Eight straight wins in conference play, an Associated Press top 25 ranking and a chance to go undefeated in conference (emphasis on chance). Nevada basketball is having one of those seasons where they look like they could be a cinderella in March Madness.
But do they have the steam to keep going and make that prediction a reality? Depends on what you’re looking at.
To get to this point, Nevada has averaged 81.6 points per game (39th best in the nation) while having four players averaged double-digit points. That includes Caleb Martin, a guard who leads the team with 19.7 points per game while shooting 46 percent from three point range.
— Nevada Basketball (@NevadaHoops) January 22, 2018
Martin’s not the only one having success with the deep ball, though. Teammates Kendal Stephens, Hallice Cooke and Lindsey Drew are also shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc.
The total team average from three point range of 41 percent is 16th best in the nation. They finished second among Division I programs last year, a testament to head coach Eric Musselman’s reliance on shooters in his third year with the team.
Part of that work has been having guys put in extra practice hours on the court improving what was the second-worst three point shooting team in the nation in 2013-14.
“We’ve talked over and over that if you want to be a good shooter you have to come early to practice,” Musselman said to the Reno Gazette-Journal on Jan. 5. “Practice is over and everybody is still out here shooting. There are other programs when practice ends, everybody goes to the locker room. That’s just not the culture that we have here.”
Combine that with 91 blocks (54th in the nation) and the Wolfpack look like a decent contender for either the conference title or an at-large bid. But don’t be settled on them cruising just yet.
Nevada have 226 turnovers this season, the 37th most among all teams. On top of that, they lead the Mountain West Conference with 68.
While the Wolfpack are one of the most pass-heavy teams in the NCAA, that number could come back to bite them in the future. In two of its three of their losses, Nevada had double-digit turnover numbers.
Those struggles included a 21 turnover night in an 82-76 overtime loss to Texas Tech on Dec. 5, 2017. While they may be able to fake it against less strong conference foes (only Boise State and Wyoming had RPIs under 100,) their schedule will be less forgiving soon.
— Nevada Basketball (@NevadaHoops) January 21, 2018
Fresno State has an RPI of 101 and could be a pain during the pair’s second meeting of the season. The Wolfpack also have to play Boise and Wyoming away from home, which should prove to be a true test of how prepared they are.
“The only thing we’re worried about is figuring out a way to win at Laramie,” Musselman said to the Reno Gazette-Journal on Jan. 22. “Obviously it’s a great accomplishment for any mid-major to crack the Top 25, but having said that, ‘How do we figure out a way to beat the Cowboys?’ is the biggest concern.”
In general, this second half of conference games should be even more of a challenge. It will also be telling of the run they could make in the postseason.
The last time the Wolfpack made it far in the tourney was 2003-2004, where they beat both Michigan State and Gonzaga, but lost to eventual runner up Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16. In that case, they won nine games in a row before the loss to Tech, including all three conference tournament games.
Nevada doesn’t have to go undefeated in conference play (although it will help them stay in the AP top 25), but it does need to finish the season strong. Letting team weaknesses lead to losses are not how the team will make its mark.
If the Wolfpack are to make another miraculous run, which they very well could after only losing to Texas Tech and Texas Christian University by six and four point respectively, they need to continue to shoot lights out and stop the turnovers.