RENO — Throw out the season-ending loss to San Diego State in what was a meaningless game, and Nevada enters the Mountain West Championship in good shape.
Nevada, ranked 22nd in the country with a 26-6 record, is playing its best basketball of the season, according to coach Eric Musselman.
“I really do,” Musselman told reporters before practice on Monday in preparation for its tourney opener at noon on Thursday. “We have won six of our last seven. That group of games we went 6-1, and anybody in our league would take that knowing the travel thrown in.
“Yes we lost our last game. It could have been at Boise. You lose your last game and people say you lost your momentum. I don’t look at it that way at all. This team is playing good basketball. It’s been a huge adjustment playing with two completely different point guards.”
Nevada has lost six games by a total of 26 points, and the Pack’s biggest loss was by eight points to in-state rival UNLV, a game that was avenged by 25 points last Wednesday.
“You look at five teams in the country that haven’t lost a game by double digits,” Musselman said. “Villanova, Purdue, Virginia. We have the ability to be in every single game, and that’s the thing I’m most proud of.
“We didn’t have a game where we didn’t play hard or have energy, The consistency we played with … not a team that gets up for one game and doesn’t play the next. Teams that play hard have the ability to win a conference. There will be some teams that play better than they did in the regular season. Don’t know if we’re capable because we’ve played hard every night.”
Mental toughness has been a big reason for Nevada’s success. The Pack has been through a lot. The team lost Lindsey Drew to a season-ending injury at halftime of the Boise State game, Kendall Stephens is playing with a thumb injury to his shooting hand, and Caleb and Cody Martin have played with injuries this year. And, it was revealed Jordan Caroline has a fractured pinkie on his left hand.
“We take every game as if it’s a big game, and not have any highs or lows,” Musselman. “We try to prepare for every team the same way.
“It’s the maturity of the guys in the locker room; the maturity of the ball club and how competitive they are.”
Cards, checkers or basketball. This group wants, and expects, to win every single time.
“Our team is very, very mentally strong,” Cody Martin said. “We’ve been through a lot of stuff from (Lindsey) Drew going down to Darien (Williams) being dismissed from the team. We could have folded a long time ago. You can’t look in the past, you have to look at what’s in front of you.”
Martin dwelled briefly on Saturday’s loss to SDSU, blaming himself because of his six turnovers. He vowed not to let the team down again.
The Pack’s mental toughness is being put to the test this week, as the team must prepare for Air Force and UNLV. The winner of Wednesday’s game will be Nevada’s opponent on Thursday.
Nevada knocked off UNLV, 101-75, just a week ago. Musselman said it’s not easier or harder to plan for UNLV. He did say that most of the pre-tournament work will consist of watching film and not actually going through a rigorous practice.
“They are two different teams,” Martin said. “Definitely makes it easier (to prepare for UNLV) since we played recently, but every team makes adjustments whether we played them earlier or later in the season. Make sure to be prepared.”
Not so said Musselman.
“We have to come up with a game plan regardless of who we play,” said the Nevada coach. “We have one body of work on Air Force and two on UNLV. Our job as a staff is to watch teams whenever playing whether they are next up or not. I’ve watched a tremendous amount of Air Force and UNLV tape dating back to the third week of nonconference.”
The teams couldn’t be more different. Air Force is patient, and the Falcons want to play the game at their pace. UNLV is long with 7-foot Brandon McCoy and 6-10 Shakur Juiston, and they can hurt you from the outside with Jordan Johnson and Jovan Mooring.