Wolf Pack host Aztecs for critical game | RecordCourier.com

Wolf Pack host Aztecs for critical game

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack men's basketball team is about to play its most important game since joining the Mountain West.

No excuses. No ifs, ands or buts. You can't water this one down, smooth its edges or diminish its significance. The San Diego State Aztecs are coming to Lawlor Events Center Wednesday night at 8 p.m. (Wolf Pack Radio Network: 94.5 FM, 630 AM) and the time has come for the Wolf Pack to make a bold statement.

This is the drop-the-mike moment the Wolf Pack have waited for since joining the Mountain West in 2012-13. The Wolf Pack need to confidently strut out onto the court with ESPN2 in the house and a national television audience watching, beat the Aztecs and make a statement to the rest of the Mountain West.

That statement? The Mountain West regular season championship must go through the Wolf Pack.

It doesn't matter that the Aztecs are struggling this year at 8-5 overall and lost their first conference game last week at home to New Mexico. It doesn't matter that the Aztecs haven't even won a game on the road at the opponent's gym this season, losing at places like Loyola Chicago and Grand Canyon. In fact, all those things make a Wolf Pack victory even more mandatory than ever before.

The Aztecs will come to Lawlor bleeding, battered, bruised, limping and vulnerable. Nevada needs to make sure they leave the same way.

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The Aztecs, after all, are the national face of Mountain West basketball. The Aztecs have shared or won outright five of the last six Mountain West regular season championships. The league's media picked the Aztecs to win the regular season title again this year, giving them 23-of-27 first-place votes. The Aztecs have won 46 of their last 55 regular season Mountain West games. Coach Steve Fisher's Aztecs have won 20 or more games in each of the last 11 seasons. They went to six NCAA tournaments in a row from 2010-15 and have been to either the NCAAs or NIT 11 years in a row.

You want to prove you belong in the Mountain West elite? You need to beat the Aztecs.

Make no mistake, a loss on Wednesday doesn't ruin the Wolf Pack's season. The Wolf Pack will still have 15 more Mountain West games to play. And there will be more big and meaningful games to come against the likes of Boise State, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado State, Fresno State and, of course, UNLV.

But this is the first huge game for the Pack in four-plus seasons in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are the gold standard of Mountain West men's basketball. Fisher won a national championship with Michigan in 1989 and finished second two more times. He has gone to 15 NCAA tournaments and seven NITs in 26 years as a head coach and has won four Mountain West Coach of the year awards. If you don't think competing against a resume like that is meaningful to Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman, well, you've never seen the way Mighty Muss coaches and competes against the opposing coach during games.

This one matters for the Wolf Pack on so many levels.

First of all, it is a home game. Forget the opponent. Musselman hates to lose any game anywhere but he especially despises losing at home. Nevada is 22-3 at home with Musselman as head coach the last two seasons. They have won 11 in a row at Lawlor with six coming this season. One of those three losses at home, by the way, came against San Diego State in a bitter and disappointing 57-54 defeat on Jan. 26, 2016.

The Pack, 3-12 all-time against the Aztecs, have played poorly and lost to the Aztecs (losing five times by a dozen or more points) over the last seven games of the rivalry. They have played well (losing by three and two points) and lost to the Aztecs.

It's time that losing streak comes to an end.

The Pack entered this season full of confidence and lofty dreams and the season has followed script for the most part with 12 victories in 15 games. But down deep, everyone in silver and blue knows that nothing is accomplished until the Wolf Pack beat San Diego State.

It was the Aztecs that eliminated the Wolf Pack from the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas last March. That loss ended the Pack's dreams of going to the NCAA or NIT tournament. It left the team in a funk that not even an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational could cure right away. Nobody, after all, starts the season with dreams of going to the CBI. That loss in Las Vegas was the last time the Pack has lost a game that ripped their hearts out.

Coming off a 77-76 loss at Fresno State on New Year's Eve, the Pack is in jeopardy of losing two games in a row for just the third time since Musselman took over the program. They are also in jeopardy of losing at home for the first time since March 5, 2016 (71-66 to New Mexico).

The one-point loss to Fresno State doesn't look all that bad on the surface, especially considering the Pack lost by 22 at Fresno State just a year earlier. But a closer look at the loss does illuminate a few disturbing developments that you can be sure the Aztecs have taken note of. The Pack was outscored in the paint 50-16, turned the ball over 17 times and is becoming a team that relies a bit too heavily on the three-point shot (31 attempts beyond the arc). The team also seems to trust just five players (Cam Oliver, Lindsey Drew, D.J. Fenner, Marcus Marshall and Jordan Caroline) with the game on the line.

Yes, it was just a one-point loss but not all one-point losses are created equal. San Diego State, you can be sure, will be emboldened by the Pack's performance at Fresno State. The Aztecs will make sure to find out if the problems the Pack exhibited at Fresno State were just one-game blips on the screen or something that could allow them to steal a victory on the road on Wednesday.

The Aztecs will also come to Lawlor a desperate team looking to right its ship. They are tough enough to play when they come to town sailing along on a winning streak with nothing to make them angry. But this year is different. The losses to Loyola Chicago and Grand Canyon stunned Fisher's team in early December. The Aztecs were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee last March and they know they gave that same unforgiving committee two good reasons to do the same this March.

San Diego State is well aware it need to do a lot of winning from here on out. That's why the Aztecs' backs will be up against the Lawlor walls on Wednesday. The Aztecs already have five losses and their RPI is just 124. They are one of just three teams (with San Jose State and Utah State ) in the Mountain West that don't have a league win yet.

They can afford a loss even less than the Wolf Pack.

Both teams, though, will be salivating for a victory. After starting 1-0 in league play the Pack might find themselves at 1-4 by next weekend. After playing San Diego State the Wolf Pack must leave the friendly confines of Lawlor and head to New Mexico and Wyoming. They certainly don't want to head to those places with a two-game losing streak in their back pocket.

The strength of Musselman's Wolf Pack, from the very first day he took over the program in March 2015, has been the power of positive thinking. Musselman doesn't even entertain the thought of losing, let alone lose sleep over it or allow it to creep into the thoughts of his players. Losing is simply not acceptable with Musselman's Wolf Pack.

This Wolf Pack team hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2007 and has never won a Mountain West title. They've never beaten San Diego State, never even finished more than two games over .500 in Mountain West play in any one season or won more than one conference tournament game.

But don't tell them that. The dreams this year, don't forget, are huge. The past means nothing to Musselman's Wolf Pack. This is a program of dreamers now.

But dreams, unfortunately, aren't always based on reality. Saying you plan on going to the NCAA tournament is one thing. But going out and beating San Diego State and winning the Mountain West is something entirely different. That's why the result of Wednesday's game will give the Pack's dreams a healthy dose of reality, win or lose.

A victory over San Diego State is the type of victory that could grow hair on the chest of a young team that believes it deserves a seat at the grown-up's dinner table. Beating UNLV at home last year was nice. But UNLV is a program in a rebuilding stage and is more bark than bite. Winning the CBI was fun. But all of the wins were at home against teams that couldn't get to the NCAA or NIT.

This Pack team truly believes it can accomplish more.

It's time to prove it.