Pressure’s off for Wolf Pack now |

Pressure’s off for Wolf Pack now

Joe Santoro

The pressure is off the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team. This great expectations season is now, officially, a success.

“Year One was really, really easy,” Pack coach Eric Musselman told Wolf Pack radio announcer John Ramey after Sunday’s 92-83 victory over Colorado State. “There were no real expectations (in 2015-16). All we wanted to do was make any tournament we could. Last year I felt a little pressure. But, this year, I felt it. We were the pre-season number one pick (in the Mountain West). There’s pressure.”

That pressure blew away in the wind on Sunday. It was like Lawlor Events Center was a huge balloon on Sunday and somebody popped that balloon and let all the air out as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I felt tight tonight,” Musselman told his radio audience. “I think our players felt tight.”

Exhale, breathe, exhale again. And smile. The Pack is now back-to-back champions in a conference that just two years ago few believed this school could ever win once.

“This was our No. 1 goal going into this thing,” Musselman told Ramey.

That is why this season, no matter what happens over the next few weeks, is a success. Yes, there are more goals ahead. There are always more goals for a Musselman team. The Pack could win the NCAA tournament next month and Musselman would text them a day later and tell them they had to run a three-minute mile by June 1.

But all you need to know right now is that the Pack has already accomplished its most important goal this year. Tournaments, whether the conference or NCAA variety, are just random series of events based on matchups, kind or cruel referees and the bounce of a ball. An 18-game conference regular season is the only true test of a team’s heart, character, will power, talent, confidence, intelligence and work ethic. The Pack aced that test this season.

So smile, Pack fans, smile. This season is something to be proud of. It is important right now to remember that when a Wolf Pack teams wins a Mountain West title, it is a reason to celebrate. Don’t get caught up in NCAA tournament office pools, whether the Pack is a six, seven or eight seed in the big dance or even if the Pack gets revenge against UNLV this week.

All those things are fun and exciting. But they are just the spoils of a great season. Right now this is all you need to know. This Pack team is firmly entrenched among the greats in school history. It won a conference championship. It is one of the Top 20 teams in the nation. It is going to the NCAA tournament.

So go ahead and enjoy. It’s OK. Let your silver and blue pride show through. The Pack is now playing with house money and cannot lose.

“We just have a really, really tough-minded group and a group that believes in itself,” said Musselman, who came to the post-game press conference on Sunday wearing a piece of his basketball net trophy around his neck.

This is not the time to point out the potential dangers ahead on the highway, not the time to point out that the Wolf Pack we saw this week wouldn’t beat any team with a single-digit NCAA seed attached to its name. This is, however, the time to pull off that highway into a grassy meadow, sip a cool drink and enjoy the journey.

This season is already one of the 10 best in Wolf Pack basketball history. The Pack is now 25-5. It is ranked among the elite teams in the nation. It won a Mountain West championship. This team’s place in Wolf Pack history is secure. After all this team has endured this year — crazy expectations, a tough schedule, injuries, a maniacal head coach, a paper-thin bench — it deserves to know that it has already accomplished great things. This team has earned the freedom to attack the remaining games, no matter how many remain, with a free and clear mind void of stressful tension and pressure, like an accomplished college professor with tenure.

“These guys grind,” Musselman said. “They do everything we have asked them to do.”

Musselman, who is obsessed with success, asks them to do one thing above all else. Win. Yes, he shows them how to win and expects them to follow his instructions. But if they go rogue and play their own disjointed way, like this week against San Jose State and Colorado State, and still win the game, the manic Musselman is smiling after the game. But if the Pack loses and doesn’t do what he tells them to do, well, he can be Bobby Knight on a bad day.

There have been as many good signs as there have been bad signs over the last three games. Yes, the Wolf Pack has yet to lose in its three-and-a-half games without starting point guard Lindsey Drew, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury two weeks ago. But the last three games all we’ve seen is a bunch of timid sheep (Utah State, San Jose State and Colorado State) try to enter the Pack’s wolf den and steal their prey. They not only didn’t get a taste of that precious meat, the Wolf Pack made sure they went home without their wool.

“There’s a lot of teams in this conference that are hungry for our position,” Cody Martin said.

Being hungry and having the necessary fangs to satisfy that hunger are two different things. Cody Martin summed up this Pack team perfectly on Sunday. “I was just kind of feeling it out and see what I have to do,”  he said.

That is what this team does best. It does what it has to do.

It wins. And that’s all that matters right now.