From the beginning of the season, this year has been billed as the year the Wolf Pack makes it to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time. The last time the Pack was invited to the big dance was in 2007.
Second-year Head Coach Eric Musselman has brought new energy to the program. Even beyond the wins, over 20 in both seasons, there’s an excitement around the team that had been missing.
Lawlor Events Center is packed nearly every game, students are in line hours before tipoff, and Reno has become a less-than-pleasant place for opponents to visit. But there is a drawback to the new excitement: expectations.
The Wolf Pack has two games left, one in San Jose on Wednesday and one at home in what is becoming the biggest game of the regular season. Winning secures the top seed in the Mountain West tournament and a regular season title.
At this point, the only way the Wolf Pack is going to get into the NCAA tournament is the automatic bid that comes with winning the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas. Despite what many fans may think, the Mountain West is still a one-bid conference.
Nevada played a solid non-conference schedule, with wins over Power Five teams (Oregon State and Washington) and recent tournament teams (Iona, UC Irvine, Buffalo). Their only non-conference losses came on the road against Saint Mary’s (currently number 20 in the AP top 25) and to Iona just a week after defeating them in Lawlor.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Mountain West is just not good enough to help the Wolf Pack. Wins over San Jose State, Wyoming, Air Force, Utah State and UNLV simply do not look good enough.
Not to mention the fact that Nevada split the series with Utah State. That and losses to Fresno State hurt the team’s chances of getting an at-large bid.
While the expectations have been high, this team knows it has to take care of business in Las Vegas next week. Last season they watched San Diego State, a team that expected to be playing in the NCAA tournament, lose to Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship. They did not receive an at-large bid.
This is a team that has played its best in the biggest games. That’s been the theme all season: this is a team that sleepwalked through games they were supposed to win and rose to the occasion in the big games. That’s how they lost to Utah State, but it’s also how they swept Boise State and New Mexico, and how they pummeled UNLV by 36 points in Las Vegas.
I expect this team to win the Mountain West tournament and secure an NCAA tournament spot. Last season, forward Cam Oliver played his best basketball of the season in the Mountain West Tournament. If he plays at his best, I don’t believe there is anyone in the conference that can beat them.
Of course, in a single elimination tournament, anything can happen. But consider this: if the Wolf Pack is upset in the Mountain West Tournament, they will still likely be a selection for the National Invitational Tournament. Obviously, the NIT is not the NCAA tournament, but it is a step up from what the team played last year, the CBI. And it’s definitely a step up from the team that won nine games two years ago.
As hard as it is to try to manage the hype that’s surrounded this team all year, the NCAA tournament is not the only way to measure success.
Marcus Marshall set a record for threes in a season, multiple players have been named player of the week, they came back from a 25-point deficit in just over a minute and they embarrassed UNLV in Las Vegas.
Making the NIT would be a cherry on top of this great season, but making the NCAA tournament would make a fantastic season historic. And this team has been looking to make history since the season started.