Wolf Pack, it turns out, saved its worst for last this season. The Pack picked the most unfortunate time for its first two-game losing streak of the season, losing to San Diego State last Friday in the Mountain West tournament and falling 70-61 to the Florida Gators in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. That old Pack magic. The Comeback Pack. Call it what you want. It’s time the Pack comes up with a new formula for success in the postseason. The Pack simply turned in one of its worst performances in the Eric Musselman era against the Gators. The Pack had just four assists, equaling its lowest total in four seasons under Musselman, and turned the ball over 14 times against the Gators. The dream season turned into a nightmare almost overnight.

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The Pack, which finished 29-5 with four losses in its final nine games, quite simply stopped sharing the basketball in its final two games this season. The Pack had just five assists in the 65-56 loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament and four against Florida. Point guard Cody Martin had just one assist over the last two games combined. The Pack became the Cody and Caleb Show against the Gators. The Martin twins combined to score the Pack’s last 17 points over the final 9:30. They left everything they had out on the court but they simply ran out of gas as the Pack was outscored 7-0 over the final two minutes. Caleb was 5-of-22 from the floor and 2-of-11 on threes for the game and never stopped shooting and missing. It looked like an AAU game in the second half with the Martins dominating the ball.

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You now can’t call this the greatest season in Wolf Pack history. It probably should have been. It looked like it was going to be the best season ever with the Pack 24-1 and, at one point, ranked No. 5 in the nation. But the season and all of the attention and expectations (not to mention Musselman’s refusal to use his bench) simply wore this team out. The Pack’s 29 victories this season merely ties the school record set last year and in 2006-07. The 29-5 record is the same as in 2006-07. There was no conference tournament title. There wasn’t even one NCAA Tournament victory. Wolf Pack Nation is now stunned. This wasn’t the way this season was supposed to end.

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Did Musselman handle this team correctly? That question will forever be debated. It now looks like Musselman might have run this team into the ground a little bit, basically playing just six guys (and sometimes five) for the bulk of the season. Jordan Caroline, injured or not, looked like a shell of himself over the last three weeks or so. In his last five games Caroline shot just 16-of-57 (28 percent) from the floor, 1-of-15 on threes, 14-of-28 on free throws and scored just 47 points. The Pack’s Big Three of the Martin twins and Caroline became sort of a Big Two and a Quarter. All of the depth the Pack supposedly had going into this season disappeared and it cost the team dearly in March.

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The Pack’s loss to the Gators, a mediocre 15-loss team from a big-time conference (the SEC), proves all of the Pack’s doubters right. Those doubters said all year long the Pack played an easy schedule, their record was inflated, they weren’t one of the best 10 teams in the nation, no matter what the rankings said. Well, maybe they were right. Florida, an offensively-challenged team which had two three-game losing streaks, shouldn’t have even been in the NCAA tournament. The Pack was in the Top 20 all year long. Most of the year they were in the Top 10. Florida never even sniffed the Top 25. A game like Thursday’s is why mid-majors will always have an uphill climb proving the doubters wrong.

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Florida coach Mike White has a way of ruining Wolf Pack seasons. The first time was seven years ago when White’s Louisiana Tech Bulldogs stunned David Carter’s Wolf Pack in the second round of the 2012 Western Athletic Conference tournament. That loss likely kept the Wolf Pack, which finished 28-7 that season, from getting to the NCAA Tournament. White, by the way, also once ended the season of another former Wolf Pack coach, beating Mark Fox and Georgia in the 2014 NIT in Athens, Ga.

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You can argue, given all of the hype and expectations this season, the Pack’s loss to a 15-loss Florida team is the most disappointing end to a season in Nevada history. And right now hardly anyone would argue against you. But the honor still likely belongs to the 2005-06 Wolf Pack, which lost to Montana in the first round of the NCAA tournament. That Pack team, which finished 27-6, headed into the NCAA Tournament on a 14-game winning streak, beat Kansas and Georgia during the season, won the WAC tournament in Reno and was ranked in the Top 25 most of the season before seeing its season blow up with a loss to a Big Sky Conference team. Florida might be a mediocre SEC team but it’s still a SEC team.