When he looked at his bench last season, Nevada’s Eric Musselman saw more questions than answers.
And while his bench in the early portion of this season is thinner than expected, he’s becoming more confident there is consistent firepower among his reserves that we haven't seen in his first three seasons with the Wolf Pack.
In No. 6-ranked Nevada's 87-59 rout of Little Rock on Friday night before 10,273 fans at Lawlor Events Center, the bench duo of Jordan Brown and Jazz Johnson helped lift the Wolf Pack to its third straight comfortable win to start the season. Brown, a McDonald’s All-American, had his first career double-double, posting 12 points and 11 rebounds and Johnson gave Nevada an early spark before finishing with 17 points and four assists. They both made 5-of-7 field-goal attempts.
“Tonight we got incredible great bench play,” Musselman said. “Jordan Brown off the bench with a double-double, and I thought Jazz Johnson continues to kind of open up the game for us with his 3-point shooting. Those two guys in particular really had a huge impact on the game for us tonight.”
They were not alone as starters Cody Martin (14 points, 10 assists) and Jordan Caroline (17 points, 12 rebounds) notched double-doubles and Caleb Martin scored a team-high 19 points. The Wolf Pack (3-0) led wire-to-wire over Little Rock (2-1) and recorded its third consecutive victory with each increasing in margin, a 16-point win over BYU followed by a 22-point win over Pacific followed by a 28-point win over Little Rock.
“We should have that kind of mentality every time we step on the court, to go out there and prove ourselves and to make a statement and to let people know who Nevada is and at the end of the day play our way and just play good basketball,” Cody Martin said. “Coach preaches that and basically just stick to our principles and not change that for anybody. A lot of that is just playing hard, playing with heart and playing unselfish and everything will take care of itself.”
Nevada trumpeted its depth entering this season but basically played just eight guys against Little Rock, with walk-on David Cunningham the ninth to see the court after grabbing two minutes at the end of the rout. Corey Henson was not at the game with what Musselman called a personal issue – “Day-to-day” – and freshmen K.J. Hymes, Vincent Lee and Jalen Townsell didn’t suit up because they’re likely to redshirt.
That left Nevada with minimal numbers on the bench but not minimal production. Brown has been a reserve since starting the exhibition opener against Washington and has posted strong back-to-back games. He was more efficient Friday night and added excellent rebounding and interior shot-blocking.
“He keeps getting better and better,” Musselman said. “The last two weeks of practice he’s stepped up. He’s pushing himself to where he was prior and his practice habits right now are phenomenal. When you come from high school and are surrounded by guys like Caroline and the Martins, Jordan has gone hard ever since he got here, but now from a physical standpoint, the weight room is really important for him, he has a high-motor and he’s practicing hard and add in fact he's more confident and physically he’s improving and it’s really benefiting him tremendously.”
A star his entire life, Brown said it’s been good coming off the bench because he can get a feel for the flow of the game. He was forced into action early Friday as starting center Trey Porter fell into quick foul trouble and lasted only 11 minutes before fouling out. There was no drop-off with Brown in the game.
“Coming into college, just seeing the flow of the game, seeing how my teammates play and how they’re out there with energy, I think just give it some time I’m going to break out of my shell,” Brown said.
Johnson also has taken to his bench role. A starter who averaged 35 minutes per game at Portland before a transfer to Nevada, the 5-foot-10 guard has become a spark plug as a Wolf Pack reserve. He’s hit double-figures in all three games this season, his 17 on Friday being a high at Nevada. Johnson has made three 3-pointers in each game and is 9-of-17 from beyond the arc, his instant offense giving the team a huge lift.
“Just 3-point shooting, energy and continually trying to get better on defense,” Johnson said of what he tries to add off the bench. “Muss stresses the ability for us to make shots and me having that ability to come off the bench and do that for us is my job basically.”
Nevada's starters helped the team grab an early double-figure advantage it never relinquished. Caroline scored 12 first-half points and Cody Martin was in control of Nevada’s offense, which shot 53.6 percent, from start to finish. Martin has hit double-figure in assists in each game this season, his transformation to the team’s full-time point guard going exceedingly well.
“He’s got the keys to the car,” Musselman said. “He calls me off on plays and he’s a next-level point guard. He’s got a great basketball IQ, he’s letting the game come to him, not forcing shots, not taking bad shots and his defense, their kid (Markquis) Nowell is pretty good and he holds him to 2-of-12 (shooting) and the kid had 34 points in his first college game. Cody had him completely frustrated.”
Noewell wasn’t the only frustrated Trojan. Little Rock shot just 34.9 percent from the field, including 8-of-30 from three. It was the third straight game the Wolf Pack held the opponent to a low percentage from beyond the arc, something it did with regularity last season as well.
“He drills it in our head,” Cody Martin said of Musselman’s insistence on being a good defensive team against the three. “He emphasizes it more than anybody in the country."
Nevada’s caps its season-opening four-game homestand Monday against Cal Baptist, a first-year Division I school that should be equally overwhelmed by the Wolf Pack, before heading to Las Vegas for two neutral-court games. That starts five straight games away from Lawlor Events Center – four being on neutral courts – before the Wolf Pack returns home Dec. 15 against South Dakota State.
“I don’t know the announced attendance tonight, but our student section is insanely good right now and everybody understands that Monday is our last game here for like a month,” Musselman said. “That’s a really long time for a team not to play at home. Anybody who likes watching us play we’d like to have them back on Monday because you won’t see us for a really, really long time.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.