The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is flying high this morning for a dancing date in the NCAA Tournament, after an escort to the airport by a squadron of Reno Police motorcycle officers.
Coach Eric Musselman had some exclamative parting words on Twitter: “HUGE thanks to the Reno Police for assisting us today with a Police Escort! First class! Love support in the Reno community and Northern Nevada! Go Pack!”
Seeded seventh in the West Region, Nevada faces a tough assignment in the 10th-seeded Florida Gators in the first round of the tournament. Tip-off is set for at 3:50 p.m. Thursday at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
Despite a 19-15 record overall in the SEC, the Gators are loaded with lanky, versatile guards and centers who will be challenging matchups for the smaller-sized Wolf Pack. Florida is battle-tested and took down top-seeded – and ninth-ranked team in the country at the time – LSU Tigers, 76-73, in the SEC Tournament quarter finals.
Coming off a school-best 29-4 regular season record, Nevada entered the year with high expectations and has not disappointed. Nevada hasn’t escaped the year unscathed, though, and conference opponents New Mexico, San Diego State and Utah State beat the Pack. The SDSU Aztecs knocked off Nevada for the second time this season, 65-56, in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals.
Nevada opened as 2-point favorites, but Florida looks to be its toughest competition yet. The Gators limit their opponents to 63.7 points per game on 42 percent shooting and rank 14th in KenPom’s advanced defensive metrics. Florida plays a tight man-to-man defense and will switch on the pick-and-roll with plenty of length on the floor.
Kevarrius Hayes is the defensive anchor for the Gators. The senior center plays up to his 6-foot-9 size, leading the team with 64 blocks while pulling down a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game. Hayes’ physical play down low lets guards KeVaughn Allen and Andrew Nembhard play the passing lanes and come up with steals to fuel points in transition. The two players combined for 68 steals this season to lead the Gators.
Generating offense consistently has been the Wolf Pack’s Achilles heel, and the Aztecs held them to season-low point totals in two games this season. The Gators’ feisty play on the defensive end will be a tough matchup.
Offensively, Florida averages 68.3 points per game, but lacks a true No. 1 scorer. Allen leads the team with 12 points per game and gets into the paint with a quick first-step. Guards Noah Locke and Jalen Hudson both average more than 9 points per game. The squad generates most of its points down low. The Gators shoot just 33 percent from 3-point range as a team, but average just over 33 points per game the paint.
Florida’s struggles offensively can be used to the Wolf Pack’s advantage. They may look to lock down Allen by putting senior forward Tre’Shawn Thurman to hound him on the perimeter. In the paint, 6-foot-11 senior Trey Porter can battle down low with Hayes for second chance points.
The Wolf Pack also hold a pair of AP All-Americans who can take over the game in any moment.
Fifth-year seniors Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline will look to carry most of the scoring load. Caroline is the driving force for the Pack and his absence against SDSU in the tournament was a huge blow. Caroline is expected to play Thursday after a nagging Achilles injury forced him to sit out against the Aztecs.
“Our doctors and trainers feel he’ll be 100 percent,” Musselman said Sunday.
The 6-foot-7 forward is nearly a walking double-double, with 17.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. He has 15 double-doubles this season and 45 for his career to break the Mountain West record.
Martin’s snipe-shooting prowess on the perimeter gives the Pack a significant edge in the 3-point category. He leads the team with 19.2 points per game on 105 made 3-pointers at a 34 percent clip. His twin brother Cody is getting hot from behind the arc as well, shooting 52 percent from 3-point range since Jan. 15.
Nevada can attack opponents in several ways, a primary reason why they average a conference-best 80.7 points per game. Jazz Johnson gives them a spark off the bench with 11.2 points per game and a team-leading 45 percent shooting from 3-point range. Thurman and Porter both chip in with more than 7 points and five rebounds per game.
The Wolf Pack’s play defensively will emulate the Gators.’ Nevada has stuck with a physical man-to-man defense all season and the combination of Caroline and Porter down low makes it tough for opponents to score any easy buckets in the paint. It holds opponents to 66.7 points per game 41 percent shooting and its defense has saved the squad from sluggish starts.
Both teams have experience against other teams in the tournament. The battle-tested Florida squad was 3-11 against teams in the tournament this season, with wins coming against Mississippi and LSU twice. The Gators struggled in conference, finishing with a 9-9 record.
Nevada has played just three games against tournament teams, going 2-1 with wins over Utah State and Arizona State and a loss to the Aggies on the road. The Pack went an impressive 15-0 in home games at Lawlor Events Center and an unblemished non-conference record.
— Isaiah Burrows
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