The Eric Musselman era hasn’t exactly been a whole lot of fun for the Nevada Wolf Pack players so far.
“We were up at 6 a.m. this summer doing a lot of running,” junior guard D.J. Fenner said. “We just ran non-stop. Some dudes threw up. It’s been one of those summers.”
It was Musselman’s version of basketball boot camp. “It was such a grind this summer, between the weights, the conditioning,” senior center Lucas Stivrins said. “It was all a grind.”
Musselman’s rigorous training camp seemed to mold a new team. “I think we’re much closer as a team,” Fenner said. “We’ve been around each other a lot more than ever before. We like each other more than last year.”
The new-look Wolf Pack will debut with an exhibition (free admission) against Dominican University, a Division II school in San Rafael, Calif.. on Friday (7 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center. They will also play Alaska-Fairbanks, another Division II school, in another exhibition at Lawlor on Nov. 6. “I’m ready,” Stivrins said. “I’ve been ready since March of last year.”
The Wolf Pack lost 14 of its last 17 games and finished 9-22 a year ago, causing head coach David Carter to lose his job after six seasons. Musselman, a long-time coach in professional basketball in the NBA, CBA, NBA Developmental League and USBL, took over in March and along with assistants Doug Stewart, Jermaine Kimbrough and Jay Morris, quickly changed the culture. “Our standards are high,” Fenner said. “He (Musselman) is demanding a lot out of us, which is great.”
Musselman’s demands started last spring and summer. Musselman, who has just three years of college coaching experience (as an assistant at LSU last year and Arizona State the previous two years), put his new team to a grueling physical test. “You make players uncomfortable to get them in the proper condition to get them ready to play,” said Musselman, who will turn 51 on Nov. 19. “It’s the only way I’ve ever been around. I haven’t been around a country club atmosphere to get ready for a season. But it’s new to a lot of our players.”
Eight of Carter’s players — Fenner, Stivrins, Marqueze Coleman, Elijah Foster, Tyron Criswell, Eric Cooper, Kaileb Rodriguez and A.J. West — are currently on this year’s roster. They will be joined by newcomers Cameron Oliver, Juwan Anderson, Justin Botteri, Lindsey Drew and David Cunningham. “They’ve been phenomenal,” Musselman said. “The biggest thing I’ve liked is their willingness to be coached. That’s been the number one attribute that has been a surprise to us. This is definitely a culture change to these guys and they’ve all responded well.”
When Eric Musselman talks, players listen. “He makes us want to buy in,” Fenner said. “We understand where he’s been. We understand he’s coached at a level we want to play at.”
Musselman was the head coach of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors for two seasons (2002-03, 2003-04) and the Sacramento Kings for one (2006-07). “It would not make any sense to not buy in,” the 6-foot-6 Fenner said. “We have a great coach to learn from.”
The 6-11 Stivrins, who started 11 games last year (2.7 points, 2.8 rebounds), said Musselman has already put his stamp on the program. “Things have definitely changed,” Stivrins said. “Guys are now getting extra work in on their own. We’re all putting in more time and we’re more focused. We’re laser focused, every one is.”
Musselman, who coached the D-League’s Reno Bighorns in 2010-11, takes over a team that lost eight games in a row last year from Nov. 21 through Dec. 18 and seven in a row from Jan. 10 through Feb. 4. The Wolf Pack scored fewer than 60 points in a game 13 times and lost all 13 of those games. The Pack was last in the 11-team Mountain West in 3-point shooting (.266) and was 10th in scoring (60.5) and points allowed (66.5). The Pack had a scorer reach 20 or more points in a game just four times all of last year. Coleman had 24 in a 66-63 win over New Mexico on Feb. 14, Fenner had 24 in a 69-65 loss to Pacific on Dec. 18 and Cooper had 20 twice, in a 66-62 loss to Fresno on Jan. 24 and a 75-70 loss to Air Force on Feb. 25.
Coleman (6-4) averaged 9.4 points and 2.3 assists a game. Fenner shot just 21 percent on 3-pointers and averaged 8.8 points a game and 2.7 rebounds. Cooper (6-3) averaged 7.3 points a game but shot just 26 percent on threes. Criswell (6-3) averaged 9.4 points and 4.1 rebounds and was the team’s most consistent player outside of West with a 43 percent success rate on field goals and 34 percent on threes. West, now a senior, had one of the best all-around seasons in Wolf Pack history for a center. The 6-9 shot blocker averaged a double-double (12.1 points, 11.0 rebounds), leading the Mountain West in rebounding. He was also third in blocked shots (2.6 a game).
West, Coleman, Cooper, Criswell and Fenner are expected to play significant minutes this year as are newcomers Drew (a 6-4 freshman guard), Oliver (a 6-8 freshman forward) and Anderson (a 6-foot freshman guard). Oliver is a former Oregon State recruit (he sat out last year) from Sacramento. Anderson is from Oakland and spent last season at Suffield Academy in Connecticut. Drew, the son of former NBA player Larry Drew, is a former Arizona State commit from Fairfax High in Los Angeles and chose the Pack this spring over an offer from USC. “We’ve put in a lot of stuff in a very short time,” Musselman said. “There’s been a lot of things coming at them.”
Expect the Wolf Pack to be a work in progress this season as the new faces get used to the old faces and everyone adapts to Musselman and his staff. After the two exhibition games the Wolf Pack will open the season for real with three games against Coastal Carolina, Montana State and Hawaii in the Outrigger Resorts Rainbow Classic in Honolulu Nov. 13-17. The Wolf Pack was picked by the Mountain West media to finish ninth in the 11-team Mountain West, ahead of only Air Force and San Jose State. No Pack player was named to the Pre-season All -Conference team. “We haven’t done anything so we shouldn’t be mentioned,” Musselman said. “Our job is to change that.”
“Yes, there’s a chip on our shoulder,” Fenner said. “But, at the same time, we just want to start fresh. We just want to start new. We know we don’t have the accolades or the record to show that Nevada is a team to be reckoned with at this moment in time.”
Musselman, the first Pack head coach since Pat Foster in 1999 that isn’t from the Trent Johnson coaching tree, reminds everyone that his job has only just begun.
“We’ve made strides but we also feel there’s a long way to go,” he said. “We have a lot of teaching to do.”
San Diego State was picked by the media as the overwhelming favorite to win the league. “The Mountain West is really difficult,” Musselman said. “We have our work cut out for us. We’re going to do everything we can to mentally and physically prepare for what will be a difficult season.”
No matter what happens, Musselman hopes it happens quickly. All of the off-season conditioning, he said, was done with the purpose of speeding up the Pack’s style of play. “We want to be a running team,” he said. “But are we in good enough physical condition? To play the style we want both offensively and defensively, we’re not there yet.”
The Pack players seem excited to abandon Carter’s more deliberate, half-court offense. “We have to be in the best physical condition we can be because of coach Muss’ style of play,” Stivrins said. “He likes the run and gun system.”
“I’m so excited,” Fenner said. “I’m ready.”
Fenner, like all of Carter’s former players still on the roster, just wants to put the memory of last season out of his memory. “All I have in my head is that last loss against UNLV,” said Fenner of the Pack’s 67-46 loss to the Rebels in the Mountain West tournament, which was followed minutes later by the firing of Carter. “I remember being at that press conference and crying. So, yes, I’m ready for this season to start.”