DES MOINES, Iowa – In every game this season, the Wolf Pack has been the betting-line favorite.
For the most part, Nevada has held up under that pressure, winning 29 of 33 contests entering its NCAA Tournament game Thursday against Florida. And when the Wolf Pack takes the court at Wells Fargo Arena, it will do so again as a favorite – by 2 points. But make no doubt about it: Nevada, which has been ranked among the nation’s best all season, enters the NCAA Tournament as an underdog.
That is a role the Wolf Pack is best suited for. It is a role Nevada has thrived in. Earlier this season, when the Wolf Pack was 14-0 and ranked as high as fifth in the country, the Wolf Pack was a trendy Final Four pick by the national media. A couple of months later, few have Nevada getting past the Round of 32.
It’s the same situation the Wolf Pack was in last season when it pulled off a second-half rally to beat Texas before springing the Music City Miracle, Volume 2 to topple Cincinnati after trailing by 22 points in the second half, marking the second-largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history. Few expected anything great from Nevada last season, and despite its lofty ranking all year, few expect anything great this week.
Yes, the Wolf Pack has shown some weakness over the last couple of weeks, posting a pedestrian 5-3 mark in its last eight games. Two of those losses came to San Diego State, which wasn’t good enough for the NIT. Couple those defeats with a 27-point loss in January at New Mexico, which went 14-18, and if you’re searching for proof why Nevada won’t get to the Sweet 16, there it is.
The Wolf Pack probably won’t mind hearing it. This is a team that feeds on doubt and disbelief. The favored role never quite suited Nevada. Yeah, Nevada spent the entire season in the top 20, but this a roster of players who were under-recruited coming out of high school or discarded from their first college, with their coach, Eric Musselman, heading to college only after being abandoned by the NBA.
When you’re the underdog, the pressure seems lessened. That hasn’t been the case this year, with some Wolf Pack fans terming the team's 29-4 record and seventh seed – tied for the second best in school history – as a disappointment. The pressure isn’t fully off Nevada despite a lower seed. The Wolf Pack’s goal this season was to reach the Final Four, so simply making the NCAA Tournament or even winning just one game won’t suffice.
This group of players knows its legacy will ultimately be written by how far it advances in the Big Dance. If the 2018-19 Wolf Pack wants to be known as the best team in program history, it must get to the Sweet 16, at minimum, a major task considering the nation’s No. 8-ranked team, Michigan, would almost certainly be waiting if Nevada beats Florida in round one. But the Wolf Pack relishes the opportunity.
“We know we didn’t do our job to the best of our ability,” senior star Caleb Martin said of Nevada’s play up to this point in the season. “The NCAA Tournament just gives you a second crack at it to try and redeem yourself and show people you aren’t as bad as you’ve been playing.”
Over the last eight games, the Wolf Pack is 1-7 against the spread, which might not mean anything if you’re not a bettor. But beyond that, it’s a sign Nevada hasn’t been playing up to its potential over the last month, with the exception being the regular-season finale drubbing of SDSU on an emotional senior night.
During last week’s MW Tournament, Nevada looked average at best, barely getting past a 20-loss Boise State team before being ousted by SDSU while going seven minutes without a basket late in the game.
“The last seven minutes were some of the worst basketball we’ve played the entire year,” Martin said.
Those were the last seven minutes Nevada was on the floor, albeit without Jordan Caroline, who is the key to the Wolf Pack’s potential this week. Nevada’s heart and soul hasn’t been the same since a 40-point game at Colorado State on Feb. 6. Since then, Caroline, who is nursing an Achilles strain, has averaged 12.3 points per game on 35.4 percent shooting over nine games, his 3-point shot abandoning him – he’s made just 7-of-36 shots from three, 19.4 percent. Nevada isn’t beating Florida, let alone Michigan, with those numbers.
The Wolf Pack’s ultimate underdog – Caroline, a two-star recruit who turned into one of the nation's best players – needs to get back to his dominant ways for Nevada to advance. There’s a line of thought floating around that Nevada has been saving itself for the NCAA Tournament, a notion I don’t fully grasp. Musselman-coached teams don’t save itself. Every time it hits the floor, the Wolf Pack treats it like Game 7 of the NBA Final. But Nevada clearly has a higher level.
The team that smacked Utah State, an eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament, by 23 points is still in there. So is the team that ran through the Pac-12 trio of Arizona State, Utah and USC with minimal trouble.
The Wolf Pack’s main pieces – the Martin twins and Caroline – are all back from last year’s Sweet 16 run. Nevada was a relative unknown back then, a plucky underdog everybody rooted for. If the Wolf Pack stormed into this year’s tournament as a two or three seed like everybody expected when the season started, it would have shed that label. But as a seven seed?
“We had some losses that shouldn’t have been losses,” Cody Martin said. “We had slipups here and there. Of course, you want to be a higher seed. But at the end of the day we’re in the tournament.”
And they’re the underdogs again, just as Nevada likes it.
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.