Preseason All-American Caleb Martin took himself out of the starting lineup Wednesday night. The altruistic move paid dividends.
The Nevada men’s basketball team overcame another sluggish first half and improved to 15-1 (2-1 in the Mountain West Conference) with a 92-53 blowout against San Jose State at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.
The 10th-ranked Wolf Pack returned home after an 82-58 road shellacking at the hands of the New Mexico Lobos to take on a 3-10 Spartans team fresh off a 25-point home loss to Fresno State. The game figured to be just what was needed to get the Pack back on track.
Coach Eric Musselman deviated from his starting five for the first time, inserting shooting guard Corey Henson and freshman Jordan Brown in favor of Caleb Martin and Tre’Shawn Thurman.
“I went to coach and let him know the way I was playing … I wasn’t playing well and I didn’t deserve to start. I love watching Corey play and if he’s going to play like he did tonight, I’ll come off the bench every night,” Caleb Martin said.
“It doesn’t matter that they haven’t started all season — we have confidence in those guys,” senior point guard Cody Martin said.
“I knew I was given an opportunity, and I had to step up. I think I showed more of what I can do,” said Henson, a fifth-year senior transfer from Wagner College. “I think my best attribute is my (basketball) IQ.”
The Wolf Pack seemed to respond to the shakeup, dominating both ends of the floor to build an 18-5 lead in the first six minutes and threatening to run the Spartans out of the gym. SJSU shot under 20 percent from the field and 11 percent from beyond the arc during that span. But as has happened so often this season, Nevada was unable to put away an inferior opponent in the first half.
“I know I’ve been more passive in the first half. I need to turn it up,” Caleb Martin said.
The Wolf Pack found itself stymied by the Spartans’ zone defense, and rather than work the ball inside and draw contact (Nevada had only four free-throw attempts early and missed them all), it settled for wide-open shots from distance.
“We just need more reps. The more we see we (zone defense), we figure it out. Teams are probably going to keep playing zone against us, and that’s fine,” Cody Martin said.
Nevada’s 3-point shooting, hailed all season as a team hallmark, failed the team in the first half once again. The Pack made only two of 16, shooting a paltry 12.5 percent. Further examination reveals that Nevada entered the game ranked a dismal 220th out of 351 Division 1 teams in 3-point shooting.
San Jose State settled down, outscoring Nevada 18-12 over a 12-minute stretch to draw within seven at 30-23 with 1:41 to play in the first half, thanks to the 3-point shooting of SJSU guards Brae Ivey and Noah Baumann.
The second half — once again — was like watching a different team. Nevada scored a season-high 60 points in the final 20 minutes.
Sporting a hyper-aggressive defense, Nevada created 22 turnovers and finished with 15 steals, while turning it over only eight times.
“We changed defensively, fronting the post, and Caleb caught fire. We moved the ball much better against the zone and got it to our spots and had some incredible looks,” Musselman said.
Much better ball rotation versus the zone on the offensive end resulted in not only more efficient scoring, shooting 64 percent from the floor, but the Pack racked up 23 assists, to the Spartans’ nine in the process.
Nevada created a multitude of open looks from all over the floor and the lid came off the rim from 3-point land, with the Pack canning 11 of 18 shots from deep.
“Seeing one go in lets you know there’s not a cap on it, and seeing that gives you confidence,” Caleb Martin said.
Led by Caleb Martin’s 21 and Jordan Caroline’s 12 second half points, the Pack took the game by the throat and snuffed out any thought of an upset with a 32-6 run in the first 10 minutes.
Henson took full advantage of his starting nod, chipping in 15 points and spending a team-leading 32 minutes on the floor.
“Tonight was a breakout game for Corey Henson,” Musselman said. “Jazz (Johnson) was hurt coming in so Corey was the guy. I felt like we got contributions across the board from everyone.”
Notes: Nevada plays at Fresno State (12-3, 3-0 MW) on Saturday at 5 p.m. The game will air on ESPNU. … Eight Nevada players had steals. Henson made four of them. … It was the 11th straight win at home for Nevada. … The Wolf Pack is 51-5 at Lawlor Events Center under head coach Eric Musselman, 40-2 in its last 41 home games and 44-3 in its last 47. Overall Musselman is 41-16 in MW play, 24-5 at home. … Nevada had been outrebounded in the last five games and in six of the last seven, but won the battle against SJSU 38-36. Porter had a Nevada career high 13 rebounds. … Nevada’s bench is short but effective, outscoring the Spartans bench 36-12. All 10 Wolf Pack players competed. … Bishop Manogue graduate and Nevada walk-on Zach Wurm was dismissed from the team after being arrested Jan. 6 on suspicion of driving under the influence and causing property damage of $250 to $5,000, KOLO-TV reported.
— Michael Smyth