If Nevada lives up to the hype this season, if it remains a top-10 team the entire year, if it three-peats as Mountain West champions, if it makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament and challenges for a Final Four berth, fans will look at Sunday’s exhibition game against Washington and laugh.
But if the Wolf Pack fails to deliver, if it quickly falls out of the Top 25, if it can’t stave off the competition to win another conference crown and if it flames out of the NCAA Tournament early or fails to make it at all, fans can trace things back to Sunday’s 91-73 loss to Washington as a foreshadowing.
Nevada enters this season with the most hype in school history, and the story of the year won’t be told by its first exhibition game. But the Wolf Pack’s lopsided loss to Washington did raise alarm bells for at least one person among the 4,069 inside Lawlor Events Center, that being Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman.
On his team’s effort?
“It’s the first time since I’ve been here where I didn’t see us go get loose balls,” Musselman said.
On his team’s physical nature?
“I thought we got out-toughed,” Musselman said.
On his team’s desire?
“The bench lacked effort tonight,” Musselman said.
On his team’s defense?
“It’s atrocious; we’re probably one of the worst defensive teams in all of college basketball," Musselman said.
On his team's shooting?
"Sometimes you need a helmet at practice," Musselman said.
And on his players' natural defensive ability?
“I think they’re actually trying, but they’re just bad lateral foot speed guys,” Musselman said.
Add it up and Nevada’s season did not start with a bang. It began with major question marks.
“I thought it was the worst home performance, whether it’s an exhibition or any form of competition, that we’ve played since I’ve been,” said Musselman, who is entering his fourth season at Nevada.
The numbers back him up. Musselman’s worst home loss during his first three years was an eight-point defeat to UNLV last season. The 19-point loss to Washington would more than double that if the game actually counted. As an exhibition contest, it doesn’t count, and the Wolf Pack will open the season as a top-10 team when the AP Top 25 is released Monday morning. Ballots were due last Wednesday, four days before Washington, which could find itself in the Top 25, thoroughly out-played the Wolf Pack.
But whether it counted was not of much concern to Nevada. Of more concern was the team’s inability to get a stop. Washington scored 51 second-half points to overcome a one-point halftime deficit en route to the massive win. The Huskies shot 61.7 percent from the field, including 11-of-22 3-pointers. Nevada answered by shooting 38.8 percent, including 5-of-21 from three.
“It’s embarrassing," Cody Martin said. "We just didn’t come to play. We just didn’t defend. We haven’t defended. We’re trying to block too many shots, alter too many shots at the rim now that we have bigger guys and we’re not keeping guys in front of us. We’ve got to take care of the ball. And they just played harder than us.”
Washington was playing without star Noah Dickerson (undisclosed injury), but Jaylen Nowell, David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle and Dominic Green more than made up for his absence. That quartet combined for 75 points on 31-of-48 shooting. Nevada’s stars didn’t respond, putting up decent offensive numbers but adding little to no defense.
“Their stars played like stars,” Musselman said. “Our stars didn’t defend and you add in the fact that our bench was really bad and I don’t know how much productivity we can get out of the bench. We tried to play it and everybody wants to talk about we’re deep. Well, we’re not deep if we don’t produce.”
Musselman used nine players in the opening minutes, trying to use the bench that includes five transfers who started and succeeded at their previous schools. But after limited production in Nevada’s first public showing of the season, Musselman didn’t threaten to limit their minutes. He basically guaranteed it.
“I know fans and media like to talk about depth, but I’m not subbing like that ever again; if anybody thinks we’re going to go nine deep and let guys just get minutes ” Musselman said before trailing off.
It wasn’t only the team’s coach who was mad. So, too, were the Martin twins who returned for their senior seasons not only to improve their draft stock but to make a run at a national championship.
Simply winning a MW title with the defense Nevada exhibited Sunday would be a reach, and the Martin twins, while pointing a finger at themselves for poor play, said they could see a result like this coming.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised,” said Caleb Martin, who scored 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting. “We’ve got guys who don’t practice hard. There are guys who have bad practice habits and they act like it doesn’t translate to the game. As a team, we don’t practice hard enough. Coach gets on us and we have some guys who go at their own pace. Many guys think we can just turn it on and turn it off whenever we want because we’ve got size and we’ve got length and we’ve got depth. Like Coach said, we don’t really have any of those things if the guys don’t produce. If anything, we just have less perimeter shooters.
“I’ve got to voice these things. I don't know if I let people slack off or take plays off or have bad practice habits. I have to put that on me, too, because I am a senior. I’ll make sure that will be addressed for sure and we won’t have the same outcome next game.”
Martin knows Musselman will use a short rotation of players, if necessary. He’s done it in his first three seasons at Nevada and might do it again this year. Asked what he wanted his team to learn from the Washington game, Caleb Martin said the leash will likely be short if production isn’t there.
“I want guys to know that if we have games like that and performances like that, the bench is just going to get shorter,” he said. “Coach will have no problem playing five guys 40 minutes if it means we win. Including myself, I didn’t play well at all, either, so I have a lot of stuff to pick up on, too.”
Musselman is not averse to post-game hyperbole when his team loses. It’s commonplace. After a 100-83 exhibition win over Stanislaus State last season, Musselman said his team was “severely overrated,” that its “defense was absolutely non-existent” and that its showing was “the most disappointed I’ve been in our team since I’ve been to Nevada.” Of course, the Wolf Pack went on to win the MW comfortably before reaching the Sweet 16 for the second time in school history.
Unlike last season, Musselman was not filled with fire and brimstone after the loss to Washington. He said he didn’t raise his voice in the post-game locker room for the first time since being hired by Nevada.
“It’s not worth it,” Musselman said when asked why he didn’t yell or scream. “They stunk. They didn’t play hard enough. And they can’t guard. I just have to go home and talk to my dog and ask Swish how he thinks we should play defense and maybe we’ll play a zone. We can’t play man-to-man. It’s a joke.”
Time will tell whether this was a preseason wake-up call for Nevada, which is loaded with talent, or a harbinger of future struggles. Cody Martin said he didn’t think the preseason hype affected Nevada entering this game and also said his team’s confidence shouldn’t be shaken despite the defeat.
“I hope it makes us hungry,” Cody Martin said. “It’s tough because obviously people will sit there and say they let all of that stuff get to their heads. They played better than us, they hit their shots and we didn’t play well. I don’t think it does anything to our confidence. I just think it will make us go harder. I think it will make people fight for minutes because y’all heard Coach about the rotation and stuff like that. If you want to be in the rotation, you’re going to take it seriously.”
The Wolf Pack next plays Friday against San Francisco State, which should be a Wolf Pack rout. The season opener against BYU is still two weeks ago, but it’s clear Nevada must make a lot of progress between now and then.
“It’s not good to lose, but maybe we did need a little punch in the mouth to wake some people up and show them we’re not as good as we think we are,” Caleb Martin said. “I don’t know if people pay attention to social media and what everybody says, but clearly it doesn’t matter unless you produce and perform.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.