Column: No matter the name, No. 8 Nevada is for real
By Tim Dahlberg
AP Sports Columnist
LAS VEGAS (AP) — About the only thing in dispute at the UNLV campus arena Tuesday night was what to call the team that dominated a home squad that no longer lives up to its nickname as the Runnin’ Rebels.
Down here they call them UNR, or the University of Nevada-Reno. There’s some satisfaction in that, especially now that UNLV is no longer the best team in the state.
The rest of college basketball calls them Nevada. And those really in the know are calling them a legitimate Final Four team.
An 87-70 victory over UNLV that was settled in the first half didn’t do much for Nevada’s national ranking (No. 8) or RPI (No. 12). It probably didn’t do too much for the school’s reputation, either, since the Runnin’ Rebels don’t run much anymore and the game started at 11 p.m. in areas where college basketball is taken most seriously.
But it did give Eric Musselman’s team its 20th win against only a single loss. And it did help make a case that No. 4 Gonzaga isn’t the only title contender in an otherwise desolate West.
One lousy night in Albuquerque a few weeks back ruined Nevada’s hopes of a perfect season. But the goal has always been to go deep into the NCAA Tournament, and so far the Wolf Pack is treating it as a lesson well learned.
“We were really disappointed with the one loss that we’ve had this year,” Musselman said. “It’s hard to play really well every night and we had a game that we stunk, but I think it refocused us for sure.”
Having UNR, er, Nevada, in town brought out UNLV’s biggest crowd of the season and briefly turned up the volume in an arena where the Runnin’ Rebels were once the biggest show in town. They’re not anymore, but that didn’t make the Wolf Pack win over their in-state rival any less sweet.
Whether they can beat the best teams is really the only question left. A middling nonconference schedule and a weak Mountain West conference haven’t presented the kind of tests the Wolf Pack will find themselves facing in March.
Losing to New Mexico by 27 points, though, might have been just the kind of reality check Nevada needed.
“That loss definitely puts our season in perspective,” said Caleb Martin, who along with his twin, Cody, anchors the team. “And it’s kind of a reality check that you’re beatable on any night depending if you bring it or not.”
So far the bad nights have been few, thanks mostly to Caleb and Cody Martin and power forward Jordan Caroline. The three took Nevada to the Sweet 16 last year before losing to Loyola-Chicago, and they’re back as seniors for one last chance.
And experience might be the one advantage they will carry into a tournament where they might face some of the freshmen who are projected to go far above them in the NBA draft.
“We’re getting later in the season, we’re getting guys to start jelling, we’re getting guys to create that chemistry and stuff like that,” Martin said. “This is around the time you want to start figuring out how you want to play each other.”
Musselman, who resurrected a head coaching career when hired by Nevada in 2015, has also resurrected a program that has had only flashes of success in the past. The former Golden State Warriors coach turned to the transfer market to pick up the Martin twins and Caroline and earlier this month won his 100th game at Nevada.
Their performance against UNLV was typical of this season, with Caroline picking up 18 points and 10 rebounds and the two 6-foot-7 Martins combining for 36 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists.
The same Martins who told ESPN earlier this month that when transferring from North Carolina State they thought Reno was part of Las Vegas, which is 400 miles away.
“I didn’t even know it existed,” Cody Martin said. “I was the typical East Coast guy who thought Reno was Vegas and thought that it was going to be sunny and hot all the time. And then we got here, I was like, ‘Y’all aren’t in Vegas?’ I had no idea where I was going to.”
They know now, though, and fans outside Nevada are starting to figure out where the school is, too. With the Mountain West in a down year, there’s a good chance the Wolf Pack will enter the NCAA Tournament with just one loss and a potentially high seed.
How that will play out is hard to predict. But Nevada won two games in the tournament last year with the same key players, so it’s doubtful they will be intimidated on the big stage.
Because no matter the name, this team has some game.