Pack can dance past ‘La Bamba’ in NCAA Tournament, says Joe Santoro |

Pack can dance past ‘La Bamba’ in NCAA Tournament, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
Joe Santoro

Eric Musselman reminded everyone last week in Las Vegas just what he thinks about his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.

“We certainly feel we’re one of the best teams in the country without question,” Musselman said.

OK, fine. Now go prove it.

The time for talk is over. The time for posturing, campaigning and tooting your own horn has come and gone. If the Wolf Pack is truly one of the best teams in the country it will beat the Texas Longhorns on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

A No. 7 seed (Wolf Pack) is supposed to beat a No. 10 seed (Texas). A team with just seven losses going into the NCAA tournament is supposed to beat a team with 14 losses. A team that won its conference’s regular season championship is supposed to beat a team that finished tied for sixth in its conference.

Musselman, after all, isn’t the only one who believes the Wolf Pack is clearly one of the best teams in the country. The NCAA tournament selection committee believes in the Wolf Pack. The committee, after all, doesn’t just hand out No. 7 seeds to anyone who asks, like they’re Halloween candy, second grade valentines and orange slices after a soccer game between 6-year-olds.

You have to earn it.

The Top 25 voters believe the Pack is one of the best teams in the country. Associated Press voters and the coaches who make up the USA Today rankings don’t carelessly hand out precious votes to just anyone.

You have to earn them.

College basketball’s RPI rankings, which take into account nothing but cold, hard numbers that are earned on the basketball court, also tell us the Pack is one of the best teams in the country.

So, yes, we believe it. We have faith. We’re convinced, despite what we saw the Wolf Pack do (and not do) over a span of just seven days in two different cities last week against the suddenly unbeatable San Diego State Aztecs.

But now is the time for all of that belief and faith in this basketball team to be rewarded with a victory over the Longhorns on Friday in Nashville. It’s now, without question, drop the microphone time for the Pack.

“They’ve got as good a resume as anybody out there,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said of the Wolf Pack after whipping the Pack in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament 90-73 last week.

Resumes are one thing. All resumes do is get you the job. The Pack resume earned it a No. 7 seed. The Pack can’t simply toss its resume on the floor on Nashville and expect to beat Texas. Unlike last week in Las Vegas, it must go out and get the job done.

No more bluster. No more speeches. No more promises. Go beat the Longhorns.

You’ll read and hear in the days leading up to Friday about how the Longhorns play in the rough and rugged Big 12 Conference. You’ll be told all of the Longhorns’ 14 losses came against dangerous teams (Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan, Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Texas Tech, Kansas State and TCU) that could’ve also beaten the Wolf Pack.

By Friday you’ll be convinced Texas 6-foot-11 freshman Mo Bamba could rebound the ball with his left hand on the defensive end, take two long steps and dunk the ball with his right hand on the offensive end. You’ll also likely come away convinced Bamba can stand under the basket and reach out past the arc and swat away a Kendall Stephens or Caleb Martin 3-point attempt.

Don’t believe it. All of that Big 12 and Mo Bamba talk is just urban myth. It’s Musselman’s job to make sure the Wolf Pack only deals in reality right now.

The Wolf Pack, you see, is vulnerable this week. A loss in the conference tournament semifinals, two losses to the same team in seven days, can do that to a team.

The Wolf Pack, after all, isn’t playing its best basketball right now. They were down by 30 at halftime to the Aztecs, for goodness sake, in the Mountain West semifinals. That happened to just one Pack team in the six-year David Carter era (at Colorado State in January 2015). It never happened in the five-year Mark Fox era and it happened just once in the five-year Trent Johnson era (against Arkansas State in November 2001).

This Pack team, in fact, hasn’t played its best basketball in a month. That was when point guard Lindsey Drew, who could give Bamba a run for his money reaching across the table for the sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, went down with a season-ending injury on Valentine’s Day.

We’ve never seen a Musselman Wolf Pack team as vulnerable as this Pack team is right now. Last week in Las Vegas was an eye opener. The Pack looked tired, unprepared and unenthused in an ugly win over UNLV and an even uglier loss to San Diego State. And that was when a Mountain West tournament title was on the line.

