The Nevada basketball team hasn’t gotten off to great starts the last couple of games, but don’t expect head coach Eric Musselman to tinker with his starting lineup, which has been the same for all 12 games.
“We’re not going to change the starting lineup,” Musselman said in advance of Nevada’s contest Saturday at Utah. “If we get out to a slow start, hopefully we can still figure out a way to win.”
It would be unfair to say Nevada has gotten out to slow starts this season. In fact, the Wolf Pack defense has been really strong to start games. It’s the offense that has been lacking early in games. But Musselman doesn’t believe it is a long-term issue or one tied to the team’s starting personnel.
His staff has discussed changes, but he likes the starting five of Caleb and Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Tre’Shawn Thurman and Trey Porter, with Jazz Johnson providing instant-impact scoring off the bench.
“We’ve talked about lineup changes, but if you start Jazz Johnson then where are you getting your shooting pop off the bench?” Musselman said. “Those are all things you sit around as a staff and throw them out, and we might have guys who are starting and that’s how they see themselves as being able to contribute the best. We like the fact we’re nationally ranked and we like the fact we’re 12-0 and we like the fact we’ve played six games away from home and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”
Musselman has largely bristled at questions about his team’s slow starts and would rather focus on the bigger picture, which has Nevada as one of only five unbeaten teams in the nation. Are there things the Wolf Pack can improve upon? Of course. But he likes his team’s chances over the course of a full game.
“The bottom line with coaching decisions is, ‘How do you win a game over 40 minutes?’” he said. “It’s interesting because whether you’re 0-12 or 12-0, people are going to try and say stuff about your team. ‘Slow start. Don’t look as good offensively. How do you correct those two things?’ If it wasn’t those two things it’d be, ‘What are the halftime adjustments?’ For me, it’s 40 minutes. Each game you’re going to look really good during stretches and each game you’ll look stagnant in some way, shape or form.”
The Wolf Pack has made major gains defensively this season but has not been as good offensively as it was last year, with the majority of the difference coming from the 3-point line. The Wolf Pack believes it's just missing open shots and those will start to fall, especially at the start of games, over time.
“We have great energy, we’re understanding the scout, shots just are rolling around at the beginning,” said Thurman, who has made just one 3-pointer in the last four games (he hit eight in the first eight games). “Maybe we can get to the line or force the issue and get to the paint earlier. We’re getting good shots. Guys are making extra passes and extra efforts to get guys open looks. We’re just missing a lot of wide-open shots. If you watch the clips of the games, we’re just missing a lot of wide-open shots right now.”
Playing a true road game for the first time since a Dec. 1 contest at USC, the Wolf Pack would prefer not to dig itself a hole early, but it has the knowledge it can get out of said deficit if it does face one yet again.
“Definitely trying to get off to better starts,” Johnson said. “Offensively continue to improve. These last four or five games we’ve been on a little skid and it’s really important we find a way to get our offense together as our defense has been improving. We have to find a balance on both sides of the court.”
The Wolf Pack was given three days off over Christmas break and Musselman and his players agreed the team returned to practice with a renewed enthusiasm, which could translate to Saturday’s game.
“I thought the practice after Christmas was as good a practice as I’ve ever had at any level,” Musselman said. “Usually that practice is a little bit sloppy or somebody is late, but our guys were really, really focused. I was impressed with the maturity that they showed after having a break and hopefully it will carry over and bleed over into the game.”
Johnson feeling good post-concussion
Johnson, the Wolf Pack’s top 3-point shooter, said he’s feeling good after missing a game earlier this month following a concussion. It was the second concussion Johnson suffered this calendar year.
“I had one this summer, but it wasn’t as bad as this last one,” Johnson said. “During the whole protocol thing, I was just trying to lay low and not aggravate anything in my head. As soon as I was cleared to get shots up, I was back in the gym shooting. It’s definitely scary. I guess that’s why we have the protocol. No matter how good I feel, there’s a certain amount of time you have to take off. I’m glad that we have that protocol so I don’t have to worry about an early concussion again.”
