By Kevin Sweeney
Porter Moser ran out of good things to say about the Nevada team that had just handled his Loyola club.
He talked about the Wolf Pack’s experience, their length, their strength, their depth. He talked about what a terrific trio Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, and Jordan Caroline is. How adding the monstrous Trey Porter gave them an inside edge they didn’t have last year.
Finally, Moser exhaled and said five words that anyone who was at Gentile Arena on Tuesday night was thinking.
“They are really, really good.”
Hype for this Nevada team has been growing since the Martins and Caroline announced in late May that they would return to school for one final season of college basketball, rather than head to the professional ranks. Those decisions, combined with the previous recruiting coups of the aforementioned Porter (Old Dominion) and McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown, made Nevada a consensus top ten team coming into the season coming off a crazy run to the Sweet 16 the year before.
Still, there were doubts. After all, it’s pretty unbelievable that a program that went 9-22 just four seasons ago could be this good, this fast. Pundits questioned the team’s chemistry: Eric Musselman is known for playing a tight rotation, but he had eight players on his roster who had averaged more than 13 points per game in Division 1 basketball, plus a 5-star in Brown. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and those outside the program wondered how Musselman could handle that many egos. Some suggested the somewhat fluky way the Wolf Pack had advanced through the NCAA Tournament (an overtime win over Texas and a miraculous 22-point comeback against Cincinnati) was causing people to overrate the Pack. Basketball analysts debated how Musselman’s pace-and-space, 4-out-1-in offense would look with more bigs and less shooters.
A blowout home loss to Washington in a charity exhibition game and a fairly ugly display against D2 San Francisco State in which Nevada trailed at halftime did little to quell the criticism.
But when the lights came on for real, the Wolf Pack have answered the bell. The seven games they’ve played haven’t been a murderer’s row, but after seeing them play in person on Tuesday night, I’m sold.
Nevada is elite. They might even be better than the preseason consensus. A Final Four is a firmly attainable goal. Here’s why:
Nevada has the personnel to match up with virtually every team in college basketball. Tuesday night, size was most important. The two most important players for Loyola were 6-1 PG Clayton Custer and 6-9 big Cameron Krutwig. The Wolf Pack went to their tall-while-still-switchable lineup of the Martins, Caroline, 6-7 Tre’Shawn Thurman, and Porter. The goal? Put tons of length on Custer to make it difficult for him to get shots off or get to the rim, while using Porter’s gigantic wingspan and strength to make the efficient post scorer Krutwig work for everything he got down low. Nevada executed both of those plans to perfection, and on offense got anything they wanted against a stingy Loyola defense. The Wolf Pack didn’t rely much on the 3-point shot (6-14 on the game) after ranking in the top 30 nationally in attempts per game last season. Rather, they focused on getting to the rim and sharing the ball. Key in that was Caleb Martin, who got off to a blistering start with 15 points in the first ten minutes of game action. Known as an elite 3-point threat, Martin attacked more off the bounce to great success.
“I think dating back to last year, I wasn’t as aggressive. I wanted everyone to be aggressive, it wasn’t just me. I saw openings and I took them.” Caleb Martin said postgame on the team’s attacking mindset on the offensive end. “Last couple games, I think I settled a lot from the three-point line and I wasn’t shooting too good a percentage so I wanted to get inside, get to the rim, and make moves off the dribble.”
The gameplan was much different in Nevada’s previous game, a 110-87 victory over a hot UMass team in Las Vegas. UMass is a team built around tremendous guards, so Musselman trotted out a lineup similar to what the Wolf Pack did for much of last season. Thurman and Caroline played the five and the four respectively, with Porter swapped out for a shooter and creator. Portland transfer Jazz Johnson and Wagner transfer Corey Henson each played over 20 minutes in the game and were productive, combining for 18 points on 7-9 shooting. Meanwhile, the Nebraska-Omaha import Thurman exploded for 22 points and eight rebounds to help lead the Pack to a victory. How many teams’ fourth or fifth offensive option is capable of impacting the game like that?
“They all understand that we have a lot of talent on this team and the only way it’s going to work for guys to share the ball and get multiple people touches,” Musselman said “We have to look at the mismatches and see what they sense for us, and then it’s up to these guys to put the team in front of everything else and that’s what they’ve done.”
The glue that has kept the offense together has been Cody Martin, who became the Pack’s full-time point guard after Lindsey Drew got hurt in February and has thrived in the role. Cody has slashed a hyper-efficient .542/.375/.813 so far this season with a 4.78 assist to turnover ratio. He has also improved as an outside shooter after making just 15 triples all of last season.
One play that really stood out came in early in the second half, when Loyola had made a push to cut the deficit to 13. With the shot clock running down, Cody Martin’s crossover dribble had Loyola guard Cooper Kaifes staggering backwards before draining a dagger three. If Cody can hit that shot consistently, watch out. Here’s the shot (at 27 second mark):
Meanwhile, there have seemingly been no issues getting complete buy-in from the bench players on much smaller roles than perhaps they had anticipated when they signed on to join the Pack.
“There’s no fighting, there’s no attitude, none of that,” Caleb Martin said. “They just do whatever it takes for us to win as a group so far.”
Brown and Bryant transfer Nisre Zouzoua have been the ones shorted the most in terms of minutes, with Brown only averaging 14 minutes and Zouzoua playing just nine per night. Both should return next season though and have much bigger roles as the Wolf Pack reload.
The versatility and size that Musselman added this offseason has helped Nevada improve immensely on the defensive end. The Pack ranked 108th nationally in adjusted defense per KenPom last season. Chris Murray of Nevada Sports Net noted preseason that in the past ten years, only one team with a defense not rated in the top 50 on KenPom reached a Final Four. Nevada’s mark so far this season? 47th.
Moser said that the ability for Nevada to switch virtually every ball screen with so many interchangeable athletes on the floor, alongside the incredible length the Wolf Pack has especially with Porter on the floor, shrinks the floor for opposing offenses.
“I thought Nevada was just so physically imposing defensively,” Moser said.
The final piece the Pack has that other teams can’t compete with is experience. All five starters are 5th-year seniors, 22 and 23 year old young men in an era of college basketball in which youth rules. Nevada has 5 players who have played in at least 100 college basketball games. They’ve played in NCAA Tournaments, conference title games, and road games in all kinds of tough atmospheres. The entire core could have professional contracts right now, whether it be in the US or Europe. Nothing will fluster this group. We saw how the game sped up on RJ Barrett in the final minutes against Gonzaga in Maui. That won’t happen with the ball in Cody Martin’s hands.
Nevada has it all. They have the pieces to match up nicely against anyone, going big or small. They have guys who can get their own shot. They are playing great defense. And they’ve been there before.
So yeah, I’d agree with Porter Moser on this one.
They are really, really good.