The Nevada basketball team beat San Francisco State, 85-60, at the Virginia Street Gym in its final exhibition game of the season Friday night. Here are three takeaways from the Wolf Pack’s win.
1. Searching for a few good men
The final score shows Nevada won this game by 25 points, but that’s deceiving. The Wolf Pack led for 18:54. The Golden Gators led for 14:22. In fact, San Francisco State led for most of the first half, took a 39-38 lead into intermission and didn’t succumb the lead for good until Tre’Shawn Thurman hit a jumper for a 49-47 edge with 13:30 remaining in the game. The Wolf Pack defense allowed 50 percent shooting in the first half, including 7-of-18 threes, before buckling down in the second half, limiting San Francisco State to 25.9 percent shooting.
The first half was reminiscent of Nevada's second-half defense against Washington, in which it was carved up in an 18-point loss.
“The defense was terrible in the first half and in the second half we played like one of the teams I’ve coached here for the last three years,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman said. “But I thought the Washington second half and the first half of this game, it just doesn’t have the DNA of teams that I’ve coached before. Here at Nevada, we haven’t played like that.”
Musselman went on to add the team is looking for a fifth reliable player after Jordan Caroline, the Martin twins and Trey Porter, who again got limited minutes (just 14) but scored 14 points with five rebounds and four turnovers.
“We’re trying to figure out our rotation,” Musselman said. “It’s been a struggle. We just need a fifth guy to step up. That’s kind of where we are. We know Jordan Caroline and we know Cody and Caleb and certainly Trey Porter. (Tre’Shawn) Thurman is a guy now we have to count on.”
Thurman scored 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting with six rebounds in 18 minutes and earned himself future minutes. Losing minutes might be McDonald’s All-American Jordan Brown, who fell out of the starting lineup and was limited to 15 minutes (he scored seven points with one rebound).
“He has to defensive rebound and he’s got to learn all of our plays and know what we’re doing defensively,” Musselman said of Brown. “I think maybe we’re a little more complicated for a young player. It’s our job to try and keep bringing him along. There’s a five star at Washington and I don’t know if he got off the bench. There are a couple of four stars. It’s a learning curve. We have great confidence in him, he’s a great kid, but he just has to get in the lab and keep working and keep understanding what our identity is. The bottom line is we’re going to play whoever we think will win us a game. That’s our job as a coaching staff.”
2. Can Nevada shoot?
This is legitimate question.
One year after Nevada torched teams from three, the Wolf Pack has not shot well in its two exhibition games. The latest effort was a 5-of-27 effort from three against San Francisco State, a number that was actually boosted by some garbage-time threes. The Wolf Pack missed 21 of 22 threes at one stretch and does not appear to have a second reliable shooter behind Caleb Martin, who himself has struggled from beyond the arc. Now, it’s only two games, but the early returns on transfers Jazz Johnson, Corey Henson and Nisre Zouzoua from beyond the arc has not been great.
“In two games so far, just the shocking part is our off-the-bench players not making three-balls,” Musselman said. “It’s a big concern right now, Corey, Jazz and Nis making shots.”
Henson was 0-of-8 from the field, including 0-of-7 from three, but his defense (he had five steals) earned him 23 minutes. In the two exhibitions, Henson is 1-of-13 overall and 0-of-10 from three; Zouzoua is 1-of-9 overall and 1-of-4 from three; and Johnson is 2-of-6 overall and 1-of-3 from three. These are tiny sample sizes and each of these players sat out last season, so there could be rust that must be knocked off. Musselman also said his team might have had tired legs from practice.
“We’ve never had harder practices than we had Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so I do think the legs were a little tired,” Musselman said. “We went hard. Harder than I’ve ever gone since I’ve been here.”
Thurman confirmed the intensity of those practices.
“The hardest practices I’ve ever had in my life,” Thurman said. “Muss basically said it was an embarrassment we played like that (against Washington). It wasn’t that we lost, it was how we lost, so those were the hardest practices I’ve had.”
3. Looking for an identity
It’s unrealistic for a team to have a completely formed identity heading into its regular-season opener, but Musselman sounded concerned Nevada was not even approached an identity with the opener looming Nov. 6 against BYU, a team that has won at least 20 games for 13 straight seasons.
“We’ll relentlessly peruse an identity and right now we don’t have an identity,” Musselman said.
Musselman said his team’s identity in his first three seasons were pretty clear.
“Our identity last year was a cosmetically pleasing, shoot-a-lot-of-threes team, play fast, go on big-time scoring runs because of our scoring ability,” Musselman said. “In year one, our identity was a scrappy, gritty, nobody played tougher, nobody got more loose balls. It was a collective group. In year two, it was a mix between the two. This year, we’re a bigger team and not shooting the ball as well and we’re not rebounding as good as I thought we would, either. Defensively we have to get better, we have to rebound the ball better, so we have a lot of areas to cover.”
That could include a zone defense, which Musselman has rarely used in his first three seasons at Nevada. Musselman's dad, Bill, a two-time NBA head coach, loved the zone defense, so the younger Musselman said he could opt to lean on that scheme. The Wolf Pack did indeed play some zone versus San Francisco State.
“I had my sister send all of my dad’s books,” Musselman said. “I got up today at about 3:30 in the morning. I’ve never taught the zone really. Just trying to figure everything out we possibly can. There’s a reason we’ve played really good at the end of the year for three years. That’s because we have to keep tinkering. It’s our job as a staff to not say, ‘We’re playing this one style and that’s it.’”
Thurman knows what he wants Nevada’s identity to be: “Electricity. Bloody mouth. And floor burns.”