The first time Jordan Caroline stepped foot in Reno, he was hungry.
“I probably ate 40 wings,” Caroline said with a smile. “I know I ate a bunch.”
“He put down like 40 wings," Musselman said with a chuckle. "I’m not joking either. He was just downing wings.”
Caroline’s first visit to his home for the last four years came in May 2015, and Musselman proceeded to take him straight from the airport to Famous Dave’s where Caroline showed his prodigious appetite. Since then, Caroline’s hunger hasn’t lessened, although this time we’re talking in metaphorical terms.
Caroline, with six other seniors on the Nevada basketball team, will be honored Saturday following their final home game at Lawlor Events Center. Caroline is the longest-tenured of those seven players and his departure might be the most emotional for Nevada fans, who have rooted for the 23-year-old since he became one of Musselman’s first commitments, pledging to play for the Wolf Pack just 41 days after Musselman was hired.
Caroline stepped onto a roster that was coming off a 9-22 season, opting to play for a team that waged battles in front of a mostly empty home arena. He had offers from bigger schools – NCAA Tournament regulars Cincinnati and Xavier were among them – but Caroline believed in Musselman and believed in Nevada. He bought into the coach's vision – conference championships, sold-out arenas, NCAA Tournament runs – and was a driving force in making it a reality.
Caroline related to Nevada being an underdog program because he had been an underdog recruit his entire life.
“We both had to prove ourselves,” Caroline said. “That didn’t scare me. I just wanted to be a part of something special. I had offers from some great, established programs, but I wanted to do something new and try to turn something around, especially at a place where people didn’t think it could be done.”
Caroline helped Nevada do just that. During his three-year playing career, Caroline has led the Wolf Pack to win totals of 27, 28 and 29 games. Nevada is 84-18 in those seasons, with three Mountain West titles (a fourth one is on the line Saturday) and two NCAA Tournament berths, including a Sweet 16 run last season.
Individually, Caroline is sixth in school history in scoring, fifth in rebounds and fourth in double-doubles, his 44 in that category being a MW record. Nevada is 42-2 when Caroline has a double-double, and this week he became the 29th player in the last 30 seasons to record 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career.
“He maxes out his potential every night,” Musselman said. “He plays so hard and doesn’t have lulls in his competitive nature or motor.”
Caroline might not be the hardest-playing competitor in college basketball history, but it’s hard to imagine anybody playing harder. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound freight train became a Wolf Pack fan favorite based on the passion, edge and competitiveness he brings to the court. But the fans might not known all the hard work and determination that's put in behind the scenes. In addition to the team’s daily practice, Caroline typically does two workouts of his own every day.
Like everybody, Caroline has days he’d rather not work out, but he pushes past it.
“There are always times like that,” Caroline admitted during an interview last month. “This morning I just came from a workout and I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to go, but I have to.' I have to make myself do it. The biggest thing is I was always overlooked and never really recruited, so I’ve always had that chip and remembered how I felt then and how I feel now. That’s kind of the biggest driving factor.”
Despite his gaudy numbers, Caroline has still flown under the radar nationally, with the Martin twins – who also will be honored Saturday as seniors – getting a good chunk of the national attention and appreciation. But coaches who have faced Nevada know how important Caroline is to the Wolf Pack.
“Everybody outside looking in knows he’s an absolute monster,” Nevada assistant coach Gus Argenal said. “When you go against us it’s, ‘How do we stop Jordan Caroline?’ He can make a three, you can put him in the high post, he can post up smaller guys, he can drive guys, he is the ultimate winner. You look at his career here and he’s cemented himself as one of the best. He works out two to three times a day extra on top of practice. He’s gone to a different level. I’m just so happy for him. He’s just such a great kid. My wife says he has a smile that lights up the room, but then you see him in the game and it’s not as fun.”
Caroline is a bull on the court, his physicality being his calling card. The Champaign, Ill., native, who began his career at Southern Illinois before transferring to Nevada, has become a proficient 3-point shooter in Reno, hitting 38.5 percent of his treys, the second-highest mark on the team. But he’s at his best when he presses the action and overwhelms and overpowers opponents with his ferocity.
“If they don’t feel him, he’s going to make them feel him,” Cody Martin said. “He brings that energy all the time. He’s just a different breed. Jordan Caroline is a different breed. His physicality and how hard he plays, the way he moves and the way he shoots the ball now, his shot is way better, I’ve seen him put in the work. His work ethic is crazy. He’s just different. There’s nobody like him in the country. I don’t know how else to put it. He’s just different. He brings a lot to our team you can’t find anywhere else.”
At Nevada, Caroline has carved out his own niche, stepping out of the shadows created by his father (NFL All-Pro Simeon Rice) and grandfather (College Football Hall of Famer J.C. Caroline). Jordan was raised by his mother, Jayna, with J.C. being the main father figure in his life, so much so his 1-year-old son bears his name. But given his gridiron bloodlines, football wasn’t going to be Jordan’s future.
A three-sport star in his youth, Jordan preferred baseball and basketball (and even swimming) to football, a sport that bored him because of the dead periods in practice. A big child, Caroline played against kids a couple years older than him. They beat him up on the court to the point he cried a couple of times after games as a youth, but that was all part of the developmental process that turned him into the force he is today.
“We told him, ‘If you’re making the choice to play up, you have to be tough. You can’t complain that you’re younger or slightly smaller,’” Jayna said in 2015. “But he’s always been intense on the court. It’s intrinsic. That’s his personality. Even when he was a toddler. When he sets his mind to doing something, he puts all of his effort into succeeding. He’s never been afraid of the process of failing or getting hurt. He understands that’s part of growing. He’s fearless when it comes to those types of things.”
Despite playing high school ball at prestigious Montverde Academy in Orlando alongside current NBA stars D’Angelo Russell and Ben Simmons, Caroline was under-recruited. He originally committed to Mount St. Mary’s, a small Division I school in Maryland, before signing with Southern Illinois. His hometown school, Illinois, passed over him twice in recruiting, but the Illini’s loss has been the Wolf Pack’s gain.
“He’s incredibly special,” teammate Jazz Johnson said.
Caroline figures he will cry on senior night, the emotions of his journey to Nevada being too much to hold in. Four years after taking a risk by signing with Nevada, Caroline will be rewarded with a much deserved standing ovation during senior night. Nevada has had a lot of great players over the decades, but the Wolf Pack hasn't had anybody quite like Caroline.
“I had a great four years here,” Caroline said. “It’s been amazing. I’ve met a lot of great people here, it’s a great community, the coaching staff is wonderful. It’s was a huge opportunity and blessing for me to play here. I’ll always cherish Reno and the University of Nevada.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.