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Murray's Mailbag: Could the New Mexico loss actually help Nevada?

Nevada Wolf Pack
The{ }Nevada Wolf Pack suffered its first loss of the season over the weekend. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

I was wrong. Nevada will not go undefeated this season. Not after getting blasted, 85-58, by New Mexico on Saturday. The loss was jarring given its magnitude. The 27-point margin of defeat is the second largest during coach Eric Musselman's four-year tenure, bested only by a 29-point loss to Wichita State in 2015. As bad as that looked, I'm sure the Wolf Pack (and Nevada fans) would have taken a 14-1 record through 15 games this season. So let's keep things in perspective. But some issues were exposed in the loss, and many of your questions were on that defeat. Let's dive into them with the Monday Twitter Mailbag. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

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

I've heard this argument thrown out there, even before Nevada lost, but I don't agree with it. The argument goes like this: Taking a loss relieves some pressure off Nevada, which now doesn't have to chase a perfect regular season. Whatever positive is gained in that regard is more than lost in the crushing blow to the team's confidence. Nevada just lost to what has basically been a .500 team by 27 points. It did so as a 15-point favorite. It got demolished in all aspects of the game. That hit to the Wolf Pack's psyche is more damaging than anything positive gained.

The Wolf Pack talked last season about how the loss to Texas Tech (its first defeat of the season) hurt the team's confidence. This loss falls into the same category. And the loss to Texas Tech was against a future Elite 8 team rather than a mid-pack Mountain West team. New Mexico, using its fancy new zone defense, could rise above that distinction, but that's what the Lobos are right now.

The New Mexico loss also gives belief to the rest of the MW that Nevada's vulnerable. That it's beatable. Nevada won't walk onto the court with the same mental advantage it would have held if it beat New Mexico. I don't think this loss was a good thing from that perspective, and it also damages the Wolf Pack's shot at a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament. Given its relative dearth of quality wins (thanks to some of the Wolf Pack's non-conference foes underachieving), Nevada doesn't have much margin for error if it wants a top-four seed in the Big Dance. And finally, the loss (combined with the exhibition defeat to Washington) gives other teams a template for beating the Wolf Pack.

There are always things to be learned after losses. Maybe the team focuses in on what the staff is telling them a little more now that it's shown mortality. Maybe it gets off to better starts as a result. Maybe it increases the level of hunger a little more. Maybe the staff plays the bench more or tinkers with the rotation to solve some of the offensive woes we've seen over the last month. I'm not saying there are no positives that can come from a loss, but I don't consider it a positive development in its totality.

I would describe his post-game temperament as a "matter-of-fact roasting." He wasn't despondent and didn't yell and scream. He basically just said they got punked and out-worked and out-played and were selfish. If you look at a transcript of what he said, it was pretty pointed. He was pretty harsh. But he didn't say it in a fire-breathing Muss kind of way, which is in line with his road post-game interviews after losses (he's more under control when Nevada loses on the road than at home). I don't think he was "OK" with the loss given the margin of defeat. He said losing in that fashion is worse than losing a close game. I'm sure he's still ticked today. I'm sure practice will be quite difficult this week.

I'd put the Sweet 16 loss to Loyola-Chicago atop the list given the magnitude of the game. But I'm guessing you mean games in which Nevada just didn't show up. There are only a few that fit that category during Musselman's tenure. Nevada has been good at avoiding such games. Here is the list of games under Musselman in which you could argue the Wolf Pack didn't show up:

* 2019 New Mexico, L 85-58

* 2018 San Diego State, L 90-73

* 2017 San Francisco, L 66-64

* 2017 Utah State, L 74-57

* 2016 Saint Mary's, L 81-63

* 2015 Cal State Fullerton, L 75-66

* 2015 Wichita State, L 98-69

* 2015 New Mexico, L 88-76

* 2016 Fresno State, L 85-63

* 2106 Boise State, L 76-57

You could eliminate those both five as they were in Musselman's first season and Nevada was largely out-manned in those games. I would indeed call last weekend's New Mexico loss the worst in the Musselman era. Nevada was favored by 15 and lost by 27. That's a 42-point difference. That's hard to match. That's hard to explain.

Coach Musselman has said on many occasions this season Nevada's zone offense has been better than its man offense. I'm not sure I agree, but I figure I should at least point that out.

I've said since before the season started (and had some national writers disagree with me) that Nevada's 3-point shooting is an issue. The Wolf Pack lost Kendall Stephens and Hallice Cooke, who hit a nice 169 3-pointers on 44.2% shooting last year. They were replaced, essentially, by Jazz Johnson, Corey Henson and Nisré Zouzoua. Johnson has been awesome, hitting 54.8 percent of his threes. Henson and Zouzoua basically don't play, and when they have they've hit a combined 8-of-43 3-pointers (18.6 percent). As a team, Nevada is shooting 33.3 percent from three, although it's been even worse over the last seven games (27.8 percent). Despite these numbers, Nevada is shooting 24.8 3-pointers per game, more than the 24.4 3-pointers per game it shot last season (when it made 39 percent of its threes). So, it's a worse 3-point shooting team that is shooting more threes.

