Nevada basketball coach Eric Musselman swears it wasn’t gamesmanship and he wasn’t being coy.
He truly thought there was a chance Jordan Caroline could miss No. 7-ranked Nevada’s season opener with an ankle sprain.
Caroline did miss five practices leading up to Tuesday’s showdown with BYU, but the thought of missing the first game of the most anticipated season in Wolf Pack basketball history never came close to crossing Caroline’s mind.
“Even if I had a cast on, I was playing,” Caroline said with a smile after Nevada’s 86-70 victory over the Cougars.
Not only did Caroline play. He dominated. While fellow seniors Caleb and Cody Martin have received more national attention this offseason, it’s Caroline who remains the heart and soul of the Wolf Pack. And it is Caroline who carried Nevada early on against BYU as the Martin twins sat on the bench saddled with foul trouble.
Caroline recorded a first-half double-double (13 points, 14 rebounds) as the Martins were held scoreless over 13 minutes, keeping Nevada tied at 34 at halftime. The cavalry then came in the second half en route to the Wolf Pack's 16-point win before an announced crowd of 11,094 fans, the 15th largest in Lawlor Events Center history.
“He was a big time,” Wolf Pack guard Jazz Johnson (who hit some crucial 3-pointers) said of Caroline. “Honestly, he held it together for us with Cody and Caleb being out with foul trouble. He was that steady offense we could go to and get ball into him and he would score or get fouled. Words can’t describe how important he was in that first half and ultimately how important he was in the win.”
Caroline finished with 25 points and 16 rebounds, which tied a career high. He made 8-of-16 shots and 9-of-14 free throws. He chipped in two assists without a turnover and added a steal while playing 38 minutes (no other Wolf Pack player reached 30 minutes). Nevada improved to 26-2 when Caroline has recorded a double-double in his career, his yeoman’s work in the first half being a key development in the BYU win.
“I thought JC did a great job of keeping us in the game from an offensive standpoint,” Musselman said.
After a sloppy first half for both teams – Nevada and BYU combined for more fouls (27) than made field goals (21) in the first half – the Wolf Pack’s defense remained strong in the second half as its offense took off.
Caleb Martin, who was pinned with two fouls and played only four minutes in the first half, scored 21 second-half points, and Johnson canned three 3-pointers during a key stretch midway through the second half to push the Wolf Pack’s lead into double-digits. Nevada scored just 34 points on 27 percent shooting in the first half before tallying 52 points on 51.7 percent shooting in the second half.
Musselman said his team “played a little bit tight” early on, especially shooting the ball, but he was pleased with the late response. Shooting remains a question mark for this team after Nevada made just 1-of-12 3-pointers in the first half before finishing the night hitting 8-of-28 shots from beyond the arc.
“Obviously a much better second half than first half,” said Musselman, who moved to 22-0 at home in non-conference games. “I thought defensively we made great strides, especially in the first half, from where we were in the two exhibition games. I thought our depth helped us. Obviously Jazz in the second half was a huge boost for us and there’s not going to be many halves where Cody and Caleb don’t score.”
Nevada’s defense, which was much maligned in the preseason and has been a focal point in practice after the Wolf Pack lost to Washington by 18 in its exhibition opener, was locked in from start to finish. Nevada held BYU to 37.7 percent shooting, including 6-of-31 from three, affirmation the Wolf Pack has made early progress.
“We’re still trying to figure this thing out,” Musselman said. “It’s important we figure it out and still try to win games while we figure it out. I truly believe two weeks from now we’ll be a lot better than we are today. We just have to keep trying to figure it out defensively. The guys who defend are going to be the guys who play.”
The Wolf Pack’s biggest advantage over BYU came at the free throw line, where Nevada was plus-16, the exact margin of victory. The Wolf Pack made 28-of-39 free throws to the Cougars’ 12-of-19. The game featured 47 fouls, which made play ragged at times but ultimately favored the home team.
“That’s pretty much the first couple of games every season where the officiating is pretty tough on calls,” Caroline said. “It’s nothing unexpected and each game has its own identity, and I think that was the identity of today’s game.”
Musselman has repeatedly said over the last month he’d prefer for colleges to get more exhibition games so coaches can get a better feel for their teams. That’s not the case as teams are limited to two preseason outings, and Musselman said he’s still not comfortable with his rotation. With three upcoming home games against lower-level squads – Pacific, Little Rock and Cal Baptist – Musselman will get a chance to tinker with his lineup.
“We’re still trying to figure out who we are,” he said.
A few days before his team’s season opener, Caleb Martin said he didn’t feel like Nevada was a top-10 team. After the win, he still feels that way because of how much the team can grow.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Martin said. “We had a good second half and stuff. I always think we have spurts where we show we can be a really good team and we could be a top-10 team. And we have spurts where we’re not even close. We have guys starting to step up, our starters are starting to gel and guys are coming in with the right mindset, but we have a long way to go and we’ve really gotten better these last two weeks and taken a lot of notes and gotten positive feedback from guys.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.