Joe Santoro: Pack’s biggest problem is mental

Cody Marin controls the ball for Nevada against Air Force.

Cody Marin controls the ball for Nevada against Air Force.

It might be time to install a comfortable couch, play some soothing music and paint the walls a tranquil color in the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team locker room.

This is a group of young men and a head coach in need of some well-deserved mental health.

Forget figuring out how to attack a zone defense. Don’t worry about making that fifth or sixth perfect pass in search of the greatest shot in the history of basketball. Stop obsessing about every 3-pointer that hits nothing but rim. The mental hospital that has become the Wolf Pack basketball team just needs to keep calm and carry on.

It worked for Great Britain in World War II. It can work for the Wolf Pack this season. But the Wolf Pack, though, is fighting the enemy lately and that enemy is wearing silver and blue.

“I’m sure it is now,” head coach Eric Musselman said Saturday night after a 67-52 victory over Air Force, when asked if the Pack’s struggles on offense are playing tricks with their young minds. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that now we’re getting in our own heads.”

Forget Fresno State, Boise State or Utah State. The only state that can ruin this Pack season is their state of mind.

“It’s frustrating,” leading scorer Caleb Martin said. “The character of our guys is that we’re hard on ourselves. I know when I miss one shot, I feel like I’ve just missed 20. We’re all like that. It’s hard on us because we all know how great shooters we are. We just need to start shooting again with confidence.”

Lately, though, the Pack is shooting as if it’s trying to cram a basketball into the hole on a golf course. As Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live fame in the early 1990s once said, the Wolf Pack “needs a check-up from the neck up” and has forgotten “it’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world.”

The Pack needs to take a few minutes before each team meal, practice, film session and game and chant quietly together in unison, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me.” Smalley’s words, after all, worked for Michael Jordan at the peak of his career. It can work for Caleb and Cody Martin and the other passengers in the Muss Bus.

“We just need to get back to just playing basketball and everything will be all right,” Martin has said on numerous occasions lately.

Just playing basketball. It sounds wonderful. Peaceful. Serene. Calming. That’s what a young Caleb Martin did in his backyard or neighborhood playground with his twin brother Cody, shooting hoops back in Mocksville, N.C. It seems like a fantasy right now, given the pressure of having to make every shot, win every game, please all of the Top 25 voters and, well, make their obsessive coach happy.

Just play basketball. No pressure. Just carefree, invigorating, revitalizing fun. No thinking, no coach glowering from the bench. No should-I-shoot-or-should-I-pass split-second decisions to worry about. No stupid national rankings and NCAA tournament seeds to judge your every move.

Just catch, shoot, swish. Basketball nirvana. As John Lennon once said, the Wolf Pack needs “faith in the future out of the now.”

The now, unfortunately, has been basketball agony at times for this Pack. Yes, they’re still winning with a school-best 18-1 record. But it doesn’t take a Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski or even an Eric Musselman to figure out something is trending in the wrong direction.

Nevada isn’t getting better. Not lately. It hasn’t played a solid 40 minutes of basketball from start to finish in more than a month. It’s letting inferior Mountain West teams believe they have a chance to beat a Top 10 team. It let one inferior Mountain West team (New Mexico) blow it off the court. It needed a last-second 3-pointer from a 19-percent 3-point shooter (Cody Martin) to beat another inferior team (Boise State) last week. It let another inferior team (Air Force) control the game for the first 24 minutes this past Saturday at Lawlor, where opposing teams lose their confidence just getting off the team bus.

What used to feel so good for the Pack (shooting the basketball, scoring points) now has turned into drudgery. The Pack over the last month or so has simply transformed from A Beautiful Mind to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Yes, they’re winning. But that’s only because they’re driving a Porsche in a Soap Box Derby. They’re winning races they can win with three flat tires and a blown transmission. That’s the beauty of playing in the Mountain West this season. It doesn’t help you so much in the national rankings but it certainly helps in the won-loss columns.

Some of the numbers, we’re afraid, are indeed worrisome.

