Joe Santoro: Pack finally has time it’s been waiting for

San Diego State forward Matt Mitchell is guarded by Nevada forward Jordan Brown during Saturday's game in Reno.

San Diego State forward Matt Mitchell is guarded by Nevada forward Jordan Brown during Saturday's game in Reno.

The real Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season is finally here.

The drudgery is over. The tiresome, laborious, menial, no-win contests against overwhelmed, over-hyped and undermanned opponents have been disposed of. The five months of grueling basic training at Camp Pressure Pack under unforgiving coach and five-star general Eric Musselman is now complete.

Tournament time — the glorious time of year this Wolf Pack team has been craving since a one-point loss to Loyola Chicago in the NCAA tournament roughly 355 days ago — is upon us.

Yes, finally.

“Because of the national pressure, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Musselman said after last Saturday’s 81-53 regular season-ending victory over San Diego State. “I think there’s a relief right now for our guys.”

The end of the tedious regular season last Saturday was the Wolf Pack’s way of sticking a pin in an over-inflated silver and blue balloon. The revenge victory over San Diego State — the 28th victory this year in 31 games — released all of the pressure on this over-examined, nit-picked, poked and prodded Wolf Pack team. From now on it’s not about rankings, the NCAA’s Evaluation Tool, Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology or whether or not the eastern snob media respects any team west of LSU. It’s only about playing ball and having fun.

This Pack team has been under a microscope all season. A Top 10 ranking most of the season. A Top 20 ranking the entire season. Will it go undefeated? Will it be a No. 1 seed? Why doesn’t it play anybody tough? Will Musselman’s head explode under the pressure? How many national media interviews can one team and one coach do in a season? Why would any coach want a television camera following his team around all year?

Actually, forget a microscope. This Pack season has been more like an ant under a magnifying glass with the sun shining down. So you can understand why Musselman felt relief last Saturday night with the most important and anticipated games of his career in the Mountain West tournament this week and NCAA tournament starting next week yet to be played.

“It’s been a blur,” said senior Cody Martin of this just-completed irregular regular season.

It was win at all costs. Win or else. The Wolf Pack had absolutely nothing to win this season. And everything to lose. Every game was a trap. The Pack was favored to win every game, most of them by at least four Jazz Johnson 3-pointers. The national media, which felt obligated to vote for them in the national rankings because of the garish won-lost record, was just waiting for the Pack to lose this year.

This Pack team was a victim of its own success. Anything less than a 20-point blowout victory was met with raised eyebrows and concern. Each loss was greeted with a I-told-you-this-team-was-overrated social media barrage.

Now that’s pressure. College sports is supposed to be fun. At times it was just a grind. A job. See Jordan Caroline in the hallway at Utah State.

“Everybody knows we were playing with a lot of pressure throughout the whole season,” Cody Martin said.

The Pack has played in front of nearly 300,000 (292,719) fans this season in its 31 games. And not all 300,000 had their best interests in mind. See Utah State, San Diego State and New Mexico State.

Now that’s pressure.

Well, the pressure is now off.

The Pack was almost giddy as last Saturday night was about to turn into Sunday morning. The twins, Cody and Caleb Martin, showed up at the post-game press conference with a string of the Lawlor Events Center nets stuck in their left ears in celebration of the team’s third consecutive Mountain West regular season title. Caleb Martin, commenting on teammate Jordan Caroline’s new hairstyle (which looked suspiciously like Caleb and Cody’s hair) joked, “I think it helped him lock down on defense.”

Does that sound like a team under a lot of pressure? Not on Saturday night.

Some members of the team went up to the first row of fans at Lawlor after beating San Diego State just to say thank you and high-five the fans. The look on most of the fans’ faces as they slapped hands with their classmate heroes was the same one their parents or grandparents would have had in 1964 had the Beatles shook their hand after the Ed Sullivan Show.

Last Saturday was simply a demonstration of all that’s good and perfect in the silver and blue world of North Virginia Street. Even Musselman let his guard down after the game as he thanked everyone who made the moment possible as if he was standing behind a microphone on Oscar night caressing a gold statue.

“We played one bad game,” Musselman said, referring to a still unbelievable 27-point loss at New Mexico back in early January. “We’re 31 games into this and we played one bad game.”

Yes, they played a lot of mediocre games. But that was only because they would get bored. Think of the Beatles in the last arena of a 55-city tour. Genius, after all, isn’t always motivated.

But despite the grind-it-out feeling to this season the Pack still left us with a ton of unforgettable moments.

The two blowout wins over UNLV. Caroline’s 40-point, 12-rebound, six 3-pointer evening at Colorado State. Caleb’s 30 points and five threes against Boise State at home. Cody’s 3-pointer with under five seconds to play to beat Boise by one point on the road. Caleb’s 33 points and six threes at Utah. The comeback against Arizona State. Beating USC in Los Angeles. Beating Utah in Salt Lake. The utter destruction of Loyola on the north side of Chicago in the first revenge victory of the year. The knockouts of New Mexico and San Diego State at home in the second and third revenge wins. The knockout of Utah State this coming Saturday in Las Vegas, you know, if Utah State gets that far.

“It’s hard to embrace every single game because you are so focused on winning,” Cody Martin said.

There will be enough time to embrace this season starting in the middle of April. From now until then the Pack simply hope to put pieces of at least two more nets (namely in Las Vegas next week and Minneapolis in early April) behind their ears.

“I’m hoping we can go to this (Mountain West) tournament and play free,” Musselman said.

Free and easy. The twin Martin jets flying up and down the floor. Caroline muscling and willing the ball into the basket. Trey Porter letting out his familiar yell after a dunk. Tre’Shawn Thurman’s grit and grind wearing down the opposition. Jazz Johnson demoralizing the opponent with nothing but net from 25 feet away. Musselman wearing down the officials.

We might see it all this week. The nation might see it all starting next week. That’s because Pressure Pack has turned into Nevada Nirvana.

“Now it’s free game,” Caleb Martin said. “Nobody is worrying about our ranking anymore. Everybody is on the same level now. That’s how I like it.”

For the first time all season the Pack are going to play each game from here on out knowing the opponent has as much to lose as they do. That hasn’t happened in about 355 days.

“I’m ready for us to not have to play with the rankings on our back, with pressure or whatever you want to call it,” Caleb Martin said. “We did a good job of handling that stuff all year but now we have nothing to worry about.”

The only thing left to worry about is picking which ear to hold the piece of net.


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