Credit JaVale McGee for an assist to his former college basketball team as it enters perhaps the most important nonconference game of the season.
The sixth-ranked Nevada Wolf Pack (8-0) faces No. 20 Arizona State (7-0) at 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, in the ESPN2-televised Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A week earlier, McGee donated tickets to the team to watch his NBA club, the Lakers, defeat the Dallas Mavericks in the same venue. Nevada was in LA for a game the next day with USC.
While the Staples Center will look familiar, Nevada hasn’t seen an opponent anything like Arizona State’s squad this year.
Basically, Nevada and Arizona State are mirror images, although the older Wolf Pack players can grow more facial hair. They are both tall, athletic and defensive minded.
Coached by ex-Duke and Sacramento Kings point guard Bobby Hurley, the Sun Devils are second in the nation in rebounding and love to play an up-tempo style. A Wolf Pack win against the Pac-12’s ASU would be a nice item for its season resume when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding. Nevada plays in the smaller Mountain West Conference.
Fresh off convincing road wins against USC and Loyola Chicago (in a Sweet 16 rematch), Nevada is as hot as any team in the nation. It has won each of its games by double figures. On Monday, Jordan Caroline was named Mountain West Player of the Week for the second time this season.
In the two games, Caroline averaged 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists. In his return to his home state of Illinois last Tuesday, he scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds at Loyola Chicago as the Pack won 79-65, an especially sweet victory considering its heartbreaking one-point loss in the NCAA Tourney last spring.
Caroline plays with unstoppable ferocity. At 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, he is nearly impossible to box out for a rebound and he chases down every loose ball with the intensity of an All-NFL linebacker going after a quarterback. His father is football great Simeon Rice, and his grandfather, J.C. Rice, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee and Chicago Bears running back.
At USC, Caroline posted his sixth double-double of the season, finishing with a game-high 24 points and 11 rebounds in the 73-61 victory over the Pac-12 Trojans. The double-double was the 33rd of his career, which ranks fourth in school history.
The entire Wolf Pack team, in fact, is intimidating. They start five fifth-year seniors, making the squad undoubtedly the most experienced in the nation. Characteristic of an Eric Musselman-coached team, Nevada plays at its best in the second half, outscoring opponents 371-291, and with mostly just a six- or seven-man rotation.
The starters in every game have been returning all-conference players Caroline and the 6-foot-7 Martin twins, Cody and Caleb, and 6-8 forward Tre’Shawn Thurman and 6-11 center Trey Porter. The smallest Nevada player, Jazz Johnson, sparks the team off the bench and leads in shooting percentage in every category. Johnson is getting more playing time than either of the team’s centers, Porter and freshman Jordan Brown, Nevada highest-ranked recruit in any sport.
A preseason All-American, Caleb Martin averages 19.9 points a game. Last year’s Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, Cody Martin plays point and leads the team in assists. Thurman was six of 10 from the floor, scoring 14 points to go with nine rebounds in his best game of the season against USC.
If Nevada has shown any vulnerability, it has been against zone defenses.
Arizona State plays an aggressive man-to-man defense. Its weakness has been turnovers, averaging 15 a game. Expect a high-scoring contest on Friday.
Like Nevada, the Sun Devils have multiple players who are efficient scorers.
Senior power forward Zylan Cheatham posted the second triple-double in school history with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists in a 83-71 win over Texas Southern on Saturday. He averages 12.4, 9.6 and 5.1.
A freshman from Montreal, Dort Luguentz plays point guard, jumps out of the gym and averages 21.7 points. In the last three games, 6-8 freshman Taeshon Cherry has averaged 16 points. Kimani Lawrence, a 6-7 sophomore, averages 15.4.
Hurley is in his fourth year as ASU coach. The Sun Devils opened last season with a 12-0 nonconference record, but were 8-10 in Pac-12 games. They lost to Syracuse in an NCAA Tournament First Four game.
Notes: Nevada’s 8-0 start equals its best in school history. … Cody Martin leads the Mountain West in assists (6.5) and assists-to-turnover ratio (4.3). … Trey Porter has won every opening tip. … Dave Feldman and Jay Bilas will announce Friday’s game on ESPN2. … Dating back to the 1951-52 season, Nevada has a 4-2 record against Arizona State. … Nevada’s 6-10 freshman forward K.J. Hymes is from Phoenix, Arizona and he turned down an offer from ASU to come to the Biggest Little City. … Barring injuries, freshmen Hymes, 6-7 swingman Jalen Townsell and 6-8 forward Vincent Lee won’t play this year and will be redshirt freshmen next season. … Senior Lindsey Drew, who is recovering from a torn Achilles, hasn’t played this season either. He’s a potential redshirt senior for 2019-20. … Transfer guards Jalen Harris (Louisiana Tech) and JoJo Anderson (Northern Arizona) are practicing with the team and will have two years of eligiblity starting next season … Jazz Johnson is ninth in the nation in 3-point percentage (56.8). … A Wolf Pack win on Friday would tie fourth-year coach Eric Musselman with Pat Foster for No. 8 with 90 victories. Next up is David Carter, who had 98 wins. Jake Lawlor, who coached Nevada from 1942-59, is first with 204.
— Tim Parsons