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Murray's Mailbag: Is Nevada winning the national title or what?

Nevada basketball
The{ }Nevada basketball team is headed to the NCAA Tournament. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

The week we've all been waiting for all season is finally here. The Nevada basketball team is off to Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday to play in the NCAA Tournament. The Wolf Pack drew a seventh seed and will play the SEC's Florida on Thursday at 3:50 p.m. Pacific time on TNT. As you might guess, most of your questions this week were on the Wolf Pack's game against the Gators and how far the Wolf Pack can advance in the tournament. So let's get to it. Thanks, as always, for the questions.

(Note: If you're not seeing the tweets, it's probably because you're not using Google Chrome. Use Google Chrome).

That's a tough question that I'll delve into fully when the season is completed, but Nevada's goal at the beginning of the year was to get to the Final Four. It's locker room code was the date of the Final Four games. It said "3-3-3" coming out of huddles, with the final three being to play on the third week of the NCAA Tournament (that's Final Four week). Playing into April seems a little unrealistic at this point given Nevada is a seven seed. But if the Wolf Pack wins a game in the NCAA Tournament to finish the season with a school-record 30-5 final mark, including a share of a Mountain West regular-season title, there's no way we can call the season a disappointment. If Nevada is one-and-done, you could make the argument it was a disappointment since this was supposed to be "Nevada's Greatest Team Of All Time," according to people like me. But 30-5 with an NCAA Tournament win and a conference title can't be called a "disappointment" for a mid-major school even if it's not fully satisfying – for the players or the fans.

It's fair. It's hard to see a team that was in the top 10 for most of the season and a team that went 29-4 getting a seven seed, but the Wolf Pack didn't really beat anybody this season. Nevada has wins over Arizona State (the second-to-last at-large team in the bracket) and Utah State (which it split with). That's about all it has. Nevada has more Quad 3 losses (two) than Quad 1 wins (one). You're not going to get much respect from the selection committee with that being the case. You could have argued in favor of Nevada getting Buffalo's six seed, but the Bulls have more Quad 1 wins; fewer bad losses; are ranked higher than Nevada in NET and KenPom; won its conference by four games in the regular season (a conference that is ranked six spots higher than the Mountain West in the RPI); won its conference tournament; and won its last 12 games while Nevada went 5-3 over its final eight. A seven seed is what the Wolf Pack earned, with the non-conference schedule and the MW letting it down to a certain degree.

Getting the pace moving is the first big key. Florida wants to play slow, and if keeps the game in the 60s, the Wolf Pack is probably in trouble.

Florida generally isn't good at offense. It has the 10th-worst KenPom offense of the 36 at-large teams that made the NCAA Tournament. Florida doesn't shoot the three well (33.5 percent). Nevada needs to keep that percent down. Florida doesn't get to the free throw line very often, so the Wolf Pack should be able to avoid fouls and avoid giving up free points. Florida also has been out-rebounded this season. Nevada needs to win that battle. The Gators are especially poor on the defensive glass, so Nevada could get its share of offensive rebounds (although that is not a Wolf Pack strength).

Florida has plenty of weaknesses. This is an elite defensive team that struggles on offense, which is why it struggled to beat NCAA Tournament-caliber teams this season.

I'll give my Three Keys and Prediction on Wednesday, but I'll probably pick Nevada. And, yes, it should be the normal starting five with Cody Martin, Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline, Tre'Shawn Thurman and Trey Porter, and I could see Jazz Johnson being the only player used off the bench if Nevada avoids foul trouble. It's going to be a short rotation.

A No. 7 seed against No. 10 Oklahoma in Tulsa as part of the South Region.

Nevada ended up a No. 7 seed against No. 10 Florida in Des Moines as part of the West Region.

One out of four ain't bad!

1. Duke was without the national player of the year and lost to North Carolina twice (the Tar Heels are a No. 1 seed) and Virginia Tech (a No. 4 seed) once. That does not compare to Nevada losing to San Diego State twice (not good enough to make the NIT) and Utah State (an 8 seed), with Jordan Caroline only missing one of those three games.

