Nevada Wolf Pack is right where it wants to be says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

The NCAA tournament selection committee didn’t do the Nevada Wolf Pack any favors on Sunday. The national media also didn’t help the Pack. And the Mountain West, well, nothing new there.

The Wolf Pack is on its own this week in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

If the Pack is going to beat Iowa State on Thursday and either Purdue or Vermont on Saturday to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 it is going to have to beat overwhelming odds. What else is new?

“Whatever number (tournament seed) they want to attach next to us in the brackets, we’re cool with,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said last Saturday after winning the Mountain West tournament. “Just let us go play. We’re ready to go play a game. So tell us where we’re going, let us book our tickets and let us get there and get down to business.”

Musselman, if you haven’t figured it out by now, would be willing to take on the LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday in Milwaukee. You are never, ever going to hear Mister Competitive complain about a challenge too big. All he’s worried about is taking off his shirt and running around a basketball court with another trophy after the game is over.

But the NCAA could have been a little nicer to the Wolf Pack.

If the NCAA had any respect for the Mountain West champion and, more importantly, its fans, it would have sent the Wolf Pack to either Sacramento or Salt Lake City. But, as Alice Cooper said in the movie Wayne’s World, the city of Mile-e-wah-que has certainly had its share of visitors. The Pack will now join that long list. We’ll find out Thursday if, as Cooper also said, that Milwaukee is Algonquin for “the good land.”

Good for what? Filling out brackets? The NCAA needed two No. 12 seeds in Milwaukee so they looked to Conference USA (Middle Tennessee) and the Mountain West (Wolf Pack) and found opponents for Minnesota and Iowa State in what should be considered home games for the Gophers and Cyclones.

Milwaukee is all the proof you need of how little the NCAA respected the Mountain West this year. The league once had tremendous respect come tournament time. But that was when the league had Utah and BYU and it was when UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico were national programs. When Nevada is the class of the league, the league gets one tournament spot and it gets a ticket to Milwaukee.

Just four teams won conference regular season and tournament titles this year in the western United States. The four are Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, Arizona in the Pac-12, North Dakota in the Big Sky and the Pack in the Mountain West. Gonzaga, Arizona and North Dakota were all sent to Salt Lake. The Pack is headed to the west side of Lake Michigan.

Iowa State, which is located in Ames, Iowa, is a mere 300 miles from Milwaukee. Same time zone. The sun sets at practically the same time in both places. If you live in Dubuque, Iowa, you could drive to Milwaukee and have breakfast and then drive to Ames and have dinner on the same day. If you get in your car in Reno and drive 300 miles and head toward Milwaukee, you end up in Elko.

Milwaukee is basically Ames East this weekend. Iowa State has four players who come from the state of Wisconsin. Three of them are from Milwaukee. Yes, OK, the Pack does have some Wisconsin connections. Colin Kaepernick was born in Milwaukee, former Pack quarterback Stan Heath played at the University of Wisconsin before coming to Nevada and current Pack football coach Jay Norvell was born in Madison, Wisc. But none of them will be playing for the Pack on Thursday.

“We’re exactly where we want to be,” Wolf Pack senior D.J. Fenner said on Sunday.

He was talking about the NCAA tournament. He wasn’t talking about Milwaukee.

The NCAA, though, has a long history of not doing the Wolf Pack any favors this time of year. They sent the Pack to Pullman, Wash., to play the University of Washington in 1984. They shipped the Pack to Albuquerque, N.M., to play North Carolina State in 1985. Albuquerque just happened to be the place where North Carolina State pulled off one of the greatest upsets in tournament history just two years before.

In 2004 the NCAA sent the Pack to Seattle to play Michigan State. The second round matchup was against Gonzaga. They love Gonzaga in Seattle. The Pack was sent to Indianapolis to play Texas in the first round in 2005 and against Illinois in Game 2. Illinois is just a short ride from Indy across some farmland. In 2006, the NCAA seemingly tried to do the Pack a favor by sending them to Salt Lake to play Montana. But it was like stepping back into one of those gruesome old Big Sky matchups on the road that used to give the Pack so many nightmares. In 2007 the NCAA sent the Pack to New Orleans to play Creighton and Memphis. Memphis is just a short paddlewheel boat ride from New Orleans.

