by Jack Rieger
Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell has a theory about rapid cognition. His theory states people have an incredible ability to come to rational, accurate conclusions about most things within two seconds of analyzing them. For instance, humans know if they’re physically attracted to someone within a few moments of making eye contact.
But it’s not just instinctive or biological reactions. We can come to accurate, instant conclusions regarding subjects that would appear to demand lots of information, such as choosing what university to attend or where to live after graduation. Gladwell argues people are innately good at making these decisions quickly. In fact, he convincingly argues we’re better at making most decisions with less information than more. After spending 30-minutes with the Nevada basketball team, I’ve come to a rapid conclusion: Nevada is going to be very tough to beat this season, and it’s because of the following three reasons.
Coach Musselman is like the Silicon Valley CEO who takes over failing businesses with horrible products and idiotic management, and in the span of a year makes them profitable again. He took over an unwatchable, disjointed program in March of 2015 and has magically transformed it into a tournament-bubble team. Musselman is a born leader who has an innate ability to excite people.
There’s a psychologist in Massachusetts who predicts the new president of the United States every election based on one thing: body language. People subconsciously prioritize body language when choosing the leaders they decide to follow. Musselman has positive, enveloping body language and an overall confident, engaging personality. This really matters, especially when it comes to leading a group of testosterone-filled 18-to 22-year-old men who can be rattled by a subpar Snapchat story.
“I think it’s his work ethic,” said guard D.J. Fenner, explaining what makes Musselman a great coach. “As players, we see that. He’s up at the crack of dawn every morning walking on the treadmill and highlighting articles and giving them to us. He’s always doing something productive every day, every second of the day. Even our practices are quick.”
Fenner wasn’t the only one to echo that thought; every player I spoke with was enthralled with Musselman’s excitement and passion for basketball. They’ve completely bought in.
The real question with Musselman is how long he will stay at Nevada. When the Wolf Pack wins 22 games this season and goes to the NCAA tournament, big-time programs like the Cal and Oregon State will come calling, offering much more than Nevada can pony up. For those of you who are trying to convince yourself Musselman will stay in Reno, think about this: Muss currently makes $400,000 per year, which is ninth out of 11 head coaches in the Mountain West. He’s worth three times that amount. Musselman is an ambitious, self-aware guy who has left programs for better jobs. If you don’t think he’ll do the same thing with Nevada, you’re delusional. The great news for Nevada is Dave Rice is one of the most qualified assistant coaches in the Mountain West, so when Musselman decides to take a better job Nevada is situated nicely.
Tempo and defense
Nevada’s identity last year was to lock down defensively and convert stops into transition baskets; that’s the Musselman bible. But this strategy was used mostly because Nevada’s half court offense was below average and Cam Oliver is a big-time jumper. This season the team’s strategy is the same, except now they have a half-court offense and a point guard that is absolutely perfect for Musselman’s pace: Devearl Ramsey.
Ramsey is the engine that will keep Nevada’s athletic offense on the attack. He has a quick first step and a consistent floater in the paint that he teardrops over big men. Ramsey seems to be able to shoot the three-ball relatively well and is a willing passer once he penetrates the defense. Most importantly for this team, he loves to play defense and picks guys up full court. Ramsey articulates his thoughts into words almost as quickly as he sprints the ball up the court.
“I feel like our identity is to get out in transition, but we can’t lose our defensive edge,” Ramsey said. “That’s what we talk about every day in practice, and we can’t lose that. Secondly, we have to get out and go. We want to be one of the fastest teams in the country.”
Ramsey might not start on opening night at 17th-ranked St. Mary’s, but he’ll be a major contributor sooner rather than later.
Nevada has a ton of athletic pieces to surround Ramsey with, including transfer Jordan Caroline. Caroline transferred from Southern Illinois, where he was a Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman player. He stands at 6 foot 7, 235 pounds and has freakish athleticism. His greatest strength to Nevada will be his dribble-drive talent, his offensive rebounding and his ability to finish in transition. Others like phenom Cameron Oliver, four-star guard Josh Hall, sharp-shooting Marcus Marshall and transfer Leland King make Nevada an athletic nightmare for opponents.
Confidence is the world’s greatest performance enhancer, and Nevada is bubbling with it. That’s a result of Musselman’s positive demeanor, but it’s primarily because this team understands how talented they are. The roster includes five three-star recruits and three four-star recruits. Cameron Oliver is a first team Mountain West player with NBA potential. In other words, this team is about as talented as any in the Mountain West, less San Diego State. If Nevada isn’t in the Mountain West championship game at the end of the season fighting for a tournament bid, it will actually be a disappointment.
Expectations, pressure and success can be difficult to deal with. There are plenty of books written about how to become successful, but there is almost nothing written about how to deal with success once you’ve found it. The Chicago Cubs came into the 2016 season as the World Series favorites, and their manager Joe Maddon’s message to the team was “embrace the target.” He argues that pressure and expectations are positive words because they’re attached to successful groups.
When I asked Nevada players about tournament expectations, they weren’t afraid to admit it was something they talk about among themselves.
“We talk about how it’s definitely one of our goals,” Fenner said. “This is my last year to get there [the NCAA tournament], and it’s something I keep in the back of my mind. We have high expectations for ourselves.”
Lots of teams won’t admit the NCAA tournament is something they discuss. They’ll respond with a finely combed response like, “We’re just trying to win one game at a time.” This team is confident enough to admit they are expecting to make the tournament, and they seem prepared to handle those expectations.
If it seems like I’m being overly optimistic, it may be because I’m exhausted from the depressing sideshow that has become Nevada’s football team. But I believe optimistic is the only way to evaluate this team’s chances given their head coach, talent and confidence.
Like Gladwell argues in his award-winning book, we as humans should trust our rapid cognition. It doesn’t take long to realize your girlfriend or boyfriend will make a great, or not so great, wife or husband, just like it doesn’t take long to understand Nevada basketball is going to be very tough to beat this season, and has a real chance to make the NCAA tournament.
Jack Rieger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jackrieger.