By Jack Rieger
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard the news: Nevada basketball lost to San Diego State in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference Tournament, thus ending its run at an NCAA tournament bid. But don’t feel too bad, Wolf Pack fans. Nevada made significant leaps this season toward its ultimate goal of being a consistent postseason contender. For fans of the Pack, there is plenty to look forward to.
Just one year ago, Nevada was wrapping up a season with its worst winning percentage in 44 years, including just five conference wins. Attendance and overall energy surrounding the team was downright depressing, and the players themselves didn’t even like playing for one another.
All of that has changed and more. New coach Eric Musselman injected a much-needed sense of urgency into his team where defense is demanded at a premium and lethargy is not tolerated. This included the departure of AJ West, one of the best rebounders in Nevada history. Beyond the technical improvements, the Pack played this season with an obvious confidence that depicted itself in the form of pregame celebrations, smiling toward the camera following fast-break dunks, a social media team that highlighted the team’s eccentric personality and of course the team’s head coach.
The turning point came at home against UNLV, when Nevada beat the Rebels by two points in front of a chaotic home crowd full of people wondering, “Are we actually good at basketball?” If that question wasn’t answered against the Rebels, then it was answered by Nevada’s consistent performance throughout its 32 games and its 19-13 winning record. Not to mention, the Wolf Pack notched its first Mountain West Conference Tournament win in program history against New Mexico.
What if I told you Nevada has a player who averaged 23.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in the Mountain West Tournament; has the potential to make over 60 3-pointers a year; was named to the Mountain West All-Tournament team; and is 19-years-old? Great news: he exists, his name is Cameron Oliver and he is a freshman.
Not only does Oliver have NBA potential, but his teammates like playing with him and he quickly emerged as a vocal leader for Nevada. Oliver still has plenty to work on: he tends to get in early foul trouble (although he consistently improved on that throughout the season), he is still honing his back-to-the-basket skills and his 3-point shot still has a ways to go. But Nevada has its paws on Oliver for at least another season, and he should be tabbed as a MW Preseason Player of the Year candidate.
Incoming recruiting class and transfers
Nevada lost more than a few games this season due to its lack of depth, especially at guard. The Pack’s depth will be a strength next season, as the team is inheriting three newly eligible transfers and a couple of impact freshman recruits. Senior transfer Marcus Marshall will have an immediate impact as a scoring guard who can create his own shot and play the point. Marshall averaged 19.5 points in 13 starts his junior season at Missouri State.
Incoming freshman Devearl Ramsey has a chance to replace Marqueze Coleman as Nevada’s starting point guard next season. Ramsey has exceptional ball-handling skills, great quickness and was one of the best defenders in the country last year at Sierra Canyon High School in Chatsworth, California. Kenneth Wooten, a 6’9” power forward from Manteca, California, is Nevada’s highest rated incoming freshman. Wooten averaged 8.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.1 blocks per game his sophomore year, but had to sit out his junior season due to transfer rules. Wooten is a cornerstone defensive player with an enormous wingspan, and he has developed a respectable postgame that should translate well in the Mountain West.
It’s not fair to measure the success of a team’s season only by whether it made the NCAA tournament. Improvement, in the form of the culture surrounding the program or in wins and losses, tends to be a revealing measuring stick. And if we’re going by improvement, Nevada outperformed everyone’s expectations.
Jack Rieger can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JackRieger.