2. The extra rest could certainly help, although the Wolf Pack needs to elevate its level of play no matter the rest situation. Nevada was rested before it played Boise State (it had four days off) and struggled to beat a 12-20 Broncos team that had zero Quad 1 or 2 wins and was generally bad this season.

3. If Nevada knew Caroline was not going to play in the semifinal (and it most certainly did not know that at the time), then, yes, giving him 11 straight days off from the end of the regular season to the NCAA Tournament opener would have been beneficial.

So, Jordan Caroline did not play against San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals, a game the Wolf Pack lost. I tweeted the day before that Caroline's "Achilles injury is a bigger deal than most know." He's been dealing with that injury for quite a while and it did not feel good prior to the SDSU game, so, yes, he decided not to play, a decision the staff wasn't exactly thrilled with, but you have to trust the player when it comes to injuries. Caroline is competitive. He's not going to pull himself if he thinks he can play. Ultimately, this team is going to be judged on how it fares in the NCAA Tournament. Nobody will care about the MW Tournament if Nevada gets back to the Sweet 16. And if Caroline believes he will be at his best because he got a little extra rest, I'm going to trust him.

As for his status for the NCAA Tournament, coach Eric Musselman said of Caroline: "Our doctors and trainers feel he’ll be 100 percent." That was the extent of his discussion of the topic.

I think it will take prolonged rest for it to cease being an issue, but playing just one game over an 11-day period certainly helps.

It's a boxing metaphor. It's a little half ball the players hit as they exit the locker room to "ring into" the game and get ready for a physical matchup.

I got a similar question in the Jan. 21 edition of the Mailbag and wrote:

"I think Josh Hall would be getting solid minutes on this team. I didn't think that would be the case going into the season if he didn't transfer, but Nevada's depth has not been as deep as we thought it'd be. While he struggled to get into Musselman's circle of trust until Lindsey Drew tore his Achilles last season, Hall would likely be stealing some minutes from Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson and Tre'Shawn Thurman and would be playing 15-20 minutes a night. Hall had a great knack for finding open spaces in the zone and he had great touch around the rim. He also was a solid offensive rebounder (second on the team last season; would be third on the team this year), which Nevada could use. He'd be a key piece, an inside zone buster.

"What would limit his minutes would be his 3-point shooting. Nevada needs to have Johnson or Henson on the court to stretch the floor. Unless Hall made improvements from three, his minutes would have had a ceiling. If he did make improvements from three, he could be a starter. But Hall, a career 32.9 percent 3-point shooter, finished last season hitting just three of his final 29 threes. He basically abandoned that shot after the early portion of the season, which was a smart move. Hall's minutes would have hinged to some degree on how well he was shooting the three, but he would have had a role for sure."

I'll add this: Nevada has really only had two key bench players in each of Musselman's four seasons. As we know, he likes to ride his starters hard. In 2015-16, it was Tyron Criswell (30.2 mpg) and Eric Cooper (24.3 mpg). In 2016-17, it was Josh Hall (15 mpg) and Leland King (10.1 mpg). In 2017-18, it was Josh Hall (23.7 mpg) and Hallice Cooke (20.1 mpg). This year, it has been Jazz Johnson (28.5 mpg) and Corey Henson (12.9 mpg). If Hall was on the team, it'd be Johnson and Hall. And given how good Hall was in the postseason during his two years at Nevada, he would have been a key piece last week (especially with Caroline missing a game) as well as this week. Alas, he is a Missouri State Bear.

In the previous three years, the "Musselman doesn't play the bench" argument has held minimal water for me because he had so many sit-out transfers there really weren't many good options off the bench. That wasn't the case this season. Jordan Brown was a McDonald's All-American; Corey Henson was an all-league kind of player at Wagner; and Nisré Zouzoua averaged 20 points per game at the Division I level. They all can obviously play.

Brown was productive early in the season when he got regular minutes. He averaged 8.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.8 bpg on 57.1 percent shooting over 17.8 mpg in Nevada's first five games before losing his minutes. Henson was productive after being put in the starting lineup midway through the year. He averaged 8.0 ppg, 2.3 apg and 1.3 spg while shooting 44 percent from the field, including 36.8 percent from three, in 30.5 mpg over four starts before missing a game with an illness and then losing all his minutes. Zouzoua never got going.

