Caleb Martin a key player for Pack |

Caleb Martin a key player for Pack

Joe Santoro

What, exactly, did we learn about the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team last week?

Well, we learned that while the strength of the wolf is the pack, the strength of the Wolf Pack is definitely the Caleb.

Every great wolf pack needs an alpha wolf. It’s the law of the jungle. It was plain to see during an 86-78 loss to UNLV last Wednesday and an 83-58 victory over San Diego State just three days later that Caleb Martin fulfills that leadership role for the Wolf Pack basketball team.

When Caleb Martin plays, as he did against San Diego State, the Wolf Pack is the best team in the Mountain West Conference, one of the Top 25 teams in the nation and a team that could find itself playing deep into the NCAA tournament next month. When Caleb Martin doesn’t play, like against UNLV because of a left foot injury, the Wolf Pack staggers around the jungle without direction and allows potential prey to escape unharmed.

Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman was beside himself after the loss to UNLV because, at that moment, he had a basketball team without an alpha wolf. “I have no idea,” said Musselman when asked about Martin’s injury after the UNLV game. “Not good. I’m not talking about it anymore. He’s out indefinitely.”

Musselman had nothing good to say about his Wolf Pack last Wednesday night.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well,” he said. “We didn’t defend well at all. We didn’t rebound the ball well enough . . . Our defense stuck. Our rebounding stunk. Our loose ball getting stunk . . . There’s so many concerning things . . . A lack of toughness . . . If they (the Pack players) don’t defend we’re not going to win another game the rest of the year . . . I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next three games.”

We’re not sure about the next three games but we do know what happened in the next three days. Caleb Martin returned to the Wolf Pack basketball team and the Wolf Pack coach was seen smiling and joking again.

“This will be a better press conference tonight than the other night for sure,” Musselman smiled as he took a seat behind the tape recorders after beating San Diego State.

The real lesson to be learned from last week, is not that Caleb Martin is a very good basketball player. Everyone knew that before the last two games. Martin, after all, is currently the second leading scorer (19.4 points a game) in the Mountain West and is seventh in field goal percentage (.495), 10th in steals (1.2), third in 3-pointers (69) and 3-point percentage (.451).

But, before last week, we just assumed he was just part of a hand where all five digits work perfectly in unison to form a powerful punch that knocks out opponents. Martin out? No problem. Just stick a new finger in the glove and everything will be all right.

Before last week we knew Caleb Martin was the Pack’s most talented and versatile scorer. But we weren’t all that sure he was the most valuable player on the team. Heck, we weren’t sure he was the most valuable Martin on the team. His twin brother Cody, for example, is 15th in the Mountain West in scoring (13.4), 13th in rebounding (6.1), fifth in assists (4.0), second in steals (1.7), fourth in blocks (1.5), fourth in field goal percentage (.521) and third in assist-to-turnover ration (2.1).

We found out last week, though, how much Caleb Martin means to this Wolf Pack team.

“Missing Caleb is a lot,” Musselman said after the UNLV game. “He’s the potential MVP of the league . . . We miss Caleb. He makes everybody’s job easier. (Without him) We can’t shoot, we can’t defend, we can’t rebound.”

That was certainly true last week. The Pack shot 38 percent from the floor against UNLV and 47 percent against San Diego State. UNLV shot 51 percent against the Pack while San Diego State shot just 34 percent on the same floor three days later. UNLV out-rebounded the Wolf Pack by 13. The Pack out-boarded San Diego State by 7.

The difference? It had to be Caleb Martin.

“He’s an important part of what they do,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher told the San Diego Union-Tribune last Saturday. “I think he gave them an emotional boost.”

Martin was just 3-of-12 from the floor for 10 points. He was just 2-of-10 on three and played just 23 minutes. That’s how much Caleb Martin means to this Pack team. Even when he doesn’t play particularly well, he affects games.

“He’s just such a threat to make shots,” Musselman said. “Opposing teams have to honor him. It opens things up for everybody else, just him standing out there.”

