During Jordan Caroline’s first season at Nevada, a year that dovetailed with Eric Musselman’s hiring by the Wolf Pack, the 6-foot-7 star-to-be took the court for pre-game warmups for a game against Air Force.
“There were like 3,000 people here,” Caroline said of Nevada's home game at Lawlor Events Center, “and I turned to one of my teammates and said, ‘When does the game start?’ He was, like, ‘Five minutes.’”
The resurrection of the Nevada basketball program has been swift and stunning, the Wolf Pack going from seven wins against Division I opponents the year before Musselman was hired in 2015 to over-sized expectations in 2018. How big are the aspirations of Nevada as it opens its season Tuesday against BYU? While guarding against sounding too outlandish, the Wolf Pack is gunning for a national title, an unbelievable thought for a program that has won only six NCAA Tournament games in its history and now believes it can win the six NCAA Tournament games in one month required to be crowned national champs.
“That’s 100 percent what we’re shooting for,” guard Jazz Johnson said of winning the NCAA title. “If we believe anything else, if we think anything else about the way that our season should end, we’re selling ourselves short. There’s no other option but to think we can win a national championship.”
It's not just Johnson holding that belief. To a man, each member of the Wolf Pack is eyeing the crown.
Caleb Martin: “I don’t think anybody would ever been satisfied with losing before a national championship.”
Cody Martin: “Everybody’s goal is to do something special. I had the same goal last year as I do this year, and that’s to win a national championship.”
Tre’Shawn Thurman: “I don’t really want to talk about national championships this year, but that’s our goal, that’s what we’re looking forward to.”
Even Musselman poured gasoline on the expectations when he grabbed the mic during the team’s Silver & Blue Scrimmage and made a bold proclamation before the assembled students.
“We know that preseason rankings don’t mean anything,” Musselman said before a brief pause, “but we have enough talent in here to win a national championship.”
While those are the Wolf Pack’s hopes and dreams, the team knows the road between its first game of the season in November and its April aspirations will be covered with obstacles. Ranked a Mountain West-best seventh in the preseason AP Top 25, Nevada got a reminder of that this exhibition season.
The Wolf Pack was blown out by Washington by 18 points in its first exhibition game before trailing a Division II school – San Francisco State – at halftime of its second preseason game. The Wolf Pack returns an enviable amount of talent from last season – the Martin twins and Caroline are national-class players, as well as five proven Division I transfers and the second McDonald’s All-American in school history in Jordan Brown – but the preseason showed that teams will be gunning for Nevada and nothing will be easy.
“We’re not playing like a top-10 team to be honest with you,” Caleb Martin said. “That’s me personally. Say whatever you want, but until we show that, I’m not going to act like we’re a top-10 team until we prove that.”
Musselman said he’s confident in his trio of Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Caroline but is searching for their surrounding pieces and trying to figure out how they’ll fit as he enters his fourth season at Nevada, his first three being historic not only by the school’s standard but by national standards.
Musselman’s 81 wins since 2015-16 are tied for the fourth most for a coach in his first three seasons running a program. Of the six coaches with at least 81 victories in their first three seasons at a school, only Musselman didn't inherit a team that won at least 24 games in the year prior to his hiring. Musselman instead was given a 9-22 team and has gone from CBI champion to NCAA Tournament participant to Sweet 16 squad.
Anything shy of the Elite Eight this season would likely be considered a failure, the team being deep enough, talented enough and well coached enough it has no glaring holes and few potential weaknesses on paper. But that only means so much.
“You have to go out and prove it,” Musselman said. “That’s the bottom line.”
The Wolf Pack has enough talent the biggest story line this summer was whether Nevada’s chemistry would remain strong as it had more good players than minutes to pass out. It was almost as if people were trying to find a hole in the Wolf Pack that didn't exist. Players like Thurman, a standout at Omaha, said they’re willing to do whatever it takes to win, even if playing fewer minutes and scoring fewer points are part of their future.
“It’s really no fun,” Thurman said of scoring a lot of points for a losing team. “I came from a really good high school where we did a lot of great things and we had a lot of great teams and we beat a lot of great people. Coming to college and scoring a lot of points and losing, that’s just not my forte. Winning will get you where you want to be.”
Nevada's fan base is so enthused about this season it sold out season tickets two months before the team's first game, which arrives Tuesday against a BYU team that has won at least 20 games for 13 straight seasons. The Wolf Pack's march to March begins now, with Nevada's players believing something special is ahead.
“You don’t get chances like this very often,” Johnson said. “You have to dedicate yourself to an opportunity like this because not every team can say they have the talent that we have. We have to pounce on the opportunity we have.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.