Over its first six games this season, the Pack averaged 92 points a game. It was like they were flinging golf balls into Lake Tahoe from the deck of the M.S. Dixie. The last 13 games the Pack has averaged 73.8 points a game. The Pack scored at least 80 points in each of its first six games, 90 or more three times. Over the last 13 games, Nevada has scored at least 80 just twice and 90 just once.

It’s no secret 3-pointers are the gasoline that drives the Muss Bus. Right now, though, it’s as if someone is dumping sugar in the Muss Bus gas tank. Over its first eight games the Pack made 40 percent of its 3-pointers four times and made under 30 percent just twice. In the last 11 games it has made at least 40 percent of its threes just once and has been under 30 percent a disturbing seven times.

Against the basketball-challenged Air Force Falcons last Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center, the Pack scored 20 points in the first 20 minutes. No, they didn’t have to get the ball out of the peach basket after every successful shot. The last time Nevada has had a first half so ugly? The Pack felt the need to change head coaches. David Carter was in his final game as Pack head coach in March 2015 when the Pack put up 17 big ones in the first 20 minutes at UNLV.

“Twenty points in a half with all of our talent,” Musselman started and, like he often does, stopped before he said something he would regret. The next sentence might disturb you. It might shock and astound you and make you afraid to get out of bed in the morning. Ready? As of Tuesday morning, heading into Wednesday’s game (8 p.m.) against Colorado State at Lawlor Events Center, Nevada is the worst 3-point shooting team in the Mountain West at .326. The shrieking sound you just heard came from Wolf Pack fans everywhere who just put a deposit down on a $300-a-night hotel room in Minneapolis for the Final Four. Mariah Musselman’s perky and happy little wolf ears just drooped to the side.

Being the worst in the Mountain West at anything is cause for alarm. But 3-point shooting? The one thing that everything in the wonderful world of Musselman Mania is based on? That Nevada nirvana is turning into a Nevada nightmare.

San Jose State, which wouldn’t win most California Interscholastic Federation conferences, shoots threes better than the Pack. Even San Diego State, a school that normally couldn’t throw a basketball and hit water in a Sea World pool while holding onto one of Shamu’s fins, shoots threes better than the Pack. Now you know why Musselman spends a good portion of most every game lately on the bench with his head in his hands.

“You miss a shot and look over and coach gives you that look,” Caleb Martin said.

That look can make a potential NBA draft pick wonder why he didn’t take up soccer.

“He just coaches every possession like it’s the most important one of the season,” Martin said. “That’s just how he is.”

Musselman, who is always in search of basketball’s Holy Grail, that perfect game with the perfect stats, also needs a little Stuart Smalley reassurance right now. Someone, quick, get off that Muss Bus, go to the Meadowood Mall and get him a Keep Calm and Carry On t-shirt. His basketball team is 18-1 and ranked No. 7 in the nation and well, he looks like Tony Soprano in search of Dr. Melfi after most games.

“I’ve tried to be positive and green light and all that but, you know, at some point you’ve got to say, ‘Hey, enough’s enough and this is who we are,’” he said. “We’ve got to start taking less threes if we’re going to keep shooting them this way.”

Little Mariah just took off those ears and slammed them to the floor. Less threes? The Wolf Pack, the team that thinks about shooting free throws from behind the 3-point line? Stop it. You are scaring us.

When asked if Musselman would actually stop giving his players a green light to shoot a 3-pointer, Caleb Martin just smiled, let out a nervous laugh, shook his head and said, “No. Not at all. That’s not going to happen. We just have to start finding a way to make those shots go in.”

Enough is indeed enough. Enough with this crazy talk. Enough with the head in the hands. Enough with the “this is who we are” talk. Enough with the “we’ve got to start taking less threes” talk.

OK, everyone in silver and blue, listen up. And listen good. And repeat after me.

“I’m good enough. I’m smart enough and, doggone it, people like me.” Now go bury Colorado State on Wednesday night and everyone else in the Mountain West over the next six weeks with a silver and blue avalanche of threes.

