It starts, and possibly ends, on a Friday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee; you never really know. Hopefully it doesn’t end; hopefully it keeps going. This single-elimination basketball is a hell of a thing.
The Texas Longhorns face the No. 7 seed Nevada Wolf Pack in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In recent years, tournament match ups with Nevada and games in Nashville haven’t been particularly kind to the Longhorns, but maybe this is the time for things to work better.
If you are like me, you probably plan your life around the first round of the NCAA tournament — two days of relentless chaos that are easily the greatest sporting event that America produces. Except for the years that you don’t; if you are also like me and have made the unwise decision to have your first child when you are 41, and find this very week to be the only one otherwise conducive to one last vacation with your wife before it all happens, then you are probably somewhere on the California coast right now as you are writing and will probably be somewhere else on the California coast when this thing tips. Too damn bad.
On to the game.
The rise of the Nevada Wolf Pack
I am going to give you the name of the next hot rising name in the college basketball coaching carousel, perhaps as soon as this spring. Eric Musselman, head man of the University of Nevada, Reno.
Musselman has an unusual resume for a 53-year-old college basketball coach. Musselman played college basketball before becoming a coach in the CBA in the early nineties. He eventually latched on as an NBA assistant for a better part of a decade before getting a 10-month stint as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings. Like most NBA coaches who don’t have any players worth a damn (okay, that is being too hard on Metta World Peace) he was fired; unlike most NBA coaches he was replaced by Reggie Theus, who would get fired for a similar reason six months later. Musselman would end up coaching in the D-League.
At this point Steve Patterson, a name familiar to Longhorn fans, enters the story. Before Patterson was briefly the AD of The University of Texas, where he accomplished the rare feat of aligning all of the various Longhorn athletics factions — too bad they were aligned against him — he was running the athletic department at Arizona State. There, Patterson brought in two former NBA coaches — Eric Musselman and Larry Greer — to help embattled head coach Herb Sendek; it was rumored that Patterson wanted to do something similar several years later with Texas coach Rick Barnes, and when Barnes refused to fire coaches and replace them with ones selected by Patterson, it was the final blow that ended Barnes’ Longhorn tenure.
Anyway, the result was Musselman’s entry point into the college game, and he quickly became a rising star. I am going to be clear — Musselman knows what the hell he is doing with a dry erase clipboard. After a couple of years in Tempe, and a season at LSU, Musselman was hired to be the head man at Nevada.
The result has been a quick rise to the top of the Mountain West Conference, one of the best mid-major leagues in college basketball. The fact that Musselman got his first college head coaching gig in a program and league this high up in the pecking order tells you something about how well thought of he is.
The Wolf Pack rise has been aided by transfers: twin brothers Caleb and Cody Martin from North Carolina State (where Wolfpack is just a single word), Jordan Caroline from Southern Illinois, Kendall Stephens from Purdue, and Hallice Cooke from Oregon State and Iowa State make up four-fifths of the Nevada starting lineup.
While the Wolf Pack lacks the interior size of a team like Texas, they are long on the perimeter (both Martin twins are 6’7, as are Caroline, Stephens, and reserves Josh Hall and Elijah Foster), athletic, experienced, and highly skilled. Caleb Martin, Stephens, and Cooke are all deadly from long range, and collectively Nevada has shot slightly less than 40 percent from three on the season. They take better care of the basketball than just about every other team in Division-I, with the third best team turnover rate nationally. This, combined with their perimeter shooting, make them exceptionally strong on offense.
The Wolf Pack have faced some adversity this year, as they have been playing without the services of starting point guard Lindsey Drew for about a month after he ruptured his Achilles tendon. Cody Martin has filled in nicely as the primary ball handler since Drew was lost for the season.
Half of all NCAA tournament teams are done in fourty or so minutes
The NCAA tournament ends in cruel disappointment for every team, save one. And half of those teams meet their sad end in their very first game.
For Texas and Nevada, two will enter, but only one can leave.