Brown and Henson are capable players when given 15-plus minutes a game, which is a minimum mark to be able to judge a player. You can't tell what a guy can do in six or eight minutes a game. The sample size is too small. I am curious what we'll see next year when Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline are gone. It's hard to take those guys off the floor because they're so good. Will Nevada expand its rotation next season when it doesn't have that star-level talent or stick with the 6.5-player rotation we've seen the last four years? And I think the signing of high school players is a thing of the past for Nevada unless he's a top-75 prospect type.

I can see the argument for more minutes for Brown and Henson, but Zouzoua struggled from the start. He's shooting 22 percent from the field and has made just 3-of-29 from three. He's clearly a much better player than that. I really liked what I saw from him in practice during his redshirt season. But it's hard to give minutes to a guy who is struggling that bad. Hopefully an offseason rejuvenates his game.

And I don't put hot sauce on my food. I have a very precious mouth.

If Nevada gets to the NCAA Tournament annually, it will be putting banners in the rafters. They put banners up for NCAA Tournament appearances. Also, if fans are tired of annually having its team in the NCAA Tournament, they're jaded. It's really hard to get to the NCAA Tournament as Wolf Pack fans learned from 2008-16. Nevada has done it only nine times since the tournament began in 1939.

I don't think I've heard any Wolf Pack fans say the first of those two things, and I doubt many fans think Nevada is going to lose to Florida. Fans damn near sold out Lawlor Events Center for the entire season. I think they've done a fine job this year in being grateful. Fans are allowed to support a team while also expressing some concerns. Nevada's stated goal this year was to: (1) Win the MW regular season (it shared); (2) Win the MW Tournament title (it didn't do that); and (3) Make the Final Four (that seems unlikely). The goals were lofty, but those were the goals, so to some degree those things were the expectations from fans.

Lindsey Drew is a "true point guard," aka a traditional point guard who facilitates first and takes care of the ball. I also would put Cody Martin in this category. He averages nearly as many assists per game (5.1) as shot attempts (8.7), has a 2.7 assist-to-turnover rate and makes other around him better. That's a true point guard.

I expect him to return (and while there will probably be some rust) to be an impact player. He was playing the best ball of his career prior to tearing his Achilles last season. I can see a 10-point, six-assist, five-rebound player who shoots upper-40s from the field and upper-30s from three while giving Nevada above-average defense. It will be interesting to see how he pairs with Jalen Harris, whose game is similar to Caleb Martin.

I'll assume you mean the best players on other Mountain West teams turning pro.

SDSU's Jalen McDaniels is almost certainly turning pro. Utah State's Neemias Queta will probably test the waters and return to school. His teammate, Sam Merrill, might do the same. Colorado State's Nico Carvacho could, too. Same with Boise State's Derrick Alston. No harm in testing the waters to get some info before returning to school. But the only player the MW should lose early to a pro career is McDaniels, with a decent chance Queta follows suit.

I answer a question like this every Mailbag, but since it is NCAA Tournament week, let's just skip that and allow Wolf Pack fans to enjoy playing on the national stage without worrying about losing its coach. But you can ask me again next week and I'll answer.

We will continue our ban this week on "Musselman leaving Reno" questions.

Texas' Shaka Smart pronounced Nevada incorrectly and his team lost to the Wolf Pack. Mick Cronin made a point to pronounce Nevada correctly and his team still lost to the Wolf Pack. So, it probably doesn't matter. But I'm guessing Florida head coach Mike White pronounces it wrong since he's spent his life in the south. White has, however, coached against Nevada. He did so as a rookie head coach at Louisiana Tech in 2011-12. His Bulldogs beat Nevada, 78-73, in the WAC Tournament semifinals (after going 0-2 against Nevada in the regular season) to deprive the 28-win Wolf Pack a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Some payback this Thursday?

So, how many NCAA Tournament games will Arizona State and Utah State -- the only two tournament teams the Wolf Pack played this season -- combined for? I'll go 1.5 wins and take the under.

As for Nevada's over/under win total, I'll put it at 0.5 wins and take the over.

Three, so $4.914 million worth.

