by Jack Rieger
At 9:42 p.m. on Saturday night, Nevada head coach Eric Musselman stormed into the Wolf Pack media room, screamed with delight toward the 15-20 people who were anxiously waiting for his arrival, patted someone on the back (presumably a high-profile booster) and took a seat at the podium for questions. He had just beaten rival UNLV 65-63 in front of 11,341 rejuvenated Nevada fans and secured the largest win of his Wolf Pack career.
In 10 months, Musselman has changed everything
It’s not easy to resurrect a basketball program that wasn’t exactly rich with history to begin with, but Musselman has done that at Nevada.
It started with recruiting a new group of players that embodies his grittiness and basketball intelligence, including Cameron Oliver and Lindsey Drew, who already start as freshman. He then began to establish a new culture that demands unconditional devotion to the idea of team basketball. This included the departure of ultra-talented AJ West in December due to West’s inability to comply with Musselman’s intense, and at times uncomfortable, energy. Sometime between recruiting players and establishing a new culture, Musselman instilled confidence into a team that finished last season 9-22 and was completely lifeless. Maybe it’s the result of a pregame routine that consists of a dunk contest and a choreographed dance, or maybe Nevada’s confidence is a reflection of Musselman, who at 5 foot 6 exuberates the fortitude of a 7-footer.
Nevada has a legitimate home court advantage
Lawlor Events Center has been the butt of a lot of jokes for the past 10 years. Yes, it’s about half the size of UNLV’s Thomas and Mack. Yes, the video screen looks like a college student’s TV. And yes, the biggest concert to come to Lawlor was a Fleetwood Mac appearance in 2003. But on Saturday night, Lawlor was deafening thanks to 11,341 enthusiastic fans, many of whom were students. Musselman expressed his appreciation for the home fans, and specifically the students after the game.
“The enthusiasm amongst the student body I thought was off the charts,” Musselman said. “They were humongous for us.”
Speaking as someone who’s attended a lot of Nevada basketball games over the past 3 1/2 seasons, that was undoubtedly the most passionate, engaged Lawlor crowd I’ve seen. The apex came with 5:41 left when the entire arena rose to their feet after DJ Fenner stole the ball from Ike Nwamu and dunked on the other end to give Nevada its first lead in over 14 minutes.
It was the fifth largest crowd in school history, much of which has to do with playing an in-state rival. Fans will have a chance to repeat themselves on Tuesday night when first-place San Diego State comes to Reno.
Nevada still can’t shoot
It’s not often a basketball team goes 0 for 9 from three, shoots 32.8 percent from the field and still wins.
Nevada ranks 315th in the country in three-pointers made and doesn’t have an effective three-point shooter in its starting lineup. Amazingly, Nevada made just five shots outside of the paint during the entire game. This is ultimately what limits this team from winning a conference championship this season. Nevada doesn’t have the ability to come back from a large deficit and its lack of outside shooting disrupts its offensive spacing, allowing opposing big men to camp in the lane. Nevada tries to negate this by forcing turnovers, collecting offensive rebounds and getting out in transition where points are easier to come by. Don’t expect Nevada to become the Warriors from outside; the Wolf Pack seems content with collecting points in the paint.
UNLV is still dysfunctional at the end of games
Because I grew up in Las Vegas, I have friends who love to complain about UNLV’s inability to play well at the end of games. Recently-fired UNLV coach Dave Rice’s greatest criticism was his inability to coach in the closing minutes, and many Rebel fans felt UNLV would improve in crucial categories like free-throw shooting and turnovers. Instead they shot 14-28 from the line on Saturday night, including three crucial misses from Jordan Cornish, Ben Carter and Jerome Seagers with less than three minutes remaining. UNLV also turned the ball over 17 times and Nevada scored 24 of its 65 points off those turnovers.
But UNLV’s biggest mistake was neglecting its most talented all-around player, freshman 7-footer Stephen Zimmerman, who scored just seven points on four shots. With 10:32 remaining in the game, the man guarding Zimmerman, Nevada’s Cameron Oliver, picked up his fourth foul of the game. Despite Oliver’s foul trouble and Zimmerman’s obvious height advantage over Nevada’s shorter lineup, UNLV refused to incorporate Zimmerman, as he took just one shot in the final 10 minutes.
Nevada and UNLV have swapped sports
In college athletics, coaching is everything. Under Lon Kruger five years ago, UNLV basketball was making regular appearances in the NCAA tournament and looked at the annual game against Nevada as a bye week. Since then, Lon Kruger left for Oklahoma (now the No. 1 team in the country) and Nevada has benefitted by winning four out of the last six matchups with the Rebels. Las Vegas Sun columnist Ray Brewer actually celebrated the move at the time, claiming that “the program had reached its ceiling” with Kruger. Or maybe it just reached its ceiling in general.
Under Chris Ault five years ago, Nevada football finished the season as the 11th-ranked team in the country and looked at UNLV as a junior college football team. Since then, Ault retired from coaching college football and moved to Italy, Nevada slipped into mediocrity, and UNLV hired Tony Sanchez in an attempt to revitalize Rebel football, which has beaten Nevada two out of the last three years.
Here’s my advice to Nevada basketball fans: Don’t be afraid to celebrate this team’s success. There will always be people who want to dismiss the trajectory of an emerging program, which typically stems from jealousy or insecurity. It’s not often you get to be a part of a program’s rise from the cellar. Don’t waste time your time doubting Nevada’s resurgence because it can be taken away quickly.
Just look at UNLV.
Jack Rieger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JackRieger.