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From title aspirations to first-round exit: What happened to Nevada?

Caleb Martin
Caleb Martin and the Wolf Pack fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (Julian Del Gaudio/NSN)

DES MOINES, Iowa – During halftime of Nevada’s Silver & Blue Scrimmage at the Virginia Street Gym in October, Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman took the microphone to thank the students in attendance.

“We know that preseason rankings don’t mean anything,” an energized Musselman said to the crowd. “But we have enough talent in here to win a national championship.” The fans buzzed with excitement.

While it can be absurd a season is judged on what happens in a tournament in March rather than what happened over the first 4 1/2 months of a season, and while it’s absurd in some way Nevada has become a program that NCAA Tournament wins are expected, the question lingers: How did the Wolf Pack go from having national championship potential to a first-round NCAA Tournament exit, Nevada losing Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena to a nondescript Florida team that failed to finish above .500 in SEC play?

After starting the season 24-1, how did Nevada lose four of its final nine games, including its last two, back-to-back defeats for the first time since December 2017? Here’s a breakdown on what went wrong.

Offensive stagnation

Here were Nevada’s assist totals in its first four games: 19, 21, 22 and 19. That didn’t last, especially at the end of the season. The Wolf Pack offense that was one of the nation’s best last season ground to a halt near the end of this year. Nevada failed to make more than 38 percent of its shots in three of its last six games, each being losses. In all of those games, the Wolf Pack was held to eight assists or less.

In Nevada’s final two losses – defeats to San Diego State and Florida – the Wolf Pack combined for just nine assists, five against the Aztecs and four against the Gators. The ball simply didn’t move enough.

“I think we got stagnant as a group, including myself,” said Cody Martin, who tried to pin the blame on himself after the loss to Florida despite playing the best offensive game of any Wolf Pack player.

Martin had zero assists against the Gators, marking only his third game at Nevada with no assists.

“I'm the point guard who has no assists,” Martin said. “I mean, I’ve got to do a better job of moving the ball. We had four assists as a team to their 10. I mean, that's on me. I’ve gotta control the pace better and control the tempo, make sure we get our teammates involved. I didn't do a good job of that.”

Nevada had the 27th-ranked offensive, per KenPom, but it never hit the level achieved last season.

The defense weakened

The Wolf Pack entered the season knowing it had to improve a lot defensively to get to the Final Four. And it did improve a lot, especially in the beginning of the season. But that defense got less staunch as the year went on and simply wasn’t strong enough in the end to overcome a faulty offense.

In its last seven games, the Wolf Pack allowed 103 points per 100 possessions. Prior to that, Nevada yielded just 92.9 points per 100 possessions. Over that final three-week stretch, the Wolf Pack was 10 points per 100 possessions worse on defense, which cost it against Florida, a team that struggled to score for most of the season. The Wolf Pack was unable to keep the Gators out of the lane for much of the game and while Musselman’s decision to press Florida after Nevada fell behind by 18 points was a brilliant move and helped the Wolf Pack get back in the game, the defense couldn’t seal the victory.

“We just didn't get the stops we needed,” said Cody Martin, the offensive issues not helping the cause.

The stars struggled

In the team’s first 26 games, Jordan Caroline was en route to the Mountain West player of the year award and All-America consideration. The senior forward was averaging 18.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game while scoring in double-figures every time he hit the court. But following the team’s game at Wyoming, a game in which Caroline said he aggravated a foot injury, things took a turn.

Over the last eight games, Caroline averaged 11.5 points, nine rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. He went from shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 43.5 percent from three in the first 26 games to shooting 33 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from three in the last eight games. His free throw percentage dipped from 66.7 percent to 48.9 percent. Whether it was the foot injury or something else, Caroline’s five lowest-scoring games of the season came in Nevada’s final eight contests. He was held to single-digit points in four of those games after that not happening once time in Nevada’s first 26 games.

Caroline sat out Nevada’s MW Tournament semifinal against SDSU to rest his foot, but it didn’t spark him against Florida. The Gators held Caroline to seven points on 2-of-11 shooting while limiting Caleb Martin to 19 points on 5-of-22 shooting. Those two combined for more turnovers than field goals.

“I thought we contested a lot of shots but they missed a few, especially late in the game,” Florida coach Mike White said. “I thought both the Martin twins had a few open looks, and sometimes it’s a make-or-miss game and we were fortunate. Beyond that, I don't know that we did anything really special.”

Not enough shooting

Nevada ranked 25th in the NCAA last season hitting 39.2 percent of its threes. It was far less accurate this season, making just 34.7 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked 161st in the country.

A common theme in Nevada’s five losses this season was poor 3-point shooting. In each of its losses, the Pack failed to hit more than 28 percent of its threes. The team made 28-of-118 3-pointers in its defeats, hitting at a 23.7 percent clip. In its victories, Nevada made 36.5 percent of its threes, a good rate but not an elite one. While Nevada improved defensively after the loss of Kendall Stephens, it wasn’t able to replace his elite shooting as Stephens played a huge role in Nevada’s 2018 NCAA Tournament wins.

