by Jack Rieger
On Friday, April 1, Nevada basketball’s 24-win season culminated in a College Basketball Invitational championship win over Morehead State University.
To many people the CBI is an afterthought, but don’t tell that to Nevada. When the final whistle blew at 8:28 p.m., the Wolf Pack’s players and coaches embraced one another and sprinted to the student section side of the court in pure elation. Elijah Foster, Cameron Oliver and others stood on the media table and opened their arms to the home fans, who had grown to adore their team with every passing week. First-year coach Eric Musselman was mobbed by the student section as chants of “Muss” echoed throughout Lawlor Events Center. The scene was taken directly from a Hollywood script, as players and coaches took their turn cutting down the nets. Even if it was an overlooked postseason tournament, the Wolf Pack’s resurgent 2016 season was capped off with a championship.
But how relevant was winning the CBI championship and what does it say about the state of Nevada basketball? In other words, does winning the CBI really matter? After all, it’s just the third most prestigious postseason tournament after the NCAA and NIT. To understand whether or not the CBI bears any significance, let’s first look at the opponents Nevada beat on its way to hoisting the trophy.
In the first round, Nevada hosted Montana out of the Big Sky Conference. Montana finished the season with a 21-12 record, including a 14-4 conference record, which was good for second in the conference. The Wolf Pack won the first-round game 79-75.
In the second round, Nevada played Eastern Washington at home, who finished with a 17-15 record and a fifth-place finish in the Big Sky Conference. Eastern Washington was Nevada’s weakest opponent of the tournament, and Nevada won the quarter-final game 85-70.
In the semifinals, the Pack hosted the Vermont Catamounts out of the America East Conference. Vermont had a respectable regular season, finishing 23-14 overall with an 11-5 conference record, including a 14-point win over NCAA tournament team Stony Brook. Nevada won this game handily, 86-72.
Lastly, Nevada faced Morehead State in the best of three championship series. Morehead State flaunted a 23-14 record and finished third in the Ohio Valley Conference. This was Nevada’s toughest, most athletic opponent in the tournament, as the Pack narrowly beat the Eagles by three points in game three of the series. Nevada’s CBI opponents combined for an 84-55 regular season record in mid-major conferences.
Team and community wanted extra games
The strongest case to be made for the CBI championship meaning something is that Nevada’s players and coaches were genuinely excited to have a chance to play in the tournament. That seems like a given, but often good teams are offended by not making the NCAA tournament and feel like a lower-tier tournament is below their talent level. Not Nevada, who would’ve played in a street pickup tournament if it meant its season would continue for another week.
Secondly, attendance at home games for the CBI tournament was much higher than expected. Lawlor Events Center had great energy, creating a genuine home-court advantage thanks to the surge of fans interested in watching Nevada play in a postseason tournament. The “Bud Light fans” were in full effect, as the CBI is not included in the season ticket holder’s bundle. On Friday night, 9,043 rowdy fans filed into Lawlor and made a tangible difference in the game. They rose to their feet at pivotal moments in the game and fearlessly booed refs and opposing coaches when necessary. It was clear — the community felt lucky to be able to keep watching its team play what it felt were meaningful games.
Creating a winning culture
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in college sports, it’s that culture matters. Nevada’s new winning culture was established long before this tournament by athletic director Doug Knuth and coach Eric Musselman, but it was certainly echoed by winning the CBI.
There’s reason to believe winning the CBI could foreshadow bigger things. In 2010, VCU won the CBI and the next year was in the final four. In 2011, Oregon won the CBI and went 24-10 the following year in a really tough Pac-12 Conference. In 2012, Pittsburgh took home the CBI trophy and finished 2013 as the 20th-best team in the country.
Here’s the point: if Nevada were a public company, financial experts would be urging investors to buy. The Wolf Pack went 9-22 last year and fired its coach. Fast-forward one year and the team finishes the season 24-14 and has a postseason championship trophy to flaunt in Legacy Hall for incoming recruits. This program has been completely revitalized, and the CBI championship is the icing on the cake.
Jack Rieger can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JackRieger.