Things were not as they seemed on Halloween weekend for the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team.
The Wolf Pack buried the overwhelmed Dominican Penguins Friday night, 82-52, with a flurry of free throws, dunks and lay-ups. The Pack stormed the basket at will against the physically challenged Penguins — a team of actual Penguins would have blocked just one fewer shot than the Division II Penguins on Friday — and kicked off the Eric Musselman era in style. It was one treat (no tricks were required) after another for the new-look Pack on the night before Halloween.
The Wolf Pack arrived at Lawlor Events Center dressed in 1983 Houston Cougars Phi Slamma Jamma costumes. The Pack scored all 37 of its first half points on dunks, free throws and layups. All but 13 of their 82 points for the night came on either a free throw (41), a dunk (12) or layup (16). Freshman Cameron Oliver came dressed as Hakeem Olajuwon and had three dunks.
Strange things were happening all over the arena. Cheerleaders came dressed as zombies, Victoria Secret models and kittens. One was dressed up as Waldo from Where’s Waldo fame. Wolf Pack center A.J. West came dressed as Rick Barry and made all eight of his free throws. D.J. Fenner came dressed as Ray Allen and made his only 3-point attempt. Sophomore Elijah Foster came dressed as A.J. West and had five offensive rebounds. Freshmen Juwan Anderson, Lindsey Drew and Oliver came dressed as fifth-year seniors and put their older teammates on their young backs.
It was definitely a night of magic and wonderment, the perfect way to introduce Musselman to northern Nevada as the next coach to bring the Wolf Pack back to the NCAA tournament. Yes, we understand that Division I college basketball teams,especially in the Mountain West Conference, do not live on dunks, free throws and layups alone. San Diego State, UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico won’t stand around dressed in Penguin tuxedos and step aside like polite doormen all night long so the Pack can use the lane as a victory circle. But this was exhibition college basketball. These staged affairs mean little, if anything. They are photo opportunities, a rehearsal dinner where everyone goes home fat, happy and a little tipsy with the hopes and dreams of a glorious future together. The 30-point victory over the polite Penguins did all that as promised.
Just don’t believe everything you saw on Friday. The Pack will likely not play a team as nonathletic, short (the tallest Penguin was generously listed as 6-7) and accommodating as the northern California Penguins ever again. The Pack might not have found Waldo on Friday but they always found the front of the rim. Schools like Dominican exist this time of the basketball year solely for the enjoyment of schools like Nevada, who are searching for their Division I identity. The Wolf Pack, despite its 9-22 record last year and eight consecutive non-NCAA tournament seasons, are what the Penguins hope to be someday when they grow up. The Penguins are the same guys the Wolf Pack used to dunk over in high school. Nothing has changed.
But all of that doesn’t matter. There will be plenty of time for reality to sink in for this Pack team. So we won’t dwell on the Pack’s 1-for-13 shooting from 3-point range or the 37 percent shooting from the field even with all those dunks and layups. All that means is a 9-22 season doesn’t just disappear with one meaningless exhibition. Nothing more. Friday night existed solely for the Pack to christen a new era. It was a broken champagne bottle against the bow of a cruise liner. So consider the Pack christened and blessed for a safe voyage during the 2015-16 season. Nothing more.
But there were a few things to take with you to suggest that a new and improved era has indeed begun.
OK, make that three things: Oliver, Drew and Anderson. Muselman’s three additions to the roster were immediate hits, like Ford introducing the Mustang in 1965.
Oliver is a 6-foot-8 A.J. West in training. At times he was the best player on the floor. OK, he was the best player on the floor for all 17 of his minutes. He had 11 points, six rebounds, two assists, three blocks and a steal in those 17 minutes, meaning he did something positive roughly every 2.3 seconds he was on the floor. He can jump out of the gym, run the floor and sell tickets and popcorn and show fans to their seats all at the same time. The possibilities of West and Oliver swatting opposing shots into the third row this year, pulling down rebounds and basically owning the lane are mouth watering.
Drew plays like a 10-year NBA veteran which, by the way, his father Larry Drew used to be. He comes from former coach David Carter’s old neck of the woods (Fairfax High in Los Angeles) and, well, it’s his team now. The 6-foot-4 playmaker is the Pack’s new point guard. He played 30 of the 40 minutes, scoring 13 points with six boards, two assists, two blocks, two steals and just two turnovers. He missed nine of his 11 field goals but he made 9-of-10 free throws and did crash the boards for three offensive rebounds. Musselman has his quarterback.
Anderson, at first glance, didn’t fill up the stat sheet. But when you look a bit closer he did have a game-high four assists in just 18 minutes. He doesn’t look like a scorer (just one shot all night and no points) but he is there to make everyone — Musselman included — look good. Musselman called him an extension of the coaching staff on the floor. And that is high praise for anyone, let alone a 6-foot freshman playing his first college game.
Oliver, Drew and Anderson proved immediately that Musselman is everything we hoped he would be — a shrew judge of basketball talent. These kids can not only play, they can help a team win right away.
Even the leftover players from the Carter era blended in perfectly. West was West with 12 boards and a couple of blocks in 18 minutes. With Oliver around you could just see the pressure lifted from West’s shoulders. He doesn’t have to carry this team in the lane anymore. Marqueze Coleman had just six points and two assists and missed all four of his 3-pointers in 27 minutes but he showed leadership as a senior, calming his young teammates down when needed and also contributing a pair of steals and four boards. D.J. Fenner looks like the player he was always meant to be — a guy who can do a little of everything. He had 11 points in 18 productive minutes. Sophomore Elijah Foster, all 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds of him, was dominating at times with six points, nine rebounds in 15 minutes. Foster, West and Oliver might turn out to be the best trio of big men in the Mountain West. Musselman vowed after the game to get Foster more minutes. Tyron Criswell had a wonderful game with 18 points and seven boards in 22 minutes. He was the Pack’s best overall offensive player last year and, well, he still owns that title. Eric Cooper struggled with his shot (1-for-7 from the field, 0-for-5 on threes) but, unlike a year ago, he contributed in other ways with five boards and two steals in his 24 minutes.
As promised, the Pack played fast, aggressively and with passion. It wasn’t always pretty (7-for-25 shooting in the first half) but it was always interesting. Musselman, it seems, has blended the new with the old and arrived at hope and promise for the future.