In the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Nevada Men’s Basketball faced off against Florida. Nevada entered as the No. 7 seed in the West Region and Florida was the No. 10 seed for the matchup that took place in Des Moines, Iowa. The Wolf Pack lost to the Gators 70-61 in a failed comeback effort. The loss ended Nevada’s quest to return to the Sweet 16 for a second consecutive year. It also put an end to the collegiate careers of the Wolf Pack’s seven seniors — Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Trey Porter, Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson and David Cunningham.
In their third March Madness appearance in as many years, the Wolf Pack did not have the comeback magic from the last season. After going down 15-14 with 11:53 left in the first half, Nevada did not regain the lead for the remainder of the game. A quick 4-0 run in the final 20 seconds of the period helped the Gators extend their lead to nine, going into the half. The Wolf Pack’s nine turnovers cost them in the first half. Caroline and Caleb Martin shot a combined 3-13 in the opening 20 minutes for a total of 10 points. The Wolf Pack were still in the game thanks to Cody Martin who had nine points on 4-5 shooting while battling flu-like symptoms.
The first nine minutes of the second half was controlled by Florida as they increased their lead to 17 with a 17-7 run. With just over seven minutes remaining Nevada cut the lead to single digits.
The Wolf Pack closed the gap to just two points with 3:30 remaining, but missed opportunities at the three-point line and free throw line cost them a chance to advance to the second round. Nevada shot 13-19 from the foul line in the second half and an abysmal 2-18 from the three-point line. Florida held on in the final minutes to upset the Pack in Iowa.
The Wolf Pack ended the season at 29-5, tying the school record for wins and best winning percentage in a single season. Nevada was undefeated in Lawlor Events Center — 15-0 — as they went on to capture their third consecutive Mountain West regular-season title. Although they lost in the conference tournament for the second straight year, the Pack were still regarded as a dark horse contender to win the national championship.
The 2018-2019 men’s basketball team was widely regarded as the best and most talented in school history. In the preseason, the Wolf Pack were ranked in the AP Top 25 the entire season and in the top 10 until early March. Nevada peaked as high as No. 5 in the AP Poll during the season.
Caleb Martin was a preseason AP All-American and was joined by his twin brother Cody and Jordan Caroline as preseason selections for the All-Mountain West team. Jordan Brown was the star recruit for the Wolf Pack as the McDonald’s All-American was a projected one-and-done player before committing to Nevada.
The early stretch of the season is what many expected of the Wolf Pack. Nevada went undefeated in non-conference play with a spotless 13-0 record. The non-conference portion of the season — much like the entire season — was a tale of two teams for Nevada. The Wolf Pack would either dominate an opponent for the entire 40 minutes of the game as they did in games against Arkansas-Little Rock and Cal Baptist. Or would have to prove why Eric Musselman is known for making the best second-half adjustments in the country seen in the comebacks over USC, Arizona State and Grand Canyon University.
The first sign of trouble started in conference play. After a dominating victory over Utah State in their opening game, the sixth-ranked Wolf Pack at the time were blown out by the New Mexico Lobos. The loss ended Nevada’s perfect season and brought about the skeptics. Nevada silenced them for a while by winning the next nine games — eight by double digits and scoring at least 80 points six times.
The fatigue of the season and Musselman’s refusal to use all the depth of his roster started to hurt the Wolf Pack late in the year. After a 22-1 start, Nevada lost 65-57 to San Diego State. The Aztecs’ size continued SDSU’s home dominance over Musselman — Musselman is winless against SDSU outside of Lawlor Events Center. Three games later, the Wolf Pack lost again, this time to the hands of Utah State in an emotional matchup. The loss meant Nevada could only split the regular season title with the Aggies.
Nevada would role into the Mountain West tournament after two more double-digit victories to claim the No. 1 seed. After a hard-fought victory over the Leon Rice led Boise State Broncos, the Wolf Pack would face SDSU one final time. Once again the Aztecs’ defeated a wounded Pack team as they played without Jordan Caroline — who was recovering from his Achilles injury.
The first four years — which could possibly be the only four years — of the Musselman Era were arguably the best four years in program history. The only comparable time would be the four consecutive years Nevada won the WAC and reached the NCAA Tournament from 2004-07. The talent of Musselman’s teams spread further than the previous era. While Nick Fazekas was the main star from 2004-07, he did not have much star power around him. The 2015-19 teams have had multiple players who on any given night can be the star. In 2015, Cam Oliver was joined by upperclassmen DJ Fenner and Tyron Criswell. After Criswell’s departure, Caroline made an immediate impact the next season. The Martins and added more firepower leading Nevada the furthest they have ever been in the NCAA tournament in over a decade. The 2018-19 team was the accumulation of four years of recruiting and development to try to win a national title for the city of Reno. Although it was a failed attempt, the work has not gone unnoticed.