No, I don't think the pressure is getting to Nevada. The Wolf Pack did go 29-4 when getting the best shot from their opponent every game out. Twenty-two of those 29 wins came by double-digits, with many of those being 20-plus-point wins. If anything, I'd say the team is tired/worn down more than succumbing to pressure of being "Nevada's Greatest Team Of All Time."

North Dakota State over North Carolina Central.

Fairleigh Dickinson over Prarie View A&M.

Arizona State over St. John's.

Belmont over Temple.

Other than VCU versus UCF and Belmont versus Temple, no mid-major at-large team drew another mid-major at-large team. We have a lot of interesting mid-major versus Power 5 teams. You have Nevada vs. Florida; Buffalo vs. Arizona State/St. John's; Cincinnati vs. Iowa; Utah State vs. Washington; Wofford vs. Seton Hall; Marquette vs. Murray State; Villanova vs. Saint Mary's. I could go on and on with that list.

Nevada was 5-2 in games officiated by Dave Hall this season, with both losses coming to San Diego State. Hall will probably get some NCAA Tournament games. Odds are Hall doesn't get a Nevada game, but he could. Look, Dave Hall gets some flack but he's a good official. He's worked two Final Fours in his career. That's hard to do.

Officiating in the Mountain West is not terrible and it will have no impact on Musselman's future. I mean, the Pac-12 has had an officiating scandal and if UCLA offers Musselman, he's almost certainly wearing blue and gold next season. (Ahh, I thought I vetoed talking about Musselman leaving Nevada!).

My No. 1 seeds are Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers. You might be able to guess I grew up in the '90s.

Not having its football, men's basketball, women's basketball or baseball team post an above-.500 record in any of its six seasons in the Mountain West (like San Jose State has done) should be enough data to remove the Spartans from the conference. But I assume it would come down to a vote of the conference's presidents, so it probably won't happen. The only way I see SJSU leaving the MW is if it opts to remove itself, which I doubt will happen.

It has not been good. The Mountain West ranked 15th (out of 32 conferences) in RPI this season. It was 16th in 2017-18, 13th in 2016-17, 20th in 2015-16 and 22nd in 2014-15. So it has improved some over the last five seasons, but it's roughly an average conference nationally and is a one-bid league annually. The MW's rep last year (Boise State) got a 16th seed in the NCAA Tournament. It got a 13 seed this season despite going 28-4 overall and 16-2 in the MW. It's a very winnable conference with a good product. I think Wolf Pack coach Amanda Levens will get Nevada to that level over time.

It's almost like players should be able to make money off their own likeness or go straight to the pros out of high school if they want to.

I don't think it matters either way. Nevada has won its conference tournament to get to the NCAA Tournament five times. In four of those seasons, it was one-and-done. The other time it did so (in 2004), it made the Sweet 16. I don't believe in momentum and neither does Musselman. I also don't believe a loss is good motivation heading into the NCAA Tournament. Nevada and Florida will both be motivated. It will come down to who executes the best, who is hitting their shots and perhaps even who gets a little luck.

Nevada doesn't have any players who weigh more than 230 pounds, so it would get blasted in the trenches, but I could see Cody Martin at quarterback, Caleb Martin and Tre'Shawn Thurman at receiver, Jordan Caroline at tight end and Jazz Johnson at running back being a nice group of skill players.

The game was moved because of the Labor Day Weekend, and the assumption people will be out of town on Saturday because of that. Nevada has moved up its game to Thursday or Friday on that weekend for the last couple of years. And the Wolf Pack gets about $1.1 million per year from its television contract. That's a lot of money, and it's money that wouldn't be made up in the stands even if the games were playing on Saturday afternoons. My research actually shows Nevada draws better at night than during the day.

I was not in Las Vegas last week, so I did not watch the Mountain West's eSports Showdown. I don't think I'll be covering eSports in the future, although it is indeed a "growing phenomenon," although it's never going to be a full-blown NCAA sport. One of our news reporters has been digging around the subject, so he might have a story soon. And I'll never understand why grown humans would watch other grown humans play video games rather than playing video games themselves. But more power to Ninja if he can get people to pay to watch him play video games.

