Is Nevada the next team to play in the CBI and go on to bigger and better things soon after? There is a lot of reason to believe that the answer will be “yes”.
The Wolfpack, of course, did more than just play in the CBI last season – they won it in a dramatic third and final game against Morehead State. That built on a solid 10-8 showing in the Mountain West, though the conference was down appreciably last season from recent years. Now, though, the Wolfpack figure to be part of the conference rising again, as they appear to be on the rise as Eric Musselman’s sophomore campaign at the helm approaches. A pair of sophomores have a lot to do with the program’s clear direction.
The first is Cameron Oliver, who could be a consistent double-double guy after being the conference’s top freshman (as selected by the media; San Diego State’s Jeremy Hemsley was the coaches’ selection) and finishing a close second in the conference in rebounding with just under 9.1 per game last year. In fact, he averaged a double-double in the CBI with 19 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, while also blocking 3.5 shots per game. He was a big part of the Wolfpack ranking seventh in the nation in blocked shots per game with 5.7 and shattering the old school record for blocks in a season, as they swatted away 216 (the old mark was 192). No one will predict that he’ll one day block many shots in the NBA – he had 99 last season to lead the Mountain West – given that he’s 6’8″, but he’s a solid college post player and that’s the game we’re talking about.
The second is Lindsey Drew, who returns at the point after starting all but two games a year ago. While he won’t wow you with his shooting, he did grab 4.5 rebounds per game from the backcourt, led the team in steals and had a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s about as experienced as a sophomore can be at the most important position.
While the Wolfpack will miss departed starters Marqueze Coleman and Tyron Criswell, along with top reserve Eric Cooper Jr., they have capable holdovers and reinforcements. In the former category are senior D.J. Fenner, their top returning scorer, and junior Elijah Foster, who started 32 games last season. In the latter are two transfers who sat out last season and should make an immediate impact: former Missouri State guard Marcus Marshall and former Southern Illinois forward Jordan Caroline. Marshall will have just one season, but he can score, as he averaged nearly 20 points in 14 games in 2014-15, and that’s one thing they need with the aforementioned departures. Caroline also comes from the Missouri Valley, as he earned All-Freshman honors two seasons ago, and will have three years of eligibility.
The Wolfpack also have two other transfers who will add depth up front. Brown transfer Leland King becomes eligible, and he can score, while hometown kid John Carlson will become eligible in the second semester.
Though they won’t help this season, Nevada will have three transfers sitting out this season, all of whom should help them next season. Brothers Caleb and Cody Martin are the most noteworthy, coming from NC State and with three years of eligibility, while former Purdue wing Kendall Stephens will have one year of eligibility after he sits this season. For now, they will push their teammates in practice and get ready for next season.
For Nevada to replicate and even build on the success of last season, defense has to be the starting point. They held opponents to 40 percent shooting – a mark bettered only by San Diego State in the Mountain West (and the Aztecs paced the country in that stat) – and out-rebounded their opponents. It would also help if they can take better care of the basketball after they had more turnovers than assists; if there is one area for Oliver to improve significantly, it’s there as he had 30 assists and 79 turnovers.
The schedule has plenty of challenges before Mountain West play. The Wolfpack open at Saint Mary’s, then host Oregon State and MAAC contender Iona before playing in the Great Alaska Shootout, where they open with Oakland and then play either Buffalo or Alaska-Anchorage. They go to Bradley in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge, then go to Washington and close out the slate against CAA contender Towson and UC Santa Barbara at the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic in Las Vegas.
Challenging San Diego State in the Mountain West will be tough, but not impossible for the Wolfpack. There are a lot of good things happening on the campus in Reno right now. Besides last season’s success and the hope for the future, last week former point guard Ramon Sessions, currently a member of the Charlotte Hornets, donated $1 million to help renovate a campus recreation center into a new practice facility that is expected to be completed next August.
What this all adds up to is that last season’s CBI title may well be just the beginning of good times in store for the program. There is hope for this season given the personnel, and positive developments to help beyond that.