That explains why teams are zoning Nevada. The Wolf Pack doesn't shoot the three particularly well, but it likes to shoot a lot of them. Even if teams don't typically play zone, they've been using it against Nevada. The Wolf Pack is going to be zoned for much of the rest of the season. Nevada has been able to overcome this issue largely because its defense has been excellent, which has masked a rather mundane offense. The Wolf Pack defense was not excellent against New Mexico. It played its third-worst defensive game of the season behind only Tulsa and UMass, two games Nevada was shooting lights out and didn't have to play defense. It played its worst offensive game of the season. That's a bad combo.

The keys to beating a zone don't really change:

(a) Get the ball in the high post/elbows and operate your offense from there (Nevada usually has Jordan Caroline in this spot, but I would like to see Cody Martin and/or Jordan Brown there, too)

(b) Don't fall in love with the three-ball, but do make your threes (as we've shown, Nevada has struggled here)

(c) Kill teams on the offensive glass (it's harder to defensive rebound out of a zone because it's more difficult to find a body and block out, yet Nevada has been a below-average offensive rebounding team)

(d) Push off misses so the defense can't set up its zone (Nevada is 199th in tempo, which is slow)

Add these all up and it's easy to see why Nevada is going to see so much zone. That scheme plays to the Wolf Pack's weaknesses. If you play Nevada in man, you're not stopping Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline in isolation situations. I'd like to see more Jordan Brown against the zone. He can score in the high post, is a solid passer and has the size to grab offensive rebounds. But to answer your question: How does Nevada beat a team that plays zone? Shoot the ball better; don't rely on isolation sets; move the ball; get the ball inside and play inside out; push off misses; and offensive rebound better.

Playing zone with good and long athletes is in fact Nevada's Achilles' heel, if it has one. Basically, Washington and New Mexico have given other teams the formula to beat the Wolf Pack. It doesn't mean it will be easy to beat Nevada, but the model is out there.

They have seen a ton of zone and they'll continue to see a ton of zone. I'm sure there will be a couple of teams that are stubborn and stay with a man defense, but if you want to have a chance of beating Nevada, playing a zone is key.

It has played a significant role. The Wolf Pack has become too isolation heavy of late, especially considering its going against a scheme (zone) that does not reward isolation ball. Musselman basically said his team played selfish against New Mexico and the numbers bear that out. Nevada averaged 20.3 assists per game in its first four contests and 16.9 assists per game through its first eight games. That number is down to 13.4 assists per game over its last seven. Only once has it passed 15 assists in its last seven games after going over that number six times in its first eight contests. Now, part of that is because Nevada has stopped hitting threes, and you can get a lot of assists off made threes. But part of that is because the ball isn't moving quickly enough, which needs to be fixed for Nevada's offense to get back to the level we saw earlier this season.

When the Martins shoot 4-of-22 from the field with six turnovers (like they did against New Mexico), the Wolf Pack isn't winning many games. Those guys are super important, and they played their worst game of the season on the same night, which is hard to overcome. Nevada does not have as much scoring depth this season as last year when Kendall Stephens, Lindsey Drew, Josh Hall and Hallice Cooke could have big nights. As a result, there is more pressure on the big three. Worth noting, Nevada is getting 35.1 ppg this season outside of the big three, and that number wasn't much higher last year (37.6 ppg). But Nevada could get a 15-point game out of Stephens, Drew, Hall or Cooke if the big three were having an off night. This year's non-big three has only five games of 15-plus points (three by Jazz Johnson, one by Jordan Brown, one by Tre'Shawn Thurman). Last year's non-big three had 27 games of 15-plus points. Nevada had more players who could take over a game offensively last season than it does this year.

Musselman said during last year's NCAA Tournament depth is the most overrated thing in college basketball. Small rotations have been one of his foundations at Nevada, and it's worked pretty well. I would play Jordan Brown more. I'm not sure anybody else has played well enough to earn more minutes (maybe Corey Henson). I would prefer a slightly larger rotation, but Musselman is 95-30 with two NCAA Tournaments, three MW titles, a Sweet 16 and a top-five ranking in four seasons after inheriting a 9-22 team. We can give him the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he's doing. And given the Wolf Pack has been a strong second half team during his tenure, I would say whatever Musselman is doing with his rotations has worked fine. That being said, more minutes for Brown please.

