by Jack Rieger
When the betting line for the Nevada vs. UNLV game opened, I was surprised to see UNLV favored by 5.5 points at home (along with my degenerate gambling friends). Vegas was missing its best player, Steven Zimmerman, as well as another talented big man in Ben Carter, while also suffering through its worst season in 21 years. But as always, the Vegas line-makers proved wise when UNLV won by 11 points in overtime thanks to a miraculous 3-point shot by Patrick McCaw with 0.1 seconds left in regulation.
Nevada slapped with reality check
Nevada basketball fans don’t want to admit it, but the Wolf Pack isn’t quite as talented as its record (16-10, 8-6) indicates. Much of Nevada’s success this season is due to new coach Eric Musselman, who has enhanced his team’s confidence and established a winning culture. Nevada’s lack of depth and its inability to stay out of foul trouble was exposed on Saturday night, as both DJ Fenner and Tyron Criswell fouled out, forcing Nevada to play two big men against UNLV’s all-guard lineup.
UNLV had just six scholarship players available, as Dwayne Morgan hurt his shoulder at the morning shootaround, and big men Steven Zimmerman and Ben Carter were both out with knee injuries. UNLV’s smaller lineup allowed the Rebels to push the tempo, and both Musselman and Marqueze Coleman admitted UNLV was actually harder to guard despite missing its talented bigs.
Chaotic final five seconds
The final moments of regulation were insane. First, Nevada’s Marqueze Coleman nailed a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left, which was a spitting image of last year’s game winner at the Thomas and Mack. Next, UNLV’s Patrick McCaw galloped up the court in just two dribbles and drilled a 30-footer with .1 left on the clock.
Upon further review, these five seconds of game time become even more interesting. First, Musselman decided not to foul McCaw, which would’ve sent him to the line for two free throws and prohibited UNLV from making a three. The CBS television personalities questioned this decision, but fouling in that situation is incredibly risky because you risk fouling a 3-point shooter and sending him to the line for three shots. Secondly, Musselman instructed his players to not pressure the inbound, which gave McCaw a running start at the basket, catching Nevada between pressuring the ball and guarding the 3-point line. Although he wouldn’t admit it, I’m guessing Musselman would have pressured the inbound if he could rent H.G. Well’s time machine and go back to the Thomas and Mack.
And lastly, McCaw actually traveled before hoisting up the game-tying shot, as the slow-motion replay clearly shows McCaw taking three steps before shooting. Officials tend to swallow their whistle in the final moments of games, allowing the players to decide who wins. Speaking as a Nevada student, I was happy to see McCaw’s shot count. It was a terrific play that overshadowed an otherwise sloppy game.
UNLV and Nevada still trending in opposite directions
The Rebels deserve tons of credit for winning with just six scholarship players available. In fact, head coach Todd Simon looked at the football roster before the game for potential big men to use. But don’t let UNLV’s narrow win sidetrack you from the Rebels’ disastrous season and their ambiguous future.
UNLV is on track for its worst season in 21 years, when the team went 10-16 in 1995-1996. The Rebels have no idea who their coach is going to be next year, which is problematic considering recruits decide where they go to school based on the coach who recruits them. They wasted their one year with freshman Steven Zimmerman, one of the most coveted recruits in program history, who is currently projected by ESPN to be drafted 11th overall by the Washington Wizards.
Meanwhile, Nevada basketball is having its best season since joining the Mountain West. After going 9-22 last season, it currently stands at 16-10 and is tied for third in the conference with four games remaining. More importantly, Musselman has injected excitement into a program that’s been incoherent for almost 10 years. Going into Saturday’s game at the Thomas and Mack, local media from both Las Vegas and Reno actually picked Nevada to win in Sin City. When’s the last time Nevada was expected to beat UNLV on the road? And Musselman has quietly recruited a solid 2016 incoming class, including four-star point guard Devearl Ramsey, ranked as the 104th best player in his grade.
Does this game change anything?
The announcers on television claimed this was UNLV’s best win of the season, which represents how dysfunctional 2016 has been for the Rebels. UNLV (16-12, 7-8) currently stands sixth in the conference, and the team’s only chance of making the NCAA tournament relies on winning the Mountain West tournament.
Nevada’s loss was somewhat significant, as it dropped the Wolf Pack to third in the conference, one game behind a two-way tie for second. The top five seeds in the Mountain West get a bye in the tournament, and if the season ended today, Nevada would be the fifth team.
The biggest impact of the loss to UNLV was how emotionally demoralizing it was for Nevada. Not only was the loss delivered via a last-second circus shot, but also with three of UNLV’s four best players out. Musselman, who is usually bitter after losses, was reserved after the defeat, and “didn’t have much to say” to his team, who he thought battled until the end.
Nevada has a legitimate chance to finish second in the Mountain West with just four games remaining. Imagine if someone told you before the season that Nevada would be the conference runner-up in the regular season. That’s the result of bringing in an experienced, historically successful coach. It’s similar to a failing business hiring a new CEO who has spent his career rescuing flawed companies. With Musselman, Nevada has found its CEO of the future, and UNLV will spend the offseason finding its own.
Jack Rieger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JackRieger.