“We didn’t start playing really hard until the second half,” said senior Hallice Cooke after the loss to San Diego State.

“We weren’t prepared from the get-go,” junior Jordan Caroline said.

“We obviously had our worst outing of the year,” Musselman said.

The Wolf Pack was out-rebounded 84-59 in its two Mountain West tournament games. The team’s heart and soul, twins Cody and Caleb Martin, shot a combined 16-for-52 in the two games. You could argue UNLV’s Marvin Menzies and San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher even got the best of Musselman.

All of that’s inexcusable at any time of the year. But in a postseason conference tournament? A Musselman team? Well, we’ve never seen that sort of thing before in the three seasons since the Muss Bus has been in town. Before last week we thought it was impossible.

That’s why Musselman’s greatest task this week leading up to Friday is to make sure his players are mentally ready to play. He must make sure it has the same faith and belief in each other northern Nevada has shown in them all season long.

He needs to remind the Wolf Pack it needn’t be afraid of the Big 12. The Pack has already played two Big 12 teams this year that finished ahead of Texas. Yes, the Pack lost to Texas Tech and TCU but it was by only a combined 10 points, and one of those games went to overtime. And neither game was at Lawlor Events Center.

Texas was 2-3 against TCU and Texas Tech but both of the victories were at Texas. And, oh yeah, the Longhorns were outscored by TCU and Texas Tech by 12 points combined in the five games.

The only reason Texas is in the NCAA tournament right now is because it’s from the Big 12. The Longhorns, which only have 18 wins against Division I teams this year, should be in the CBI right now. Wolf Pack critics and skeptics will tell you this week if Texas was in the Mountain West it would have 25 or more wins and a No. 7 next to its name, too.

Maybe so.

But it’s doubtful even the Mountain West could’ve turned the Longhorns into a competent offensive team this year. Texas is quite simply one of the worst shooting teams in this year’s NCAA tournament field, hitting just 32 percent of its 3-pointers and 67 percent of its free throws. Take away Bamba’s dunks and Texas’ shooting percentage would have a tough time leading the American League in hitting this summer.

Yes, the Wolf Pack is a bit short-handed right now with Drew out. But the Longhorns lost all of its depth when Andrew Jones had to leave the team on Jan. 1 to receive treatments for leukemia and Eric Davis was suspended in late February after it was learned he allegedly received payments from an agent.

Nobody is saying the Wolf Pack will have an easy time with Texas. The Longhorns are decidedly bigger than the Pack with Bamba and the 6-9 Dylan Osetkowski and Jericho Sims and the Big 12 does tend to make a team more battle born than the Mountain West.

But all of that is just mind games. The Wolf Pack won’t be afraid of Texas and the Big 12.

“We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of big games in big moments,” senior Kendall Stephens said.

That experience was made for this time of year. The Pack looked bored and disinterested in Las Vegas. That won’t be the case in Nashville.

Musselman, don’t forget, has coached in the SEC, Pac 12 and NBA. He grew up watching his father Bill in the Big Ten. Musselman was an Arizona State assistant when Texas eliminated the Sun Devils from the 2014 NCAA tournament.

He’s not going to be afraid of the Big 12 and Texas.

Stephens played against Cincinnati in the 2015 NCAA tournament for Purdue. Caleb Martin played in the 2015 NCAA tournament against LSU, Villanova and Louisville for North Carolina State (brother Cody played 19 games for North Carolina State that season but none in the NCAA tournament). Cooke played against Arkansas-Little Rock and Virginia in the 2016 NCAA tournament for Iowa State. Jordan Caroline, who likely can’t wait to compare bicep size and bench presses with the tall and fragile Bamba, played against the Big 12’s Iowa State Cyclones in last year’s NCAA tournament. Same for Pack junior Josh Hall.

None of those Pack players will be afraid of Texas and the Big 12 on Friday. You can be sure the Pack won’t step on the court in Nashville with fear in its eyes.

“You can’t be a ranked team for five straight weeks if you’re not a real confident team,” Musselman said, minutes after getting pounded by San Diego State last week.

“Nevada has a very tough-minded team,” Dutcher said.

Well, go prove it on Friday.