He's not playing many minutes (about 10 a night), so it's hard to give a full report on his strengths and weaknesses. He's second on the team in defensive rating and eighth in offensive rating (in large part because of the turnovers). His body is still physically immature when compared to somebody like Trey Porter, which is probably limiting his minutes. With Nevada now taking a loss, perhaps Brown gets more minutes from here on out as Nevada isn't chasing a perfect season anymore and can try and develop him some more during games before March arrives.

The narrative early in the season is he was deferring too much in the first half and scoring all of his points in the second half. That has flipped of late. I went back and looked at the team's last seven games (that is basically the period of Caleb Martin's "slump') to see if there's any difference between the first and second half.

Martin's first halves: 6.9 ppg, 14-of-53 FG (26.4%), 9-of-37 3PT (24.3%), 10-of-12 FTs (83.3%)

Martin's second halves: 9.7 ppg, 24-of-58 FG (41.4%), 9-of-33 3PT (27.3%), 11-of-19 FTs (57.9%)

He's clearly been better in the second half, although I'm not sure if we can say he's "pressing" early on in the first half. He's taking fewer shots in the first half than the second. There are a few more free throws and a few less 3-pointers in the second half, which is preferred. Really, the biggest difference in Caleb Martin from last year to this year is his 3-point shot. His per-40-minute numbers are nearly identical except for two areas. Martin is shooting better from inside the arc (54.1 percent this year to 50.6 percent last year) and worse from beyond the arc (32.1 percent this year to 40.3 percent last year). Despite that, he's shooting a way higher percent of threes this season than last year. Last year, 50 percent of his shots came from three; this year, it's 65 percent. Fewer threes and more drives is the answer, but that's not so easy to do against a zone.

I'd be worried if the Wolf Pack keeps shooting them at this pace. I don't think Nevada is a great shooting team. It is basically an average one. Only Jazz Johnson and Jordan Caroline shoot better than 32.1 percent from three. Only those two plus Caleb Martin shoot better than 28.6 percent from three. That's an issue for a team that shoots as many threes as Nevada does. Musselman has been liberal with his green light. He wants his players to play with freedom offensively. That being said, Nevada's opposition clearly wants the Wolf Pack to be shooting threes. That's why they're playing zone.

The only 3-point shooter Nevada has is Jazz Johnson and he's playing 26.8 minutes per game, fifth on the team. He's basically a starter getting starter minutes. Where have you gone Kendall Stephens? Wolf Pack Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

This was clearly submitted before the AP Top 25 came out, and Nevada only slipped from No. 6 to No. 10. I had the Wolf Pack at No. 12 on my Top 25, but I rank based off résumé (most voters rank based off the eye test or something), and Nevada's lack of a Quad 1 win and getting demolished in a Quad 3 game weighed a little heavier for me. Bottom line is a lot of top-15 teams lost last week, which kept Nevada from falling further than it did. It was a good show of respect for the Wolf Pack, too, which has now been in the top 10 the entire season.

Obviously we know where Nevada sits now. As far as the UNLV question: That team had the No. 1 pick in the draft (Larry Johnson) and four other NBA players. I'm not sure Nevada even has one NBA player on its roster. Few teams in college basketball history compare to those 1990s UNLV teams. They were insanely good.

It depends when they come and against whom. If Nevada loses to San Jose State at home on Wednesday, it shouldn't be in the Top 25. If it loses at Fresno State on Saturday, it probably will remain in the Top 25. But the margin for error is thin. Nevada basically can't lose again, including the MW Tournament, if it wants a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

* Nevada is probably a three seed if the season ended today. (Team Sheets has Nevada as a fifth seed; rough).

* If they win out, including the MW Tournament, I'd give Nevada a one seed.

* Again, it depends on who Nevada beats and loses to, but it probably falls below a fourth seed if it loses more than four games. So, it has to go 30-4 or better.

New prediction: Nevada goes 15-3 in MW play, which puts it at 29-3 at the of the regular season.

I would love to see it. I'd love to see Nevada play 10 Quad 1 games this season and see how it'd fair rather than the two or three Quad 1 games it will end up playing. I'd put Nevada fifth in the ACC behind some combination of Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina State and Florida State with a league record around 12-6 or 11-7. The ACC is tough. Duke, North Carolina and Virginia are better. Nevada is in the next group with Virginia Tech, NC State and Florida State.

It's not great, but that's what you get when you have officials doing up to five games a week. Ultimately, the refs very rarely impact which team wins the game, which is good, but they are clearly a few levels down from the NBA.

1) I'll take the blame.

2) New Mexico fans are rowdy.

3) The Pit is literally built into pit, so it sounds a lot louder than Lawlor, which is built from the ground up and does not trap noise as well. You can't really fix that.

It's a cool place. It's a loud place. I give credit to New Mexico fans for still coming out in droves this season despite their team being average for much of the year. (The Lobos rank first in the MW in attendance at 11,281 fans per game).

