Pack’s loss a warning sign for rest of season |

Pack’s loss a warning sign for rest of season

Joe Santoro

Nothing in Las Vegas is real.

America’s most popular artificial city is filled with Elvis impersonators as well as an imitation Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Venetian canal and an Egyptian pyramid. You can’t believe anything you think you see in Las Vegas, a town built on illusion and magic.

That’s why we choose not to believe what we think we saw at the Orleans Arena late Saturday night. The Nevada Wolf Pack’s so-called 66-64 loss to the San Francisco Dons is the ultimate example of fake news.

It never happened.

If any fat guy with a wig can dress up like Elvis and make a living in Las Vegas, that must have been a counterfeit Wolf Pack we saw masquerading as the best team in the Mountain West. It was the Faux Pack we saw that lost to the mighty Dons. It wasn’t the team that is headed to the NCAA tournament in a little more than two months.

“Tonight was just a bad game,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said after the fake loss to the Dons. “Tonight’s a disappointment.”

The real Wolf Pack doesn’t have bad games. The real Wolf Pack is never a disappointment. That’s why we are convinced that was the Faux Pack on Saturday because, well, we saw things we never saw before from the real Wolf Pack.

The Wolf Pack fell behind 8-0 and turned the ball over twice in just the first two minutes of the game. The Pack closed the first half by scoring just 10 points in the final 9:40 and missing 11 of its last 15 shots. The Pack looked bloated, lazy and disinterested, like they just got off the Circus Circus buffet line.

The Faux Pack scored just 26 points, missed a half dozen or so layups and five of its six 3-point attempts in building a nine-point deficit at halftime. The Real Pack doesn’t score just 26 points in a first half. The real Pack has 26 points before every fan finds a spot in the parking garage. The real Pack doesn’t hand out just four assists in the first half. It was like watching an Elvis impersonator come out wearing a sleeveless shirt, tight jeans and headband and singing Born to Run.

Something just didn’t seem right the entire evening.

The imposters, though, did a fairly good Wolf Pack impersonation at times in the second half. We saw Caleb Martin almost lift his teammates to victory by himself, scoring the Pack’s last nine points. We saw Cody Martin score 10 points in the second half. We saw the Pack take a four-point lead with just over six minutes to play. Even Musselman took his face out of his hands long enough down the stretch to watch as the Pack played with boundless energy and hustle.

But then Faux Pack returned for those final six minutes.

Cody Martin bounced a dunk attempt off the rim that landed in Boulder City with 3:41 to play. Caleb Martin took a wild fadeaway jumper with the Pack up by one with 20 seconds to play. That’s not a shot Musselman wants in the first 20 seconds of the game let alone the final 20 with a one-point lead.

Things then got weird.

Lindsey Drew rebounded Caleb Martin’s miss and the most efficient point guard in the Mountain West promptly tossed a wild pass to Kendall Stephens. The ball bounced off Stephens’ hands and was headed out of bounds until Stephens dove over the press table and saved it for San Francisco’s Chase Foster.

A hockey game then broke out as the Dons suddenly enjoyed a rare 5-on-4 advantage for what seemed like an eternity. With Stephens in what amounted to a makeshift hockey penalty box, trying to scramble back over the press table and onto the court, everything then seemed set in slow motion.

Foster calmly handed the ball off to Frankie Ferrari who even more calmly passed to a wide open Jordan Ratinho. Ratinho then coolly drained the winning 3-pointer as Cody Martin tried his best to cover the entire left side of the court all by himself.

The Pack, though, still had six seconds with which to win this Twilight Zone of a game. With five players now on the court the Pack then chose the most unlikely candidate to take the final shot. Musselman ran a play designed for Drew to win the game, the same Drew who had yet to take a single shot in the second half. Caleb and Cody Martin and Stephens, who scored 36 of the Pack’s 38 second-half points and took 20 of the 27 shots, were mere decoys. Drew’s final layup wasn’t pretty.

The Faux Pack’s performance now means that nothing is assured the rest of this season. If the Pack can lose to San Francisco, after all, it can lose to anybody on its schedule. OK, maybe not Air Force or San Jose State, but everybody else. This is the first time since Musselman came to Nevada in 2015-16 that the Wolf Pack has lost to a team it should have beaten even with the Faux Pack.

Our Wolf Pack innocence, sad to say, has been lost.

We simply saw the Wolf Pack do things Saturday night that it hasn’t done all year. It scored just 64 points, its lowest output since a 70-56 loss at San Diego State last February. It had just seven assists, its lowest total since it had four in a 76-57 loss at Boise State last March. It lost a game in the state of Nevada for the first time since a loss at Lawlor Events Center last January.

We also witnessed Musselman for the first time struggle to simply drag his team over the finish line. San Francisco, a team half as athletic and talented as the Pack, played with unbending confidence the entire game.

“We read their defense well,” Dons coach Kyle Smith said. “They were switching a lot of stuff trying to take us out of our offense but we stayed patient and took advantage of some of the switches.”

The Pack, it seemed, were almost set up to fail on Saturday. The schedule, like it did at Texas Tech and against TCU in Los Angeles, was the Pack’s worst enemy. The Pack had nothing to gain by going to Las Vegas to play Southern Illinois and San Francisco on back-to-back nights in a near-empty arena late at night in Fake City. It was simply a dangerous place for a team that had nothing to gain and everything to lose.

This was a clear case of over-scheduling, as if Musselman was trying to cram as many victories into the Wolf Pack’s Christmas stocking before Santa came to town. Musselman seemed to sense the danger of the Las Vegas games even before his team left for Fake City last week.

“We have a heavy schedule,” he said. “Some teams are already done. They are in their Christmas break. Our guys aren’t going to have a break.”

Thanks, Coach. Merry Christmas.

“We planned it to have as many games in non conference as we possibly could and nobody in college basketball is going to have more game opportunities than we will,” Musselman said last week.

He said those words last week as if it was something to be proud of. But right now, after a grueling 14-game non-league schedule that saw the Pack play just six home games, we don’t know for sure if the Pack is Battle Born or merely Battle Fatigued.