As Nevada headed into its three-day Christmas break following a 68-62 win over Akron on Saturday at Lawlor Events Center, Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman felt both like Santa and the Grinch.
On one hand, his team is ranked sixth in the country, is one of five undefeated teams in the nation at 12-0 and is playing superb and smothering defense that's reminiscent of the program's mid-2000 NCAA Tournament squads.
On the other hand, his team continues to get off to sleepy starts and its offense, which was stellar early in the season, has largely looked constipated over the last three weeks.
“I’m not happy because I don’t feel like we’re escalating upward right now,” Musselman said. “But it’s hard. They’re student-athletes and feel like when they walk in the building they’re going to win. We have to have an edge to start the game. We don’t have an edge of desperation to start the game. We can keep talking about it, but if, as a group, we’re not getting off to good starts offensively, how are we going to change it? Are we going to dig our feet in the sand and be more competitive out of the gate?”
That was the Grinch speaking, the perfectionist coach who sees a six-point win over average Akron (7-5) in a game his team was favored to win by 16. But then Santa spoke up.
“Maybe I need to chill and realize a six-point win against them is like a 15-point win against somebody else because of how they slow the ball down and control the tempo,” said Musselman, noting this was Akron’s most lopsided loss of the season (the Zips’ first four defeats came by a combined 14 points). “At the end of the day, all we are trying to do is figure out how to get a win. Not many teams are undefeated. There are teams that slip up who don’t get a win. We’ve done a great job of avoiding that.”
In many ways, Musselman feels like your average Wolf Pack fan. He’s proud his team is still unbeaten -- and just two wins shy of tying the best start in program history. But he’s also cognizant there’s a lot of unfulfilled potential right now, almost all of that coming on the offensive end.
“It’s the most frustrated I’ve been with us offensively in the four years since I’ve been here,” Musselman said. “It’s not the players’ fault. It’s the coaching staff’s fault.”
Musselman said it’s up to him to get his the Wolf Pack out of its offensive slump. Nevada scored just three points on its first 14 possessions against Akron (it was 1-of-9 with four turnovers). The Wolf Pack also missed its first 11 3-point attempts before making eight of its final 13 from beyond the arc. The team shot 42 percent from the field while getting to the free throw line 20 times after intermission.
“I just think so many people want us to get to the rim and all that stuff,” Caleb Martin said. “We’re not taking bad threes. They’re wide open, just missing, bobbling in and out, missing in and out. If, as a team, we make four or five more of those, nobody’s talking about bad shots and getting to the cup more. Then it’s a whole different story. We’re just missing a couple of shots we usually make.”
Credit Martin for playing a big part in Saturday's win. After Akron, which trailed by as many as nine points late, cut the deficit to three points with 1:41 remaining, Martin canned the dagger three to put Nevada up six with 44.1 seconds remaining. Martin also had three second-half blocks to wipe away baskets, including two on back-to-back shot attempts with 2:20 remaining.
Martin, who tied for game-high honors with 19 points while grabbing 10 rebounds, has vastly improved his defense this season, taking notes from his brother, Cody, the reigning Mountain West defensive player of the year, and trying to prove to pro scouts he’s more than a one-dimensional player.
“I’m trying to emphasize being a better defender because I was sick of people saying I wasn’t a good defender or I was too offensive minded,” said Martin, who has the fourth-best defensive rating on the team.
Jordan Caroline joined Martin with 19 points. The game was personal for Caroline, who was playing against Akron coach John Groce, who twice decided not to recruit him when he was the head coach of Illinois, Caroline’s hometown team. Caroline was assessed a technical foul in the first half when barking at an Akron assistant coach and admitted this one meant a little more to him.
“Yeah, it did,” he said with a smile.
Jazz Johnson, who returned after missing a game with a concussion, added 10 points on just three shot attempts (he hit two big threes). Tre’Shawn Thurman added eight points, nine rebounds and four assists. And Cody Martin chipped in seven points and five assists. But it wasn’t offense that won this game. It was a defense that held Akron to 35.9 percent shooting, including 28.1 percent in the first half.
“Last year, (Coach Musselman) was begging for us to hold a team to 40 (percent shooting),” Caleb Martin said. “Now we’re holding a team to 28 percent.”
Martin said it was a fine line focusing on defensive improvement without sacrificing something on offense, both personally and as a team. He didn’t seem concerned about the offensive woes, but did say Nevada has “the talent and pieces to be a dominant team,” which it hasn’t displayed in its last couple of games, which has led to some post-game criticism, both from the team’s coach and its players.
“I just think that’s self-expectation,” Caleb Martin said. “We know we’re a lot better team than that to win by six points. We hold ourselves to a really high standard. We know the type of talent we have, the type of people we have and type of staff we have, so we except so much out of ourselves. Even after games like this, it feels like we have a conversation that feels like a loss, but we’re thankful we’re still winning and are still undefeated.”
Musselman said he might change Nevada’s rotation as a result of the offensive struggles, and pointed out the good play of freshman Jordan Brown, who logged seven solid first-half minutes but didn’t play in the second half. Yes, there’s room for improvement, but this is the bottom line: Nevada is 12-0.
“For sure I’m not going to act like I’m disappointed in our guys,” Cody Martin said. “Not a lot of people can say they’re 12-0. Yeah, I do think we need to get a lot better. We’re really good, but we have a lot of things to get to work on and we have to make a conscious effort to get better at. But I’m not disappointed with my guys. Things can be a lot worse and some guys would love to be sitting in our position.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.