Going into the 2015 season, what is the Pack’s biggest weakness?
Neil Healy: The shooting woes continue for the Pack, and I don’t expect it to get significantly better. In the first exhibition game against a lowly Dominican squad, Nevada shot 37 percent from the floor and only made one three-pointer. This is a lowly Division II school holding Nevada to that low of a shooting percentage, so how is the Pack going to do against teams like San Diego State, UNLV, Boise State and New Mexico? The team’s only real pure scorer is guard Eric Cooper Jr. and he isn’t exactly a sharp shooter. Shooting less than 30 percent from the floor last season, Cooper has a lot to prove before he can be a go-to shooting threat in crunch time. I know the increased tempo will be huge for Nevada, but when they play teams who deliberately slow down the pace of the game, expect the shooting percentage to go down.
Jack Rieger: The 2014-2015 college basketball season was one of the lowest scoring years in NCAA history, and Nevada didn’t exactly help those numbers. Nevada scored just 60 points per game last year, which ranked 322nd in the country. To call the team offensively challenged would be like calling Danny DeVito vertically challenged — accurate, but vastly understated. Nevada has one catch-and-shoot guy, Eric Cooper Jr., whose only job is to score the ball. This means Nevada is going to have a hard time playing from behind, which is a situation they might find themselves in often given the conference they play in. If they want to improve their scoring, Nevada is going to have to depend on fast-break points and free throws.
What is the Pack’s biggest strength?
N: Defense and free throws are the obvious choices here. Despite working on offense more than 60 percent of the time in practice, Musselman says that defense is the strength of most of the players on the team. AJ West is the obvious guy here, but Marqueze Coleman, Lindsey Drew and Cameron Oliver will have a big impact on the defensive side of the ball. One guy who may have as big of an impact as West is guard Tyron Criswell, who has been labeled as the enforcer of the team going into the season. He may not be the leading scorer night in and night out, but he will set the tone defensively. The other big strength is free throws. For the life of me, I don’t understand why guys like Los Angeles Clippers center Deandre Jordan shoot around 40 percent from the free throw line. Notice the key word “free” in there? No one is defending you; all you have to do is just practice your free throws and you’ve got it. Obviously, the Pack has been practicing their free throws. In the two preseason games, Nevada has shot over 80 percent from the charity stripe (82 percent against Dominican and 84 against Alaska-Fairbanks). That is a huge jump from last year’s 70 percent. In last year’s dumpster fire of a 9-22 finish, the Pack lost 10 games by eight points or less. Make some free throws and that record may be a little different. Defense and free throws will reap major benefits down the stretch of a tough Mountain West schedule.
J: With Eric Musselman, Nevada has the luxury of being the only team in the Mountain West led by a former NBA head coach. Think about that for a second. Nevada basketball — a team with four tournament wins in the history of their program and a budget that ranks near the very bottom of the conference — is now coached by a guy with hundreds of NBA games under his belt. Without a doubt the Pack’s greatest strength is their coaching staff, which is a huge deal in college basketball because of the immaturity and youth of the players. After talking with coach Muss over the last couple weeks, I have a feeling he wants to be with Nevada for a long time, which bodes well for Nevada fans who have suffered through years of desolation. Great coaches have a tendency to get the most out of their players, and I expect Musselman to do the same with guys like Coleman, Fenner and Drew.
Who is the most important player for Nevada this season?
J: Besides Stephon’s Mobile Bistro, Cameron Oliver is the best-kept secret in Reno right now. A 6-foot-8 power forward who originally committed to Oregon State, Oliver is an athletic anomaly who plays almost exclusively above the rim. During Nevada’s two exhibition games, Oliver delivered a few “who is this guy” moments for fans in attendance. He will benefit from playing in Musselman’s up-tempo offense, where he’ll be free to use his athletic skills in transition. There are plenty of players who will control the ball more than Cam, but Oliver is a wild-card player who has the potential to lead the team in scoring and rebounding.
N: Well, now the Bistro isn’t a secret anymore. Way to go, Jack! Anyway, AJ West is probably the best player and Cameron Oliver will definitely be the most exciting, but I’m picking freshman point guard Lindsey Drew as the most important player. Nevada lacks a true point guard who can make key passes while being able to play solid defense. If Drew develops like Musselman and I both think he can, then Drew is the answer for a lot of those issues. Colman has failed to develop as a pure point guard despite being a great athletic guard who can run the floor. Drew needs to improve his shooting (much like the rest of the team), but the further along the season gets the better this kid will play. His 6-foot-4 frame and his long arms make him built to play tough defense and when I watch I see the potential in his ability to make the key passes. This kid is for sure the future, but he is also the present. There will be growing pains, but Drew will figure it out. With a former NBA player and coach for a dad and two older brothers who played college ball, Drew was almost born to be a point guard.
Does Nevada finish with a winning record?
N: I’m going (slightly) over, as in one or two games. I’ll bet Jack is going to be negative on this question, but this is a well-coached team that can play tough defense, turn up the tempo, draw fouls and make their free throws. The freshmen will develop before our eyes and they should be able to steal some games from teams they shouldn’t. I do think they’ll stumble against teams that slow down the pace and play half-court, but guys like Drew, Oliver, West, and even Cooper and D.J. Fenner should put together some quality minutes. I think the close games that Nevada lost last year will turn into wins this year because the team is in much better shape and can hit their free throws consistently, which are both huge aspects in winning nail-biters in the MWC. A solid above-.500 record will lay the groundwork for what Musselman will do with this program in the years to come.
J: Sports writers have a tendency to overhype teams in the preseason, which includes you, Neil. Nevada basketball hasn’t had serious excitement around the team in a long, long time, and they’re not ready to contend quite yet. This team will be more fun to watch than recent teams and they will play much harder, but I see them finishing around 13-17 in a solid MWC. Eric Musselman had the opportunity to coach as an assistant in the NBA this season, yet chose to coach a small, unproven basketball program with a limited history. Thanks to Musselman’s dedication to Nevada, It won’t be long before they’re winning 20 or more games a year.
Neil Patrick Healy and Jack Rieger can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SagebrushSports.