By Neil Patrick Healy
The pristine blue and white banners hanging over the court in Lawlor Events Center are the last remnants of a golden age. From 2004 to 2012, Nevada basketball won six conference championships, made the NCAA tournament four years in a row (2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007) and had six players selected in the NBA draft. Since that time, the program has fallen into disarray.
In the three years since joining the Mountain West in 2012, Nevada has a combined record of 36-58 and hasn’t finished a season with a winning record. After the departure of beloved point guard Deonte Burton, the Pack suffered its worst season in recent memory with a horrific 9-22 record. Former head coach David Carter was shown the door while the school and the community wondered if the program would ever capture the same magic that gripped the imaginations of the entire fan base for so long. Then Eric Musselman was hired as the next head coach and everything came into focus. For the first time in the Mountain West era, there is hope for the future.
Musselman has brought excitement back into the program. Much of that attention is directed to “next year” and beyond, but make no mistake, Musselman’s magic is on display this season. It may take time, but the 2015-2016 Nevada basketball team has potential to surprise a lot of naysayers.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW – TEMPO, TEMPO, TEMPO.
Don’t expect much of last year’s slow half-court offense that Carter ran. This new-look Wolf Pack is all about high-tempo offense where good athletes are allowed to make plays. Expect some high flyers to thrive under Musselman’s new system including junior small forward DJ Fenner and senior point guard Marqueze Coleman. The key to Nevada’s success is if the tempo stays high and fast. Freshmen Cameron Oliver and Lindsey Drew will play huge roles in their first year playing Division I ball; from how they looked in the first two preseason games, they won’t disappoint. The lone star from last year’s debacle season in center AJ West will still be looked to for rebounds and defense while establishing a presence down low. West is considered by many to be the best big man in the conference and he seems to have adjusted well to the high-tempo offense.
BREAKOUT PLAYER – CAMERON OLIVER
If you love dunks, blocks and overall exciting basketball, then Cameron Oliver just became your favorite player. The freshman forward out of Sacramento is, according to his teammates and coaches, the best dunker on the team and it isn’t close. Rumor has it he can do a reverse 360, and the world awaits seeing this on the court. The fan base should be excited to watch this guy play ball because he fits into Musselman’s system perfectly. He runs the floor well, has an insane vertical, plays great defense and brings down the thunder when he dunks. In the second exhibition game against Alaska-Fairbanks last Friday, Oliver had a stuffed stat line of 19 points, 9-for-12 shooting, eight rebounds and four blocks. He is exactly what Musselman wants paired with West to defend the paint while putting on a highlight show on the offensive end.
MOST IMPROVED – DEFENSE AND FREE THROWS
The front line of West and Oliver provides the defense in the paint that is necessary in the Mountain West. With players like Tyron Criswell being the enforcer on the floor establishing the presence on defense, the improvement will show dividends. In the two preseason exhibition games, the Wolf Pack held Dominican to 32 percent and Alaska-Fairbanks to 23 percent shooting. Granted, the competition wasn’t elite by any means, but it is evident that the Pack has improved its defensive play. Another important and underrated aspect that the Pack has improved drastically is its free-throw shooting. In both games in the preseason, Nevada has shot over 80 percent from the charity stripe (82 percent against Dominican and 84 against Alaska-Fairbanks). In contrast to last season’s 70 percent, Nevada will win close games down the stretch of the season with its ability to shoot free throws.
THE BIGGEST QUESTION – SHOOTING AND GUARD PLAY
Despite all of the exciting plays and fun publicity going into the season, this team is still in need of improvement. In the first exhibition game against Dominican, Nevada shot a meager 37 percent from the floor and only made one three. The tempo of the offense was slower than Musselman would like it, which raises the question of what will happen when the Pack plays teams that like to slow down the pace of the game? Teams such as MWC contender San Diego State will make it a point to slow the game down and force Nevada to make plays in the half-court. Can Coleman, Fenner and Drew execute the offense without the luxury of full-court buckets in transition?
PREDICTION – IMPROVED, BUT NOT QUITE A CONTENDER
An above-.500 record is more than plausible for the Pack this season. With the emergence of Oliver as a go-to player, West continuing to provide the defense and rebounding down low and the increase in tempo, Nevada can steal some games against superior opponents. The lack of consistent shooting and guard play will come and bite Nevada in some close games, but at the same time Nevada has the ability to steal games from higher quality teams. Anywhere between 14-16 and 17-13 is a realistic goal for the Pack.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at neil@sagebrush. unr.edu and on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.