In four years Musselman had turned a nine-win team to Mountain West basketball powerhouse. Nevada has won at least 24 games every year and taken home at least one piece of hardware. Along with the aforementioned three regular-season Mountain West titles, the Wolf Pack have won a Mountain West conference tournament trophy in 2017 and the 2016 CBI trophy in Musselman’s first year. His success is something teams from the Power Five teams with coaching vacancies are looking for. If Musselman does leave, his former and current assistants should be looked to for Nevada’s opening — assuming they do not get hired elsewhere as well.
The future for many of the seven departing seniors looks bright. After returning for their senior seasons after testing the NBA Draft waters, Caroline and the Martwins seemed to do nothing but improve and impress. Jordan Caroline was the leading candidate for the conference’s player of the year until late in the season when his nagging injuries seemed to impair him down the stretch. Caroline made history becoming the Mountain West Conference’s all-time leader in double-doubles with 45 and rebounder with 958 rebounds.
In his final season, Caroline averaged 17 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. He finished his collegiate career with a total of 2,045 points and 1,164 rebounds. His Nevada-only totals were 1,742 points and 958 rebounds which are both fifth all-time in school history. A fan favorite, Caroline will be one of the most-celebrated Nevada basketball players for years to come. If he doesn’t make it to the NBA or even the NBA G-League, Caroline has the talent to have a long career somewhere overseas if he decides to, much like Nick Fazekas.
Caleb Martin came into the season with the highest expectations ever for a Nevada player and after a slow start to the season, he lived up to them. Martin led the team in scoring for the second consecutive season averaging 19.2 points per game. He led the team in steals with 49 and was third on the team in blocks with 26. Martin finished second to Sam Merrill in the Mountain West Player of the Year voting at the end of the regular season and joined Caroline on the All-Mountain West first team. He was honored to USA Today’s third-team All-American before Nevada’s loss to Florida. In just two seasons at Nevada, Martin finished 16th on Nevada’s all-time scoring list with 1,334 points. Martin is also a name to keep an eye out for around the NBA Draft, as he showed that last season was not just a flash of greatness.
Cody Martin perhaps improved his draft stock the most of Nevada’s “big three.” He averaged 12.1 points, 4.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. Martin finished second in his attempt to repeat as the conference’s defensive player of the year. Martin had the greatest growth in terms of his numbers, which may be attributed to having an entire offseason to adjust to becoming the team’s point guard. Martin led the Mountain West in assist/turnover ratio of 2.61. Martin shot 50.5 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from beyond the arc — which was a vast improvement from his 29.4 percent the season prior. Cody Martin could be a second-round steal for an NBA team in the upcoming draft.
Although they may not have NBA scouts focused on them both Thurman and Porter have professional basketball in their futures. Porter’s athleticism to go along with his 6’11” frame is something any team would love to have come off the bench as a spark of energy. His defense is also an attribute many teams would want.
Thurman is the most underappreciated player on the team to those on the outside. Thurman can do whatever is asked of him. He was second on the team in rebounds averaging 5.8 per game to go along with his 8.2 points per game. Thurman was arguably Nevada’s best defender over both Martins and quietly shot just under 50 percent from the field. With a similar body frame to Jordan Caroline, Thurman should thrive in today’s basketball style of play.
Whether or not Musselman returns to Nevada, does not take away from the fact that next year’s Nevada roster is still one of the favorites in the Mountain West. Jazz Johnson will be returning for his senior season along with Nisre Zouzoua. Johnson will likely be the Pack’s most exciting player as his knock-down three-point shooting saved Nevada in many games this season. He averaged 11 points per game coming off the bench for Nevada earning the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year award. Zouzoua had a disappointing season because of his lack of playing time, but Zouzoua was an efficient scorer during his time at Bryant prior to joining Nevada.
Brown should be the main focal point of the offense as he tries to better himself for a professional future. Brown went from being the preseason freshman of the year to a rarely used asset in Eric Musselman’s rotation. Next season is the year Brown will either make a progress to show professional scouts why he gained his All-American status out of high school.
Lindsey Drew should be fully recovered from his hip and Achilles injuries before the start of next season to be the senior leader for next year’s Nevada squad. Drew will be the lone player remaining from Musselman’s first year at Nevada. Drew should re-establish himself as the primary facilitator on offense so shooters like Johnson and Zouzoua can get open, and he can run the pick-and-roll with Brown and the other big men on the team.
With a mix of new transfers and players like K.J. Hymes and Jalen Townsell ready to play after redshirting their freshmen years, Nevada will be towards the top of the conference once again next year.
Darion Strugs can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @dstrugs.