Johnson said he suffered the concussion during Nevada’s win over Grand Canyon on Dec. 9.
“The first screen was at half court,” Johnson said. “I think it was in the second half, earlier in the second half. There was a second screen that I hit basically at the end of the game. That was the one that made it worse, but the first one was the initial concussion.”
Johnson missed the team’s next game but returned last week against Akron and scored 10 points on 2-of-3 shooting. He said the time off helped him a little physically.
“I feel good out there,” Johnson said. “I honestly feel like I kind of needed that little break for my legs. I just wish it wasn’t for a concussion. But I feel good.”
Nevada aims to improve from three
The Wolf Pack started the season shooting the three-ball well, but that shot has gone AWOL of late.
Nevada has made just 27-of-103 3-pointers over its last four games (26.2 percent) after hitting at a 38.5 percent clip (74-of-192) over its first eight contests. While raving about his team’s defense, Musselman expressed confidence the team’s collective shooting stroke will return to its early-season form.
“We want to constantly try and get better from an offensive standpoint,” he said. “I think every team after every game tries to find areas where you can get better. We’re a much improved defensive team from where we’ve been in the past and right now we’re winning games from a defensive standpoint. We don’t want to lose that at all and hope we can make some more shots from the perimeter. We feel like we will. We make them in practice and made them earlier in the year. We’ve gone through a little bit of a slump, no different than a hitter in baseball.”
The MUSS vs. The Muss Buss
Utah’s student section is called “The MUSS,” but as you might guess it is not a reference to the Wolf Pack’s head coach. Instead, it stands for the “Mighty Utah Student Section,” with the acronym established in 2002 and the student section being voted among the top five in the nation by ESPN and NCAA.com.
The Wolf Pack started its own “Muss” student section last year, calling it The Muss Buss. The team has produced a number of T-shirts that have become must-own items for Wolf Pack fans across the country.
“It’s been a nine-month thing, but our students really love coming in and getting free shirts and we’re fortunate we have a bunch of boosters who have bought the shirts to give away to students," Musselman said. "It’s cool. It really is. Nationally now, I have friends who will text or call and say, ‘Hey, can I get one of those shirts?’ It’s been neat and hopefully it will continue to grow.”
A long-term scouting report
In a fun twist, Utah’s best player, Sedrick Barefield, played against Wolf Pack graduate assistant, Michael Musselman (son of the head coach) for a state championship when both were in high school.
Musselman’s Monte Vista Mustangs upended Barefield’s Centennial Huskies in a 2014 CIF title game in Sacramento. Musselman helped limit Barefield to 16 points on 5-of-20 shooting in Monte Vista’s 66-55 win. The state championship was the Danville, Calif.,-based Monte Vista’s first state title in any sport.
“I was at the game in the Kings arena,” Musselman said of the 2014 contest. “Centennial against Monte Vista. Monte Vista won a closely contested game and won a state championship in California, so I have seen Sedrick play for quite some time.”
Some not-so-good streaks
If history is any indicator, Utah could have some advantages in this game. Consider:
* Nevada is 0-10 all-time against Utah, its worst record against one opponent by a wide margin (the Wolf Pack’s second-worst record is 0-5 against UCLA, North Carolina and Texas Tech). Worth noting the last time Nevada and Utah played was 1987.
* Utah has won 14 consecutive non-conference home games dating to Nov. 25, 2016, a loss to then-No. 18 ranked Butler. This year, the Utes are undefeated in the Huntsman Center (5-0).
* The last time Nevada played in the Huntsman Center was the 2006 NCAA Tournament when it was upset in the first round by No. 12 seed Montana, 87-79. The coach of the Grizzlies that season was Larry Krystkowiak, who is now Utah’s coach.
* Finally, Utah is looking for its first win over a top-10 non-conference opponent since Dec. 3, 2014 when the Utes downed No. 8 Wichita State at home in overtime.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.