I, for one, appreciate Nevada men's golf. I don't know how the rest of you people appreciate them. But the Wolf Pack has won a program-best three tournaments this season and has had three individual winners as well. The team is having a phenomenal season and has been among the top-four programs at Nevada since the move to the MW in 2012 along with men's basketball, women's swimming and diving and baseball. Coach Jacob Wilner has done a fabulous job, especially given the climate he's recruiting to.

Nevada made the NCAA Championships eight times in its history, so this team was (at best) the ninth best in school history. Although the sport at the Division I level has improved a ton over the last 10-15 years, so if you're going by just pure scoring rather than placement nationally this could have been the best team in school history. And it is a bummer rifle is being removed. It's one of the better sports on campus.

Better shot of Mary Swanson marrying Lloyd Christmas.

In addition to sponsoring the Mountain West tournaments, Air Force Reserve also sponsors the Celebration Bowl (the championship game for Historically Black College and University football) and 13 Conference-USA championships. The U.S. Air Force has a $741 million advertising deal with GSD&M, so I assume these sponsorships come out of that marketing budget.

It's an interesting question, but I have the 2019 Orioles (who will be awful) sweeping the 1927 Yankees (who were legendary). The game and athletes have just evolved so much over the last century.

I'll peg it around 700 people (the flights to and from Des Moines are mostly sold out). ESPN's BPI gives Nevada a 16 percent chance of getting to the Sweet 16 after a 56.5 percent chance of winning the first round. So that's basically a 30 percent chance of beating Michigan if that matchups happens and my math is correct, which it sometimes is and it sometimes isn't.

... Nevada scoring more points than Florida and Michigan.

Also because Nevada hit 40 percent of its threes, limited turnovers, Jordan Caroline looked like Jordan Caroline and the Wolf Pack played the defense it is capable of playing. If Nevada hits its three and has single-digit turnovers, it's a dangerous team. The Wolf Pack's defense is good. I'm far more leery about the offense.

As I noted in this story, I don't like the Florida matchup for Nevada because of how good the Gators are defensively. The Wolf Pack is better against good-offense, bad-defense teams than vice versa in my opinion because Nevada is limited offensively if it doesn't get to the free throw line (how the refs call this game will be important) and if it isn't hitting from three (Nevada shoots 35.1 percent from three, which ranks 133rd in the nation). You're going to get a tough team no matter who you draw in the NCAA Tournament, but this is not an ideal matchup for Nevada.

Here's how it works: Each unit – or game played in the NCAA Tournament – is worth $273,000 paid to the conference of the participating team. Units are paid out annually over a six-year cycle, so one unit is worth $1.638 million over that full period. The MW has earned 21 credits over the last six years: four in 2018; one in 2017, one in 2016, four in 2015, four in 2014 and seven in 2013. However, those seven units in 2013 are falling off the ledger this season and will be replaced with however many units Nevada and Utah State earn this month. The MW is going to lose a lot of money unless one of these teams makes a long run to replace the seven units. The units are split evenly across the conference, so San Jose State will make as much as Nevada even if Nevada creates all the units. But, generally speaking, the more games played by MW teams, the more money for Nevada.

ESPN's aforementioned BPI gives Nevada a 1.4 percent chance of making the Final Four. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com gives Nevada a 4 percent chance. Let's just say it'd be a minor miracle if it happened.

Murray State is going to beat Marquette in the first round. That's a lock. Beating Florida State in the second round will be more difficult. That's 50-50.

Kentucky 12/1

Michigan State 12/1

Florida State 30/1

LSU 50/1

Murray State 500/1

And Nevada is currently 75/1

The transfer season has just begun. There are probably going to be 600-700 players who transfer, only a handful who have announced their intentions so far. It's just too early to tell.

I don't think his name will be on the list.

Only at the zoo. Does Des Moines have a zoo?

I have never been, but this guy seems to have a good grasp on all things Des Moines!

We are sending three reporters to Des Moines in Alex Margulies, Julian Del Gaudio and myself. Most importantly, my wife is coming with me to the game. So it should be fun. We'll see you in Des Moines, aka the Hartford of the West! (Why anybody would nickname their city that, I have no idea).

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