The benefit of playing in Milwaukee for the Pack is that they should be a mystery to their opponent. But

when Nevada was announced as the No. 12 seed against No. 5 Iowa State, it took the national media about 10 seconds to spoil any advantage the Pack might have had as an unknown commodity. College basketball analyst Seth Davis, part of CBS’ studio team on Sunday during the selection show broadcast, couldn’t wait to put a big bull’s eye on the Pack’s chest. He not only picked the Pack to beat Iowa State but he also said he expects them to go to the Sweet 16.

So much for sneaking up on your opponent in the NCAA tournament.

Of course, the Iowa State media, led by the Des Moines Register, couldn’t wait to ask the Cyclones player what they thought of Davis’ remarks. “That’s kind of been the story of our lives the whole season,” Iowa State’s Nazareth Mitrou-Long said. “I can’t remember the last time we went into a game where we were predicted to win.”

That, of course, is nowhere near the truth. But the point was made. Iowa State, winners of the Big 12 tournament title and headed to their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament, was now the underdog on Thursday.

“We’ve been proving people wrong the whole year and we will continue to prove people wrong,” Iowa State’s Deonte Burton told the Des Moines newspaper.

Those are the types of quotes that should have been coming from the Pack players. Iowa State, though, was suddenly the team with the chip on its shoulder. The Pack, it seems, are the favorites in this game everywhere but in the Nevada sports books, which opened on Sunday with the Cyclones as six or seven-point favorites.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they (the Wolf Pack) don’t go into this tournament and win some games,” Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy said last weekend after he lost to Musselman and the Pack.

Bleacher believes the Wolf Pack is “a legitimate threat to reach the Final Four. And they’re going to be even better next year. So hop on the bandwagon while you can.”

Davis’ comments did the Pack absolutely no favors. Iowa State now feels disrespected. And there’s nothing more dangerous than a very good team with something to prove. The Pack knows that as well as anyone.

The Cyclones are a very good team and they’ve been good for a very long time. This will be their sixth consecutive NCAA tournament and they’ve gone to two Sweet 16s. The Cyclones lost 10 games this year but five of those losses were to teams ranked 11th in the nation or better. They also beat Kansas and Baylor this year.

The Cyclones are led by Burton, a 6-5, 250-pound physical force that is going to be playing in front of his hometown Milwaukee friends and family. He scored 29 points against both Gonzaga and Kansas this year. Iowa State also has point guard Monte Morris, who averages 16.3 points, 6.1 assists and one turnover about once every two weeks.

The Cyclones and Wolf Pack both can score a ton of points, shoot threes, defend well enough and everyone on the roster goes to the glass. It’s just that Iowa State has done it against much better opponents and in much bigger games. As No. 5 seeds go, the Cyclones are as experienced and tournament tested as you will ever find.

Make no mistake, the Wolf Pack has a tough challenge Thursday night. But this is the NCAA tournament. It’s not supposed to be easy, especially for a team from Reno that has only been here six times before.

Musselman wouldn’t have it any other way. He is their real secret weapon. He was born and bred for this very moment. The man is a tournament tornado, wiping out anything that gets in his path. And he will never stop trying to beat you. Ask New Mexico what happened back on Jan. 7 in Albuquerque when they went up by 25 on the Pack.

That wasn’t a fluke. That was Musselman.

He simply wins championships. He’s now won three in just two seasons at Nevada, winning the CBI last year and the Mountain West regular season and tournament titles earlier this month. These are the challenges his father Bill trained him for.

“I’ve kind of reinvented myself in the college game,” Musselman said on Saturday.

The college game is in for a treat this weekend and maybe beyond. Just ask Wolf Pack fans, who saw Musselman reinvent Nevada basketball in two short years.

But will it all end this weekend, despite all of the experts that think they are a sleeper? The Wolf Pack is a talented but not very deep team that probably relies on the 3-point shot too much. And they haven’t beaten a great team all year. The Pack is confident but they are also very young. It’s hard to say if they are truly ready for this moment or if they are just gaining experience for next year and beyond.

We’ll find out on Thursday and, maybe Saturday, if Milwaukee is Wolf Pack speak for good land.

So go ahead, NCAA, send the Pack to Milwaukee to play late at night so you can pave the way for your Sweet 16 showdown with Iowa State and Kansas. Go ahead, force the Pack to play a team that has been to two Sweet 16s in the last three years and has more experience than most NBA teams.

Musselman and the Pack are ready to go play a game. And they are right where they want to be.

“We’re happy that we’re going but we’re going there to compete and try to win,” Musselman said. “We’re not just going there and saying,. ‘Hey we’re a mid major and we’re in this tournament.’ We’re going there to win.


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