By Zach Hampu
As evidenced by decades of college basketball, there are many ways to build a contender. You can look across college basketball and see Kentucky and Duke going after “one-and-done” recruits and reloading every year. You’ll also see teams like Michigan State, who focus on developing players over a longer college career. You’ll see Gonzaga, who built a successful program by going after international recruits. You’ll see many teams that take a little from several different philosophies without one recognizable identity. But now, Eric Musselman has found a new way to build a winner. He has centered his roster around transfers. This strategy allows a small school like Nevada to get players that are out of their range in traditional recruiting. It also gives Nevada a level of experience that few teams can rival. They WILL BE one of the best teams in the country this year.
Last year’s team won the Mountain West and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in March. They were also one of the best offensive teams in the nation, finishing 7th in the nation in KenPom offensive efficiency and 18th in points per game. However, they were a very flawed team defensively, at just 108th in KenPom defensive efficiency. I think they will improve a lot this year and here’s why:
The most obvious reason the Wolf Pack should build on last season is the return of Cody Martin, Caleb Martin, and Jordan Caroline. All three entered the draft but withdrew early to return for their senior season. Cody Martin averaged 14 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assists last season while shooting 52% from the floor. He filled in at point guard last year after Lindsey Drew went down with a torn Achilles and he is likely to start there this year. Cody was the Mountain West Defensive POY last year as well as 2nd Team All-Mountain West. Also last season, his brother Caleb was the first player in Mountain West history to be both Mountain West Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year. This came after averaging 18.9 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting an excellent 40% from three. He will lead the Wolf Pack and could even contend for National Player of the Year this year while starting at shooting guard. The third star returning is Jordan Caroline, who will move back to small forward this season. Last year, he averaged 17.7 points and 8.6 rebounds with a 47% shooting percentage. Caroline, like Caleb Martin, was 1st Team All-Mountain West last season. They may seem familiar among members of the Wolf Pack roster, but the Martin twins and Caroline are transfers. The Martins came from NC State and Caroline came from Southern Illinois. These three will be vital to Nevada’s success this year.
The last two members of the starting lineup are newcomers Trey Porter and Jordan Brown. Porter, like so many others on the team, is a transfer. He arrives in Reno from Old Dominion. Musselman’s strategy of going after transfers like Porter has given Nevada success, making it more enticing to better recruits. This is the case for Brown, who is probably the best recruit Nevada has ever landed. He is a five-star McDonald’s All-American, and according to 247 Sports, he is the #19 player in his class as well as the #1 player in the state of California. Porter is a 6’11” athletic center who can run the floor. He is an elite rim protector and last year he was one of the most efficient players in the nation. Brown, a power forward, is an offensive force on the block and his size alone should help defensively. Porter and Brown also allow Jordan Caroline to move back to his natural position at small forward. Last year Caroline had to play center on an undersized team, which hurt them offensively and defensively. On offense, Jordan Caroline will be able to bully other small forwards down low but also be a threat from outside, where he shot 32% from last year. On defense, the 6’7″ Caroline will no longer be stuck in a mismatch all night long on a player 3-5 inches taller than him. These two additions should solve the biggest issues with last year’s team.
Beyond the Wolf Pack’s incredible starting lineup they also added some depth over the offseason. Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, and Nisre Zouzoua are all eligible this year after transferring in, and Lindsey Drew is returning from a torn Achilles. Thurman is a senior power forward who transferred in to Nevada from Omaha, where he averaged 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds. He has a high motor and should see some minutes behind Jordan Brown. Corey Henson is a reliable small forward who can shoot the 3. He was 2nd-team All-NEC at Wagner and should be an excellent role player for the Wolf Pack. Zouzoua is a shooting guard that should provide a scoring burst off the bench. The junior averaged 20.3 points at Bryant. Lastly, is Lindsey Drew. Drew is a senior and three year starter at point guard. He was named to the Mountain West All Defensive Team last year and is an experienced guard that will play a big role come tournament time. These four players make Nevada nine deep with good, veteran players -besides Jordan Brown- something that not many teams can say.
With Lindsey Drew, Cody Martin, and Trey Porter, Nevada has some excellent defensive players. Those three, along with their added size, should make for an improved defense sufficient for a final four run.
The architect of this program, Eric Musselman, is as big a reason as any for why Nevada can make a deep run in the tournament. Nevada has improved every year under Musselman, going from 9-22 the year before he took over, to 24-14, 28-7, and 29-8 since. Last year’s Mountain West Coach of the Year has provided the blueprint for a team that should be one of the best in the country this year. His focus on transfers has given them much more talent than any other school their size and as much experience as any team in the country. This plan has also given them success in Musselman’s three seasons and in turn the ability to recruit bigger and better players, just like Jordan Brown. Musselman has created a program that is also trying to prepare players for the NBA, making it more attractive to recruits. He has hired an extremely large staff of 18, with several former NBA players like Rex Walters and Armon Johnson who can prepare players for the next level. He also had a Pro Day September 27th which was attended by 30 scouts from 20 NBA teams. Musselman is also impressive as an in-game coach. Last March, he led the Wolf Pack back from a 14-point deficit to an overtime win over Texas and lottery pick Mo Bamba. Then, in the second round, Nevada pulled off a 22-point comeback against 2-seed Cincinnati.
With how much talent, experience, and coaching Nevada has, they will be an extremely difficult team to beat, especially when the NCAA tournament rolls around. In large part, this is because of Musselman’s unique approach to building a team.