Santoro: No need to wait — Pack’s March madness starts now

Nevada’s Tre Coleman is averaging career bests in scoring (8.8 ppg) and assists (2.9 apg) for the 24-win Wolf Pack.

Nevada’s Tre Coleman is averaging career bests in scoring (8.8 ppg) and assists (2.9 apg) for the 24-win Wolf Pack.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

Sports Fodder:

Forget next week in Las Vegas at Thomas & Mack Center. The Mountain West men’s basketball tournament, for all intents and purposes, starts right now.

Five teams are bunched at or near the top of the league standings with either four (Utah State and Boise State) or five (Nevada, San Diego State, UNLV) conference losses.

This week, therefore, will clearly set up next week in the Mountain West Tournament. The Mountain West Tournament will then set up the following week when likely four and as many as six Mountain West teams get an invite to the NCAA Tournament. You could argue that the seeds the NCAA selection committee hands out on March 17 will be affected by what happens this week.

The objective for the Nevada Wolf Pack, which goes to Boise State on Tuesday (March 5) and hosts UNLV on Saturday (March 9), is crystal clear. The Pack needs to win two games and also needs a little help, namely a loss by Utah State to either San Jose State (not likely) or New Mexico (quite possible) or both this week.

The only thing anyone knows for sure right now is that a loss at Boise State on Tuesday will eliminate the Pack immediately from the league race. A win at Boise and a loss to UNLV and the Pack will be hoping for six miracles, a few well-placed lightning strikes and a half dozen or so lucky rolls of the dice to win the title.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Pack owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against Utah State because of a 77-63 win over the Aggies on the road in early February.

Utah State, though, is in the driver’s seat for the league title right now. The Aggies, who swept Boise State in two games this year, do not play another team in the top five this week. The other four teams in the top five (Boise State, Nevada, UNLV, San Diego State) all play two games against each other.

Talk about March Madness.


What are the Wolf Pack’s chances at Boise State? The Pack has lost its last three games at Boise State and has not won a game there in the Steve Alford era as head coach.

The last Pack win at Boise State was 72-71 on Jan. 15, 2019, when Eric Musselman was coach and needed a dramatic 3-pointer by Cody Martin with five seconds left.

Boise State takes on the Pack this week after beating Nevada at Lawlor Events Center 64-56 on Jan. 12. The Wolf Pack’s key to beating Boise State will be on the glass, where the Broncos owned a ridiculous 43-24 edge in Reno back in January.

The Pack, though, has the revenge factor on its side this week. It also has more depth on its roster and arguably the Mountain West Coach of the Year on its bench.

The oddsmakers had Boise State as a 5.5-point favorite Tuesday morning.


The Wolf Pack, the oddsmakers obviously don't know, is a much-improved team compared to back in the middle of January. Nick Davidson has blossomed in the paint, Jarod Lucas has smoothed out the rough edges in his jump shot, Daniel Foster has become one of the best sixth men in the conference and Hunter McIntosh has finally found the jump shot he left behind at Elon two years ago. Tre Coleman has also emerged as likely the best two-way player in the league, if not the West Coast.

Yes, Boise State pushed Nevada around two months ago. The Broncos not only owned the boards, but they also harassed the Wolf Pack’s Lucas and Kenan Blackshear into a combined 10-of-30 shooting night.

That won't happen again. If Blackshear and Lucas are misfiring again, it’s not likely they will even combine for 30 shots. That’s where the improvement of Davidson, Coleman, McIntosh and Foster comes in. Blackshear and Lucas were the heart and soul of the Pack offense back in mid-January. Now they share that title with three or four others.

Blackshear, who has missed the last two games with an ankle injury, has probably been resting up for the rematch at Boise. He has, after all, a lot of history against the Broncos he’d like to correct before his college career ends sometime this month.

It was against the Broncos, don’t forget, that he missed a 3-pointer with six seconds left in a 71-69 loss in the 2022 Mountain West tournament.


The Wolf Pack also will have revenge on its mind against UNLV on Saturday. And this revenge is not just two months old, like it is against Boise State. The Pack revenge against UNLV is a year old.

The Pack did win at UNLV, 69-66, on Feb. 17. But UNLV, the Pack remembers all too well, waltzed into Lawlor Events Center in the final home game last year and stole a 69-67 overtime win in front of a crowd of 11,327.

Saturday night will be the final home game at Nevada for Lucas, Blackshear, McIntosh and Musselman recruit K.J. Hymes. The last thing those fifth and sixth-year seniors want to do is to close out their college careers at home in front of 10,000-plus fans with a loss against their in-state rival. A Mountain West regular-season championship might also be on the line.

What better way to end your career at home than by cutting down the net in front of your fans, you know, like Musselman used to do? Maybe Alford will even rip off his shirt.


Mountain West coaches all season long have been preaching that six teams from their underappreciated league deserve a NCAA Tournament bid.

It's tough to argue against them. As things stand now, the Mountain West has six teams among the top 40 in the NET rankings. Those six are Utah State, Boise State, Nevada, San Diego State, New Mexico and Colorado State.

Nevada is the lowest ranked at 40, which leads one to believe that the NET rankings aren’t as reliable as the NCAA wants you to believe. But if the Wolf Pack is the lowest NET team at 40 then, yes, six Mountain West teams clearly deserve a NCAA Tournament bid.

San Diego State, which lost in the NCAA Tournament title game last season to Connecticut, will clearly get an invite even if it loses twice this week and drops its first Mountain West tournament game to finish with 10 losses.

The Wolf Pack (24-6) and Utah State (24-5) would also seem to be locks right now. But Boise State and New Mexico already have eight losses and Colorado State has nine. Do any of them get an invite with 10 or more losses? Let’s just say it’s not a lock.

UNLV (18-10) could also make things interesting by winning the tournament next week on its home court.


Steve Alford’s Nevada teams have not fared so well down the stretch. The Wolf Pack under Alford lost its last two games in 2019-20, three of its last five in 2020-21, four of its last five in 2021-22 and its final four last year.

Alford’s Pack has won its last five and eight of its last nine so far this year. But all that will be forgotten if the next three weeks don’t go so well.

Alford, before he came to Nevada, enjoyed great success in the postseason. He went to the Sweet 16 in 2014, 2015 and 2017 with UCLA. He won the 2014 Pac-12 tournament with the Bruins.

He won the 2012 and 2013 Mountain West tournaments with New Mexico and the Big Ten tournament with Iowa in 2001 and 2006.

And, of course, don’t forget he won the 1987 national championship as the best player on the Indiana Hoosiers. We’ll also throw in the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles when, of course, he wasn’t the best player.

He’s due for some memorable March moments on the Nevada bench.


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