That is who you are. You are a 3-point shooting machine. You shoot them with one arm tied behind your back while wearing a blindfold. You give the freedom to a 19 percent 3-point shooter to hoist one up to win a game in the final seconds. And then you allow him to pose confidently like he’s Michael Jordan against the Utah Jazz in 1998. Shoot less threes? Are you, pardon the phrase, goofy in the head? That’s what all of those inferior Mountain West teams want you to do.

Enough is enough with this insanity.

Like Caleb Martin says, the Pack needs to just go out and play basketball. Stop worrying about every ridiculous possession. Stop counting passes like Rain Man. Just play basketball. Just shoot the ball. Just go out and ball and hoop.

In case the Pack has forgotten, this team has already won 18-of-19 games. It has been ranked in the Top Ten in the national polls all season long. This is the season Wolf Pack fans have been waiting for since C.E. Holloway rolled out the leather basketball with laces for the first Pack practice in 1913.

The Pack needs to enjoy every last moment because well, it might never happen again in their basketball lives. This team needs to stop trying to be perfect. Forget the national rankings and impressing self-important, idiot voters, most of which will never see you play a game in person. Allow a 15-point victory to be exactly that. A reason to smile.

“We won by 15 and I’m not real happy at all,” Musselman said after beating Air Force.

And then he stopped himself and let out one of those nervous Wolf Pack chuckles.

“But we did win by 15 so I guess I should be happier,” he said, flashing another one of those nervous Wolf Pack smiles.

Musselman, we know, is not going to listen to anyone but the voices in his own head. But we’re putting on our three-piece Sigmund Freud suit, complete with the gold watch chain sprouting from our vest pocket, smoking a cigar with our perfectly trimmed white beard, to remind him that there are far more reasons for him to be ecstatic right now than worried.

He is the coach and architect of one of the best college basketball teams in the nation. His team is ranked ahead of, among others, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina. Imagine that. A Pack team thought to be better than Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina. That’s like running a used clothing store or coffee shop in Reno’s mid-town and being ranked on financial lists ahead of Amazon, Apple and AT&T.

Who cares if it isn’t pretty? Winning, after all, is winning. And the Pack is winning. A lot. They are forcing all of those self-important idiot Top 25 voters to vote for them. Do you think those voters enjoy ranking the Pack No. 7? Earlier this year the Pack went from being ranked No. 5 with a 6-0 record to No. 6 at 8-0 and No. 7 at 10-0 in a span of two weeks after beating Loyola Chicago (a Final Four team last year), USC, Arizona State (two Pac-12 teams) and Grand Canyon, all on the road.

That’s how ridiculous the national rankings are. Ignore them. They turn 15-point victories into reasons to pull your hair out.

We’re here to remind everyone that this Wolf Pack team is a great college basketball team. Yes, that’s right. Great. It’s all relative. No, they are not UCLA of the 1960s and 1970s, Duke of the early 1990s, Georgetown of the 1980s or Indiana of the 1970s. They are not Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats in the 1940s and 1950s. They are not Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons in the 1950s. They are not Jordan’s North Carolina Tar Heels of the early 1980s. They are not Jim Calhoun’s Connecticut Huskies or even Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators a decade or so ago.

But they are great just the same. They are great for 2018-19 and that’s all that matters.

This Pack team needs to remember that it loves playing with each other. You can see it in Jordan Caroline’s smile. You can see it in the way the Martin twins look at each other and their teammates. You can see it in the face of a Jazz Johnson, Trey Porter and Tre’Shawn Thurman, who know they are blessed to have escaped the mediocrity of college basketball and somehow magically woke up in basketball heaven in northern Nevada.

“I remember dreaming about this life,” wrote Johnson on Twitter last week.

That’s the kind of talk we want to hear. Don’t let a few missed threes make you forget that.

This team is indeed good enough. How else can they keep winning games when they miss 72 percent of their threes over the last six games?

“We’re 18-1 and playing nowhere near our potential,” Caleb Martin said. “Are we a playing like a Top 10 team? No, not at all. But I can’t wait to see how we play when we start playing like we know we can play.”

Free and easy. No pressure or worries. Like a kid shooting the ball in his backyard, dreaming about a magical life.


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