By Neil Patrick Healy
Nevada basketball finished fourth in the Mountain West and won its first postseason tournament in program history last year after unexpectedly winning the CBI. Many were saying that if the team finished with a winning record the season would be a success. Now the Pack has NCAA Tournament expectations surrounding the program, and for good reason, but are those goals just a bit too lofty? It may be premature to predict what happens in March five months in advance, but I’m going to do it anyway. Here are the top storylines for Nevada basketball that will make or break its dreams of going to the big dance.
Style of play
Nevada head coach Eric Musselman came in and wanted to play an exciting, high-tempo brand of basketball, and we saw flashes of that as the season progressed, but he couldn’t fully implement his system due to a lack of depth. Now with a full recruiting cycle under his belt and a slew of transfers becoming eligible, it looks like Musselman will finally have the Wolf Pack looking like its own brand of Showtime. Add to that nine scholarship players available and one or two walk-ons who can contribute off the bench, and Musselman may have finally constructed the roster he wants.
The star forward is known for his versatility, and his play above the rim made his presence known to NBA scouts. After being named the Mountain West Freshman of the Year, Oliver stuffed the stat sheet with 20 points and 11 rebounds during the Pack’s postseason run. Already named the MWC Preseason Player of the Year by Yahoo Sports, Oliver is poised to have a big sophomore season, and if he continues to improve, specifically on his 41 percent shooting from behind the 3-point line during the CBI, he will be a legit NBA first-round talent.
Transfers finally eligible
When Musselman took the Nevada job in March of 2015, he immediately went to work on the recruiting trail and secured commitments from highly touted transfers around the country. Guards Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) and Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) and forward Leland King (Brown) had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, but they seem to be worth the wait.
Marshall can play both the one and two guard spots and is automatic at shooting the ball. Marshall, a senior, is essentially a rental player and only eligible for this season, but his ability to shoot will help ease the Pack’s offensive struggles from last season.
King and Caroline will also make an impact on both sides of the floor. King averaged 14.6 points per game, shot 30 percent from behind the arc at Brown and provides versatility at the forward position. Caroline, who is a daunting 6 foot 7 and 235 pounds, was named to the Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman team while at Southern Illinois and provides versatility as a combo guard/forward that will pair perfectly with Oliver down low. Sitting on these three for a year will pay big dividends for Nevada this season.
The preseason isn’t all about the hype train for Nevada, as Musselman will point out to anyone who asks. He has been very vocal about his concerns with the team defense his squad has this season. The Wolf Pack lost two great ball defenders last year in Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell, and the team will feel the void those two have left during the early stage of the schedule. Expect the Pack to struggle at first on the defensive side but then turn it around as the season progresses.
Other than having Oliver, who was on the MWC First team All-Defensive last season, Nevada has plenty of length and athleticism on the roster that will grow into itself. Sophomore guard Lindsey Drew is an established defender in the backcourt and the rest of the team will fall in line with him.
Nevada brings two four-star freshmen into the fold this season and we will see them make an early impact for the Pack. Point guard Devearl Ramsey out of Los Angeles is poised to get early playing time off the bench and may even begin to start as the season progresses. He’s listed at a generous 5 foot 10, but his quick, electric playing style will translate well with the Pack. Josh Hall, a 6-foot-6 forward from Houston, is another Pack player who provides length and versatility and will most likely see time in the second unit. Hall is pretty skinny and will need to put on weight to compete physically with the players in the MWC.
I’m not crazy when I say Nevada is a tournament-caliber team. Everything seems to be there to make a run for the big dance. The roster has depth, length and athleticism: all things necessary to win games. Here are my “crazy predictions” in order of most confident to least confident:
· Nevada wins 22 to 26 games.
· Cam Oliver wins MWC Player of the Year.
· Nevada has at least three All-MWC players.
· Nevada wins the MWC Tournament and makes the NCAA Tournament.
· Marcus Marshall wins Newcomer of the Year.
· Devearl Ramsey wins Freshman of the Year.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.