The Nevada Wolf Pack wants to do more than simply play basketball at Lawlor Events Center this year.
“We don’t want the game to be just a 40-minute basketball game,” said coach Eric Musselman, whose Wolf Pack will play its first regular season home game Wednesday night (7 p.m.) against Portland State. “We also want to entertain. We want our fans to enjoy it.”
And it all starts in the pre-game warm-up. Musselman is urging fans to show about a half hour before Wednesday night’s tip-off if they don’t want to miss the start of the show. “This separates us from every Division I university in the country,” Musselman said. “That alone makes it fun to be a part of.”
Musselman and his players are keeping the details of the pre-game performance a secret right now. “You’ll have to wait until Wednesday night,” smiled point guard Marqueze Coleman. “It’s something new. I feel like our fans will like it.”
It is actually about four decades old. Musselman’s father Bill Musselman came up with the idea of entertaining fans before the game with a Harlem Globetrotter’s style of show when he was head coach at the University of Minnesota for four seasons from 1971-72 through 1974-75. “People used to get to the games 45 minutes before tip-off because they didn’t want to miss the pre-game warm,-up,“ Musselman said. “The warm-up was so popular some people would leave after it was over.”
The Gophers’ pre-game warm-up was labeled by the local Minnesota media, ‘When Basketball met the Big Top.” Players would do dribbling drills, juggle basketballs, pass the ball to each other and do it all set to music. The gophers also had a drummer in the pep band juggle three basketballs while riding a unicycle around the court. The Minnesota warm-up became so popular that the overflow crowd would be moved to the university’s adjacent hockey arena where the show would be shown on closed circuit television. The Gophers averaged just over 7,000 fans in the five seasons before Musselman took over and then averaged 16,000 fans a game in Musselman’s four years.
The Wolf Pack, which averaged just under 5,500 fans a game last year, is hoping for similar results. “It’s not some circus act,” Eric Musselman said. “It’s got ball skills our big guys and our guards need. We want our games to be entertainment. We want our fans to get to see a little bit of our guys’ personalities. It builds team camaraderie because everybody on the team is vital to making the whole thing work.”
Musselman said he discovered a video of the Gophers’ pre-game ritual when he was looking at some of his father’s belongings after his father died in 2000. “He (Eric Musselman) showed it to us I think three days after he became our coach,” Coleman said. “He asked us, ‘Do you guys think this is something you’d like to do?’ We just said, ‘Yeah, why not? It’s fun.’”
The Wolf Pack is also having a lot of fun once the games start this year so far. The Pack went 3-1 on the road to open the season and is coming off a double-overtime 85-82 win at Pacific on Saturday night when Coleman scored 31 points. Coleman, who also scored 34 points in a 76-75 loss at Hawaii last Tuesday morning (Reno time), is averaging 24.8 points a game. His 43 successful free throws leads the nation as does his 53 free throw attempts. He is also 12th in the nation in scoring. “The off-season work is paying off,” Coleman said. “That’s pretty much it. No secret.”
Coleman is thriving in Musselman’s up-tempo style of offense. The 6-foot-4 senior averaged just 6.6 points a game over his first three seasons. “I like running up and down the floor, pushing the ball,” Coleman said. “It’s just a perfect fit.”
Coleman is the first Pack player to score 30 or more points in consecutive games since at least the 1998-99 season (records before the 1999-00 season are not available). “I don’t know how he wasn’t Mountain West Player of the Week,” said Musselman, referring to the conference’s weekly award that went to Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris on Monday. “With his numbers he could have been NBA Player of the Week.”
Coleman scored 32 of his 34 points against Hawaii in the second half and then scored 15 of his 31 points against Pacific in the two overtimes. He has scored 63 points in his last 70 minutes on the floor. He has also not left the floor in the Pack’s last 70 minutes, playing all 20 minutes in the second half against Hawaii and all 50 minutes against Pacific. “He’s in a groove right now,” Musselman said. “He and I have a good bond.”
“Coach gives me eye contact in a game and I know what that means,” Coleman said. “Be aggressive.”
The Wolf Pack is averaging 79 points a game so far this season. Last season, with many of the same players as this year, the Pack averaged 60.5 points a game. “The style of offense we’re in, everybody has an opportunity to score,” Coleman said. “It has benefited not only myself but also a lot of players on the team.”
D.J. Fenner, who averaged 5.6 points a game over his first two seasons, is now averaging 15.8 a game as a junior. “We just want everyone to know that we are a team that can compete with anyone,” Fenner said. “We’re excited and I know our fans are excited. It’s a new year, a new team, a new group, a new coaching staff and a new feeling.”
And a new show, before and during the game. “There hasn’t been a moment in a huddle when I looked in their eyes and didn’t think they expected to win,” Musselman said. “These guys expect to win every time they step on the floor.”