Nevada’s 3-point shooting took a dip in March, with three of its eight worst 3-point shooting games this season coming in the final month of the year. In Nevada’s last two games, both losses, the Wolf Pack made just 11-of-48 3-pointers (22.9 percent). Against Florida, the Wolf Pack was 5-of-24 from three (20.8 percent), including 2-of-18 in the second half. Some of the credit must go to the Gators, who have an elite defense and threw a late 1-3-1 zone at Nevada that forced the Wolf Pack into taking threes.

“You know, we've been really good defensively all year,” said White, whose team ranks 14th nationally in defense. “I'm looking at their offensive numbers and we have had a lot of performances like that.”

The level of competition

It was always hard to judge Nevada this season given its schedule. The Wolf Pack tried to ramp up its slate, adding three Pac-12 teams (all away from home), a 2018 Final Four team (Loyola Chicago) and two traditionally excellent mid-majors in South Dakota State and BYU. But it didn’t materialize into the kind of high-level competition the Wolf Pack was hoping for as only one of those foes made the Big Dance.

Combined with a weakened MW, Nevada played only two NCAA Tournament teams all season (Arizona State and Utah State) as well as two NIT teams (Loyola Chicago and South Dakota State). Only eight of the Wolf Pack’s 33 games heading into the NCAA Tournament were against KenPom top-100 teams. Florida, by comparison, played 14 games against NCAA Tournament teams to Nevada’s three.

Nevada had the talent to play with the nation’s best, but it got so few chances during the season against those teams it could not have been fully prepared for what it was going to face in Florida, whose roster included eight top-100 national recruits and athleticism the Wolf Pack rarely saw this season.

The lack of quality opponents and quality wins also hurt Nevada's NCAA Tournament seed, making a run in the event even more unlikely.

Slow starts

Nevada overcame a couple of big deficits this season, rallying out of sizable holes to beat Pac-12 foes Arizona State and USC in non-conference play. But in its losses to Utah State, San Diego State and Florida over the final six games, Nevada was unable to completely dig out of big holes.

Credit the Wolf Pack for its fight, perseverance and determination. This team didn’t quit, and it never will under Musselman. When Nevada was down 18 points with less than 14 minutes to play against Florida, the Wolf Pack looked like toast. But, as it almost always does, Nevada mounted a ferocious charge to cut the deficit to two points with 3 minutes, 30 seconds remaining. Alas, it couldn’t come up with key baskets or key stops in the final few minutes, the same story as Nevada’s losses to SDSU in the MW Tournament and at Utah State with a share of the MW regular-season title on the line.

“Realistically,” Cody Martin said after the loss to Florida, “the problem was we didn’t start off in the first half and that seems to be what we do all the time, and this time we just couldn't get over the hump.”

Unlike last year when Nevada repeatedly rallied out of big holes to win, the Wolf Pack didn’t have the offensive firepower to do so on a regular basis this season, the lack of 3-point shooting a chief culprit.

Team chemistry

False rumors aside, the Wolf Pack’s chemistry late this season was not ideal, and that bore fruit in the lack of cohesive ball movement during games. Nevada’s chemistry has always been a big positive under Musselman, but over the last month of this year not only was it not a positive, it was a negative. The Wolf Pack still played hard but the togetherness usually displayed by this program was missing in March.

The final evaluation

At the beginning of the season, I did an analysis of the last 100 preseason AP top-10 teams in the nation (basically the preseason top 10 in each of the last 10 years). Nevada started this season seventh in the AP Top 25 and stuck in the top 10 past Valentine’s Day after compiling a 24-1 record. Of those 100 preseason top-10 teams, 83 percent of them won at least one NCAA Tournament game while 47 percent of them reached the Elite Eight or better. Given Nevada’s preseason ranking and the history of top-10 teams, it was almost three times more likely the Pack would reach the Elite Eight than be one-and-done.

But that ended up being Nevada’s fate. So while it would be wrong to say a team that went 29-5, won a regular-season conference title and reached the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season was a disappointment, it wasn’t what everybody, the team included, was expecting out of the 2018-19 season.

“I hope on our way out people understand and think we represented our community and Nevada the best we could, not only on the court but off the court, having character guys, being good kids, putting other people first besides ourselves,” Cody Martin said. “I hope people understand how much work we put in and how much we sacrificed to get to this point, and there are a lot of people who helped us get to this point. Unfortunately, we didn't get as far as we wanted to, and at the end of the day I'm not satisfied with how it ended. But I'm really glad we got to go this far with this group of guys.”

Added Jazz Johnson: “Like Cody said, we didn't get as far as we wanted, but we made a lot of memories and we will be brothers forever.”

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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