Nevada Wolf Pack’s Stephens brings hot hand into New Mexico game
NEW MEXICO (6-8, 1-0) AT NEVADA (12-3, 1-0)
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Where: Lawlor Events Center
TV-Radio: AT&T Sports Net and 94.3 FM or 630 AM
Coaches: Nevada’s Eric Musselman is 64-24 in 3 years; New Mexico’s Paul Weir is 6-8 in his first year, and 34-14 overall
Projected starters: NEW MEXICO - F Vladimir Pinchuk (3.9, 3.6) and Makuach Maluach (6.0, 2.3); G Chris McNeal (11.7, 2.5), Troy Simons (9.0, 3.2) and Dane Kuiper (7.8, 3.6). NEVADA - F Jordan Carøline (18.7, 5.7) and Caleb Martin (16.7, 9.0); G Cody Martin (13.5, 6.1), Kendall Stephens (11.4, 1.6) and Lindsey Drew (6.6, 3.0).
News & Notes: Nevada has won its last 11 home games, including 6-0 this year … This starts a stretch where the Pack is at home for three of the next four …Kendall Stephens made a season-high five 3-pointers at Fresno State. It’s the fifth time he’s had five in a single game, and in seven of the last nine games, he’s had four or more…Nevada’s RPI is currently at 15 with a strength of schedule of 39… The Pack remains the only MW team in Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology. The Pack is a No. 8 playing Missouri No. 9 in Detroit if the post-season started today.
RENO — Kendall Stephens is in a zone that doesn’t come along often.
The 6-7 senior transfer from Purdue has scored in double figures in the last five games and eight of the last nine. In the same stretch he has made three or more 3-pointers in eight of his last nine outings, and he has made five 3-pointers or more four different times.
“I think sophomore year (at Purdue) I started off pretty well,” said Stephens, who leads the Nevada Wolf Pack against New Mexico today at Lawlor Events Center. “I think that’s the last time I felt really that good.”
A year before Stephens arrived in Nevada, the Pack was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation, and now it’s one of the best thanks to the efforts of Stephens (46.4) and Caleb Martin (48.2). The Pack ranks ninth in the nation in 3-point percentage.
“He has great form and great confidence,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “Sometimes he needs a little more arc on the shot. He was a proven shooter coming here from Purdue. I think he knows he has the green light. He takes some quick shots (in the possession) that for some programs might be too fast, but it’s in his best interest and the team’s best interest to take a wide-open shot.
“His dad (Everette) was an NBA player, and he’s been well coached. His high school coach was phenomenal, and a lot of that plays into his shooting. People always talk about the hands when you’re shooting the ball, but the catch and footwork is important.”
There have been a few off moments this year, namely Rhode Island and Davidson, where Stephens, who’s averaging 11.4 a game and shooting 49.2 overall, has disappeared from the offense. He went scoreless in 18 minutes against RI, and then went 0-for-3 overall and 0-for-2 from 3 against Davidson.
“I think Kendall’s confidence is through the roof,” teammate Caleb Martin said. “You can’t take confidence away. I think he gets passive whenever he misses one or two shots.”
Stephens admitted he’s reluctant to shoot as much if somebody else is going good.
“It is not a lack of confidence,” he said. “We have so many weapons, I just go with the hot hand. If we have one or two guys (shooting well) the ball might be in their hands more. I’ll never lose confidence during the course of a game. We have the ability to get quality shots every time down the floor. We don’t care who scores.”
The recent success in the last two years has changed Musselman’s outlook on the game a bit.
“No matter what, we were going to improve,” he said. “Just showing up in the gym we were going to get better. As I’ve gotten older, shooting has become more important. It used to be athletes and toughness. When I was putting together a minor league team it was toughness and reaction to loose balls.
“The game has evolved. See what the Warriors and Rockets are doing. We still value mid-range shots. We still are a dribble-drive team. We have not lost the identity of being a high volume free-throw shooting team.”
The key behind Nevada’s shooting improvement is hard work from the players to the graduate assistants to the four full-time coaches themselves. Stephens credited Hays Myers, the director of player development, for working closely with him, both on and off the court.
“If you want to be a good shooter, you have to come early to practice. Look at today, practice is over and everybody is still out here shooting,” Musselman said. “That is the culture we have here. When I walk into the arena today before 9:45 (shootaround), there will be guys in here shooting.”
Stephens was an immediate hit at Purdue, his dad’s alma mater. He started half the games his first two years, averaging 8 points a contest and shooting 37 percent on 3s to 8.7 and 38.4 as a sophomore. He had some nagging injuries, but never missed a game.
During his junior year, Stephens was still fighting for playing time, sharing minutes with Dakota Mathias and Ryan Cline, and then tragedy struck.
One of his high school teammates, Michael Woods, died from an apparent drug overdose. Stephens took a leave of absence from the team in late January. He never got back in the rotation, and he appeared in only four of Purdue’s last 14 games.
“I knew it would (affect me), but I still felt I could get back in a groove, but it didn’t work out,” Stephens said. “Everything happens for a reason, and being in this spot, I know I made the right decision. I haven’t missed a beat on the floor, and I think we can compete in the NCAA Tournament. That’s why I came here.”
And, make no mistake about it, the Pack is glad he’s here.