After taking care of the Akron Zips last week, Nevada’s men’s basketball team seemed like the unhappiest undefeated team in the nation. But a Christmastime break has put the Wolf Pack in a better mood.
Sixth-ranked Nevada, 12-0, plays its final nonconference game of the season on Saturday at Utah (6-5) in Salt Lake City. The contest tips off at 11 a.m. Pacific Time (noon Mountain Time). It will be televised on the Pac-12 Network and broadcast on ESPN 700 AM radio.
After last Saturday’s 68-62 home win against Akron of the Mid-American Conference, coach Eric Musselman was upset about his team’s slow first-half starts, a trend that has occurred in the last five games.
“Bad first halves — it’s the most frustrated I’ve been in four years here,” Musselman fumed after the game. “I feel like the Grinch.”
At the first practice back on Wednesday the mood was better. The team felt mentally and physically refreshed.
“We got the little two, three-day break in and came back with fresh legs and ready to get back on track,” said sixth-man Jazz Johnson. “The energy was definitely up yesterday.”
Musselman was so happy he didn’t want the practice to end.
“We went longer than we normally would and they responded in a really good way,” an upbeat Musselman said Thursday at his weekly press conference.
Nevada starts five fifth-year senior transfers, and the coach was asked if their age and experience is what allows the team to continually battle through adversity and find a way to win.
The short answer is no. Here’s the long reply:
“It’s an innate thing,” Musselman said. “Some people crumble with pressure and some people rise. Last year, when we had to win a Mountain West game, we figured out a way to win a Mountain West game.
“When we had to find a way to win an NCAA Tournament game, our group found a way to do that. There’s been a lot of games this year in a young season the other team could have swung some momentum and the game could have changed quickly. But our guys haven’t allowed that to happen. I just think the focus in practice in leading up to the games is really why we have the record that we do right now.”
The holiday break may have allowed time for perspective. Musselman has what every coach wants to have: Talented, hard-working and selfless players who love each other.
“We spend every day together so when we take two-three days away from each other it’s weird coming back,” Johnson said. “We’re all excited to see each other again. The energy was high. We just got to keep it going today, tomorrow and obviously through the game.”
Nevada would receive an automatic NCAA Tournament berth by winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament. Barring that, the Utah game is important for the Wolf Pack’s season resume and a possible at-large berth.
The Runnin’ Utes have never lost to Nevada, winning all 10 games in the schools’ history. But the last time they played each other was back in 1987. Utah is undefeated at home and has an eight-game winning streak dating back to last season.
“They’re a Pac-12 school so they get bigger athletes.” Johnson said. “They have two 7-footers. It’s really just about us going out and playing our same game. Every game, we’re going to get every team’s best shot. You can’t really look at how teams play other people because they’re going to come completely different when they play against us. It’s just a matter of us preparing as much as we can so we’re prepared for anything.”
The teams have two common opponents, Grand Canyon and Tulsa. On the road, Utah beat the Antelopes 75-66. At an ostensibly neutral site (a few miles from the Grand Canyon campus), the Wolf Pack made 24 free throws and won 74-66. Nevada beat Tulsa by 10 points in Las Vegas and Utah beat the Golden Hurricane by five points in Salt Lake City.
Utah plays three freshman and has remarkably balanced scoring from its starters: Forwards Timmy Allen and Riley Battin (from Oak Park, California) average 8.9 points, freshman guard Booth Gach averages 8.7 and senior guard Parker Van Dyke, a hometown player who leads his team in 3-point buckets, averages 7.1. Seven-foot freshman center Jayce Johnson from Santa Monica, California, averages 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds. He tied his season high 12 points in the Runnin’ Utes last game, a 29-point home win against Florida A&M.
Shooting guard Caleb Martin and power forward/high post Jordan Caroline lead Nevada in scoring, both averaging 18.8 points. Caroline has a team-high 9.6 rebounds a games. Forward and defensive stalwart Tre’Shawn Thurman averages 6.3 rebounds. Point guard Cody Martin averages six assists and 10.1 points.
Johnson scored 10 points against Akron after missing a game with a concussion. He was blindsided by a screen in the Grand Canyon game and was sidelined from all basketball activities.
A junior shooting guard, Johnson leads the team in 3-point percentage, 56.3, and is sixth in the nation in free throw percentage 93.9.
The rest of the team, however, has struggled from long range. It is a collective 27 of 112 in its last four games from 3-point territory and missed its first nine against Akron.
Johnson has commiserated with Caleb Martin, a preseason All-American, who recently said his outside shot has been so bad lately that he can’t hit the broad side of a barn.
“Caleb is 6-7 and athletic and nobody can stop him at the rim,” Johnson said. “As a shooter it’s really important that you see the ball go in. “Sometimes I tell him, ‘You just need to go to the rim so you can see the ball go through the hoop.’
“Caleb, all of those shots that he’s not making, he hit them last year. At some point he’s going to find (his stroke), and once he gets rolling, it’s a scary sight.”
Johnson said Nevada is playing excellent defense — and if it gets fast-breaks going as it did in November games — the offensive will be fine. Fresh legs will help with that.
We’ll find out on Saturday.
— Tim Parsons