That being said, the Lobos are 4-4 at home this season with losses to Penn, North Texas, Colorado and New Mexico State (not exactly juggernauts). They've lost at least four home games in each of the last five seasons. Nevada is 50-5 at home over the last four seasons. Nevada is a much tougher place to win ... because Nevada has been the much better team of late. Also, the loudest place I've ever been is Utah State's Spectrum Center in 2010. My ears rang for 24 hours after that night.

I didn't notice until you brought this up, but it appears as if the "Wolf!" "Pack!" cheer has been largely non-existent at home games. Fans do chant it during road games, however. Maybe it's being phased out. I'll grill the Wolf Pack cheerleading staff about this before Wednesday's game. We need answers to this atrocity.

No. UCLA firing its head coach had zero impact on Nevada losing to New Mexico.

Yes, especially if the Minnesota Timberwolves hire Fred Hoiberg.

I asked Lindsey Drew during media day in October if he thought about transferring out of Nevada.

“I feel like this is home," he said. "I feel like family here. I trust everybody. You don’t find that a lot.”

That being said, if Musselman did leave and Lindsey could play at home in L.A. as a senior, I'm sure it would be appealing. The caveat: He'd have to graduate this May to do so. I don't think that's going to happen, so I don't think he's going to transfer. But if Muss takes the UCLA job, I will indeed go with him.

Fun question. I'll take Cody Fajardo. We saw a higher level out of Fajardo than we saw out of Gangi, specifically Fajardo's 2012 season, although he was playing behind three NFL linemen, with an NFL tight end, with the nation's No. 2 rusher and under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault in a system that was perfect for his skills (the Pistol). Fajardo and Gangi were nearly identical passers (Gangi topped Fajardo in passer rating 135.4 to 135.0), but Fajardo was better with his legs and avoided turnovers. Fajardo threw one fewer interception than Gangi in 359 more pass attempts. Give me Fajardo in the Pistol coached by Ault to start my team.

Let's look at Nevada's schedule:

Home games: Weber State, Purdue, Hawaii, New Mexico, San Jose State, UNLV

Road games: Oregon, UTEP, Fresno State, San Diego State, Utah State, Wyoming

Only two of those home opponents made a bowl this season (Purdue, Hawaii). Nevada should win four or five home games. That leaves only one or two road wins to get to six. UTEP was 1-11 this season. That should be a win. Wyoming didn't make a bowl last year. Nevada has questions, too. Who's the Wolf Pack's quarterback? How will the defense fare after losing all that talent? But the Wolf Pack should make a bowl. I'll put the odds at 69 percent.

Here's the thing: Nevada has largely been good in men's basketball, football and baseball since moving to the Mountain West, so everything else is kind of glossed over. But, yes, the Wolf Pack Olympic sports have struggled and are struggling with some exceptions, notably women's swimming/diving and men's golf. Outside of men's basketball, Wolf Pack athletics went 116-140 in 2016-17; 124-137 in 2017-18; and are 34-51-2 so far this season. It's fair to say Nevada largely struggles in the Olympic sports. It's also fair to say as long as you're doing well in basketball and football, most fans don't really care. But there's plenty of room for growth for the Wolf Pack in lots of its sports, with finances playing some part in those struggles.

* Nevada softball finishes fifth in the MW standings.

* Baseball finishes second in the MW, but wins the conference tournament to make an NCAA Regional.

* Swimming and diving finishes third at the MW Championship.

* Track and field finishes seventh at the MW Championship.

* Men's tennis wins one round at the MW Championship before falling in round two.

* Women's tennis losing in the first round of the MW Championship.

* Women's golf finishes sixth in the MW Championships.

* And men's golf wins the NCAA title (duh).

While that would be great, I don't see it happening in the near future. First, Reno doesn't have an ice rink. That's the first hurdle. The RSCVA does not want to put in the necessary money into Reno Events Center to make it hockey ready. And the Greater Reno Community Ice Skating Association seems more interested in its potential rink being for youth teams, birthday parties and free skate hours. If that thing gets built (a big if), you could see a minor-league team in Reno. Until then, there's no chance unless the RSCVA wants to put money into the Reno Events Center (unlikely). So it seems like a long shot, although not an impossibility. A partnership would make a lot of sense and help the Golden Knights grow the brand in Nevada.

Very unlikely Mitchell Van Patten, a senior on the Nevada rifle team who hasn't competed yet in NCAAs, wins a national title, but I'd love to see it during his program's swan song season.

I'm pretty sure I saw ESPN's videographers using their iPhones to shoot the Nevada-New Mexico game. #SMDH

Ponytail guy for sure. At some point you must let go of your youth.

My shiny bald head (bottom right) is the No. 1 distraction. I'll take credit for opponents missing so many free throws at Lawlor Events Center. I've blinded them with bald. I deserve the free Jumbo Jacks.

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