Martin’s mere presence on the floor made everybody around him better against San Diego State. That’s because all of the Pack’s beta and omega wolves didn’t have the pressure of becoming an alpha wolf. Jordan Caroline and Kendall Stephens scored a combined 47 points against San Diego State after scoring just 34 combined against UNLV. Caroline had eight more points (26-18) on three fewer shots. Lindsey Drew scored more points against UNLV (17) compared to the UNLV game (12) but against UNLV he was a beta wolf out of his comfort zone. Against UNLV Drew was an inefficient 5-of-15 from the floor. Against San Diego State he was 5-of-8.

Don’t let Martin’s performance fool you. His 23 minutes were pivotal to the Pack’s victory. Martin entered the game with the Wolf Pack and Aztecs tied 13-13 with 15:15 to go in the first half. When he went back to the bench with 11:34 to go the Pack was up 16-15. He came back in with the Pack down 17-16 with 10:14 to go. When he went back to the bench with 3:33 to go in the half the Pack was up 30-27. He also hit a key shot with 1:10 to go, evening the game at 35-35 and making sure the Pack didn’t trail at halftime.

When he entered the game in the second half with 17:40 to go, the Pack led just 39-35. It took him all of 10 seconds to drain a 3-pointer for a 42-35 lead. When Musselman brought him back to the bench with 11:37 to go, the Pack was up 57-45. Martin turned a close game into a blowout. He played 9:48 in a stretch of 11:12 in the second half. During that 11:12 stretch, the Pack’s lead went from 39-35 with 17:40 to go to 70-52 with 6:28 left. That’s how much Martin means to this Wolf Pack team, whether he’s scoring the points or not.

Looking back, we should have known.

It’s likely not a coincidence that in the Pack’s only two Mountain West losses this year, Martin either didn’t play well (a 104-103 double overtime loss at Wyoming) or didn’t play at all (UNLV). Martin scored just seven points and took just three shots over his final 30 minutes of playing time against Wyoming.

Martin might be as valuable as any player the Wolf Pack has had in recent memory. Nick Fazekas missed just two games in his Wolf Pack career, both in his senior year in 2006-07, and the Pack won both games (at Hawaii and San Jose State). Luke Babbitt didn’t miss a game in his two-year Pack career (2008-10) and neither did Deonte Burton in his four seasons (2010-14) so we’ll never know if the Pack could have won without them.

But we now know about Caleb Martin.

Musselman, though, doesn’t want so much emphasis placed on one player. He has tried to build a one-for-all-and-all-for-one mentality on this Pack team, where everybody shares the ball, everyone takes shots and where one player is just as valuable as another. Cody and Caleb Martin are the Pack’s only set of twins but Musselman wants you to believe that the Pack starters are, in effect, quintuplets.

“Look, if Jordan (Caroline) was out, it would have an affect on us,” Musselman said. “If Lindsey (Drew) was out, when Cody was out at San Jose, we’re not the same team.”

Notice he never said that the absence of Caroline, Drew or even Cody Martin would have the same affect as losing Caleb Martin.

“We’re not a deep team,” Musselman said. “And when you’re not a deep team, you rely so heavily on (starters) Caleb, Cody, Jordan, Lindsey and Kendall (Stephens). Make no mistake, those are the guys we really, really rely on, on a nightly basis. When you just take one of them out, any of them, I’m not going to sleep well.”

There is no question that this Wolf Pack team needs all five starters in order to reach its lofty goals this year. When you cut off one finger of a glove, after all, enough cold air could get in to freeze the entire hand. But when Caroline, Drew, Stephens or Cody Martin is out, Musselman tosses and turns at night. When Caleb Martin is out, he has nightmares.

“My biggest fear if he had been out three or four games, that in games three and four, we might have figured out a new identity and style,” Musselman said. “I was worried about the team when he came back. I’m thankful it was one game and it wasn’t that big a deal for him to get thrown back into it.”

One game was more than enough.