When the NCAA Tournament selection committee convenes in March to put together the March Madness bracket, no game on Nevada’s résumé should be as important as the one the team will play Friday in Los Angeles.
“It’s a really big game for both teams,” Wolf Pack guard Jazz Johnson said of Nevada’s matchup with Arizona State at 9 p.m. at the Staples Center. “This game is going to play a major role in what happens in March. We just have to prepare the way we do and lock into the small details and hopefully we come out with a win.”
The Nevada-Arizona State game marks just the third time in the regular season a ranked Wolf Pack team has taken on a Top 25 opponents. The No. 6-ranked Wolf Pack takes on the No. 20 Sun Devils in a matchup of two of the nation’s 11 unbeaten teams. And with the Mountain West having a rough non-conference season, it’s unlikely the Wolf Pack gets another shot at a team of this caliber again this year.
“With us being a mid-major school and not being able to play those big-time schools in conference, it’s really important we take every game seriously," Johnson said. "We have to win every single game so when it comes down to it in March we’re highly considered and we can get the respect that hopefully we deserve.”
While Nevada (8-0) has cut through its non-conference schedule with relative ease, it’s been light on Quad 1 contests. The NCAA places each game in one of four quads with Quad 1 being reserved for the best opponents, based on their NET rankings. Nevada hasn’t played a Quad 1 game yet, but this neutral-site contest will almost certainly fit that distinction when the résumés are sifted through at season's end.
“Arizona State is really, really talented,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said. “They’re well-coached, they’re long, they’re athletic, they have scorers, they have a really special player, so it will be a big-time challenge for us for sure.”
Musselman said the Wolf Pack’s current four-game stretch is “without a question the hardest stretch of the season.” That period began with road wins over Loyola Chicago and USC and will culminate with neutral-site games against Arizona State on Friday and Grand Canyon on Sunday, the second being a quick turnaround in a different time zone (the game against the Antelopes will begin 39 hours after the game against the Sun Devils ends).
Arizona State might be the most talented team Nevada faces this year. The Sun Devils boast freshman Luguentz Dort, a projected first-round draft pick; Kimani Lawrence, Romello White, and Remy Martin, all top-100 recruits when they signed with Arizona State; and San Diego State transfer Zylan Cheatham, who is coming off the second triple-double in school history (he was one assist shy of another triple-double the game prior). The Sun Devils, who have five players averaging double-figures, are led by ex-Duke star Bobby Hurley.
“Their coach is an aggressive coach and he does a great job of getting his teams to play aggressive,” Musselman said. “They aggressively go to the offensive and defensive backboards. We’ve been good at rebounding the ball. It’s not like we’re panicked about rebounding. We have to do what we’ve done and are capable of. Having said that, Arizona State presents a lot of different problems for you. When plays break down, Dort is so good at creating his own shot. They can run offense and when plays break down he can find a seam in the defense and create plays for himself or for others.”
Arizona State also seems to be healing up heading into the game. Martin (ankle), Rob Edwards (back) and Mickey Mitchell (back) have all been limited but are at least 50-50 shots to play against Nevada, which will be favored despite coming from the lesser conference. After a gigantic second-half run netted the Wolf Pack a win over USC in its last game, Nevada looks for its second straight win over a Pac-12 foe.
“When we’re playing and we’re just clicking, you just know it and we’re a hard team to stop,” forward Tre’Shawn Thurman said. “I’m not trying to be cocky or anything, but we’re confident. We go on that practice floor and we work hard. It’s hard to stop guys who just work. We have a lot of hard workers on this team and when we’re clicking on all cylinders, I know how dangerous we are.”
And while the Wolf Pack’s profile has been raised in the national rankings, it also has increased in the nation’s airports.
“Things have changed for us,” Musselman said. “When we walk around airports now outside of our own airport guys are recognized. It’s great, but the bottom line is for a program that all of this is new, regardless of what happens in the next three games, they came out of the gates and they proved they could handle the added pressure, the added exposure and they’ve been real single-minded focused on what’s at hand, and that’s the next game.”
A close game needed?
The Wolf Pack has beaten every opponent it's faced this season by at least 10 points and hasn’t really been challenged in the final 10 minutes in any of those victories. While the goal is to ultimately win by as many points as possible, could Nevada use a close game or two so it has experience in that situation heading into March?
“I feel like most of us have played in a few close games,” center Trey Porter said, shrugging off the notion a close game was a necessity. “I think you want to win by as much as you can, but if it comes down to it in a close game, with this being a senior-laden team, I think we’ll be up to the test.”
With a roster full of fifth-year seniors, Nevada has plenty of experience, but it hasn’t been in any close games with this specific group, although the challenge presented by playing Arizona State could offer that.
“To win your games double-digits with so many new faces, to be playing offensively like we have been, to be ranked where we are, sometimes I can’t come up with words because I don’t think we felt like we could progress this quickly,” Musselman said. “But we also know one loss changes things and you have to figure out a way to regroup and get better. Up to this point, we’ve played great basketball.”
Playing in an NBA gym
About half of Nevada’s scholarship roster has played in an NBA arena before, but those who haven’t are looking forward to playing in the Staples Center.
“I’m crazy excited,” Thurman said. “Some of these guys last year got the opportunity to play there. It’s going to be interesting. I’ve never played in an NBA arena before. I understand it’s going to be big. There’s going to be a pretty decent crowd. Probably not enough to get crazy loud. But a lot of our guys haven’t played in an NBA arena. A lot of history there and a lot of stuff has happened in that arena.”
Said Johnson of the Staples Center: “Outside of Madison Square Garden, it’s kind of the Mecca of basketball for the West Coast.”
Musselman said playing in such a big venue is good preparation for the NCAA Tournament, where Nevada has played in NBA arenas each of the last two seasons.
“I think it’s a semi-reward,” said Musselman, whose team will play in the Phoenix Suns’ Talking Stick Resort Arena on Sunday. “Staples is one of the most famous arenas in the world in one of the biggest, nicest cities in the world. It’s neat, it’s unique for our guys. We’re staying in the same hotel as we did last week and will try and keep the same routine for the USC game. I think it’s good for our guys, good for fans, boosters and alumni who want to come. It makes it a little more intriguing and it helps in recruiting.”
Muss battles team where it began
When Musselman decided to take the college route after a couple of decades in the pro ranks, his first job came with Arizona State. He served as a Sun Devils assistant from 2012-14 and while few of the staffers remain from his tenure – he mentioned the trainer and sports information direction as being the same – his stint there was key.
“My time at Arizona State was awesome because college basketball was all new to me,” Musselman said. “I was learning on the job. They helped me way more than I helped them, just sitting back and trying to figure out this recruiting thing. I met some really important people, guys like Anthony Ruta, who are here and helping us. They’re a great program and a great school.”
Ruta was a graduate assistant at Arizona State when Musselman was hired by the Sun Devils. He came to Reno with Musselman, first as the team’s director of operations and as an assistant coach the last two seasons. Fellow Nevada assistant coach Brandon Dunson, who joined the staff prior to this season, played for Arizona State from 2010-11.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.