Nevada and transfer-heavy roster can make NCAA noise

Duke Ritenhouse, Reno Gazette Journal
Published 6:47 a.m. ET March 14, 2019 | Updated 6:56 a.m. ET March 14, 2019


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Nevada’s basketball season began on Nov. 6. It only seems much longer ago.

Long before opening with an 86-70 win over BYU, the Wolf Pack was under the national microscope for essentially the first time in program history. With a veteran, senior-heavy team returning from a Sweet 16 run in 2018, the hype and the expectation reached levels never seen before in Reno.

A Mountain West title? A given, the experts said.

An undefeated regular season? Sure, why not?

A deep run into the NCAA Tournament? Of course.

How about a first-ever Final Four appearance? Hey, if the ball bounces the right way …

The unprecedented attention began for real in late May last year, when forward Jordan Caroline and guards Caleb Martin and Cody Martin withdrew from the NBA draft to return for their senior seasons. It only intensified when the Wolf Pack was handed a No. 9 preseason ranking in the USA TODAY coaches poll and No. 7 in AP, highest spot ever for a program that began Division I basketball in the 1969-70 season.

Luckily for No. 17 Nevada, it had in place an ideal head coach to help manage those expectations. Eric Musselman, a basketball lifer who was coaching professionals at 23, has seen and heard it all during his time in the college ranks, two NBA stops, and a number of smaller pro leagues. He knew the first job in the off-season would be to get a handle on the hype.

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“We have shown our guys a ton of preseason top 25 teams that did not make the (NCAA) tournament,” Musselman said as the season approached. “We’ve still got to get into that tournament somehow, and it’s really hard. … The minute we lose sight of that, we’re going to be one of those teams that, a year from now, someone else is talking about (missing the tournament).”

There’s no longer any danger of that, of course. Nevada wrapped up a 28-3 regular season by holding San Diego State to 16 second-half points in a thorough 81-53 win Saturday. With a share of the Mountain West title in hand, the Wolf Pack enters the conference tournament as the top seed. Nevada plays in the quarterfinals at 3 p.m., ET Thursday against eighth-seeded Boise State.

Following an unbeaten non-conference record (a program first) Nevada’s three losses came in Mountain West road games. And only one — by 27 points at New Mexico — was truly a sub-par performance.

“I think because of the national pressure — it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced —these guys did a great job all year long,” Musselman said. “We played one bad game. We’re 31 games in, and we played a bad game against New Mexico.”

With a thoroughly modern coach like Musselman leading the way, it’s little  surprise that Nevada’s roster reflects the times — namely, it’s populated almost entirely with transfers. The Wolf Pack’s top seven in minutes played are transfers, as are the top six scorers. They are the current result of a program philosophy that’s seen 15 incoming transfers during Musselman’s three-plus seasons with Nevada.

Probably the most well-known of that group is Nevada’s current “Big Three” of Caroline and the Martin brothers, all of whom have been instrumental in the Pack’s turnaround from Mountain West afterthought to national relevance. The three have play in 237 combined games for Nevada, making it difficult to picture them in anything but Wolf Pack jerseys, but that’s certainly not how things began.

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Here’s a look at how the team was built:

* Caroline, out of Champaign, Ill., played for Southern Illinois as a freshman in 2014-15, averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds.

After deciding to transfer, he was one of Musselman’s first targets in 2015. His recruiting visit to Reno included what has now become a legendary lunch stop that seems to grow with each telling. “He put down like 40 wings,” Musselman said earlier this season. “I’m not joking, either. He was just downing wings.”

* Caleb Martin, reigning Mountain West player of the year, picked up where he left off. He leads Nevada in scoring (19.6 points a game) and is one of the favorites — along with Utah State’s Sam Merrill — to win the MW’s 2019 player of the year award. He and his brother played two seasons for one Wolfpack (North Carolina State) before going across the country to join another.

* Cody Martin, older than his brother by a minute, has the less flamboyant role, but he’s in charge of running the Pack’s offense. With point guard Lindsey Drew’s Achilles injury last season forcing him to miss the 2018-19 campaign, Martin has become more accustomed to the point. He’s averaging a career-best 5.1 assists a game and has nearly 100 more assists than turnovers (157 to 58).

“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” Martin said of his transfer to an unfamiliar part of the country.

That’s hardly the end of the transfers, though. Two of the biggest players on the roster have played important roles in what will be their only seasons at Nevada. Trey Porter was eligible to play right away after graduating from Old Dominion, and Tre’Shawn Thurman returned to action after sitting out a season following his transfer from Omaha.

Fan favorite Jazz Johnson has played a pivotal role, too. The Portland transfer is the Wolf Pack’s best shooter, hitting 44 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s the team’s fourth-leading scorer despite starting just one game.


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