The Internet has been fawning over the Nevada basketball team this offseason.
It’s easy to see why. The Wolf Pack returns four starters from a 28-win team that reached the Sweet 16 a season ago. It has bona fide stars in Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline. It added a McDonald’s All-American (Jordan Brown) and instant-impact grad transfer (Trey Porter) this offseason. And four high-level transfers who sat out last season are now eligible, adding enviable depth.
Every publication has Nevada rated as a top-10 team, some as high as No. 4 in the nation. The Wolf Pack has every necessary ingredient – pro talent, NBA-level coaching, balance, length, depth, ridiculous experience – to make a Final Four run, so it’s easy to understand why everybody has been praising the Wolf Pack.
But there’s a danger here. The hype for this team has been unreal and unprecedented, which gave the Wolf Pack two paths this offseason – ignore it or embrace it.
“That was the million dollar question,” head coach Eric Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack has embraced it. Heavily. Instead of tuning out praise to try and keep distractions from creeping in, Nevada has gone the other direction, blasting any and all positive press from its social media accounts. Why?
“Our job is to recruit and promote the program and promote the university above everything else,” Musselman said. “Right now, we’re promoting this university in a big light nationally. We take great pride in that, so we’re going to promote as much as we can our school and our program.”
But that doesn’t mean Nevada thinks it’s accomplished anything this season. While publicly embracing that hype, the Wolf Pack staff has been drilling players behind closed doors about the perils of too much hubris. Musselman grants the fact his team has tons of potential, but he also cautions that could be wasted if the team doesn’t take the same workmanlike mentality it has in his first three years in Reno.
“It’s our job every day when we come in here to let the guys know a lot of failures have happened, that this is awesome for the Northern Nevada community, there’s a lot of hype, and it’s awesome, but there’s a lot of responsibility with that and there are a lot of teams that have failed that have been in this exact same position,” Musselman said. “We have to understand that. And if you watch us play, we play really hard. We don’t play like a team that has accomplished anything. If there’s a loose ball on the floor, guys are diving. Every day there is a near injury because of how hard we play. I don’t think that our guys are walking around here acting like they’ve done anything. I think they know we have a really hard schedule and a tough road ahead of us.”
One of the reasons the Wolf Pack believes it won’t be one of those cautionary tales of preseason hype and postseason fizzle is because of its leadership. The Martin twins and Caroline turned down a shot at the NBA to return to Nevada for their senior seasons to forge forward on a season to remember rather than one they’re regret forever. They’ve tried to set a standard that will be failure proof.
“Half the people who were on our team last year when we made that run aren’t even here,” Caleb Martin said of departed contributors Kendall Stephens, Josh Hall, Hallice Cooke and Elijah Foster. “We’re off to an 0-0 game, back to square one. We’re really trying to ingrain that in guys’ heads. We haven’t done anything. It’s cool what we did last year, but the year’s over with. Nobody’s going to remember what we did last year. You can reminiscent or whatever, but it’s all about what’s coming up. We have a really hard non-conference schedule and we have to prepare for that or we’re going to get smacked in the mouth.”
The Wolf Pack will almost certainly begin the season with the highest ranking in program history (the school record is No. 9 late in the 2006-07 campaign). As a preseason top-10 team, Nevada won’t be able to sneak up on the competition as it has in recent seasons.
“Obviously we know there’s attention there, but that just comes with a lot of responsibility,” Cody Martin said. “The biggest thing is we have to be mature with it moving forward. We understand we have a big target on our back. If we’re ranked in the top 10, top 25 or not even ranked, we have to approach it the same way. We just know with that comes a lot of responsibility and we have to come ready to work every day. We can’t live off that ranking because every team will be focused on us.”
Nevada solved its two biggest weaknesses from last season – a lack of depth and a lack of height – this summer when four 2017-18 sit-out transfers became eligible and with the additions of Brown and Porter, who are both listed as 6-foot-11. The Wolf Pack had an elite offense last season, but its defense was average. The length and shot-blocking ability of Brown and Porter could take Nevada to the next level.
“We’re super long this year, super athletic,” Caleb Martin said. “We have rim protectors now. It’s something we missed. We didn’t really have the size. We’re not going to sit there and try and play ‘ole’ defense and rely on our shot blockers, but it gives you a sense that somebody has your back.”
If the Wolf Pack does have a Kryptonite, it could be too much talent for too few minutes. That is typically a good problem to have – and Nevada surely doesn’t mind resolving its depth issues in Musselman’s first three seasons – but one thing the staff has preached all summer and at the start of training camp is unselfishness. Musselman has been impressed by his players’ willingness to put team before self so far.
“I can be critical and overly honest,” Musselman said of his typically blunt assessment of his team. “I’m really happy, and I’m not a happy guy usually. I feel good. I feel like we had a really, really good summer. I feel like we’re in the best shape we’ve ever been, and we’ve always been in great shape. I think we have a team that is very serious-minded. The biggest concern is we have nine, 10 guys who think they can play and want to play and that dilemma won’t be addressed, solved, whatever until we play against BYU (in the season opener) at halftime. And then I’ll look out there and there will be some guys who didn’t get the minutes they want and then I’ll have to decide what to do.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.