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Nevada outlasts UC Irvine to remain undefeated

Nevada is off to its best start in school history. Will it be enough for a spot in the AP poll?

NCAA Basketball: Mountain West Conference Championship Nevada vs Colorado State Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

IRVINE — After seeing the Nevada Wolf Pack in person one (1) time this season, it’s safe to say that they are pretty good.

And that’s an understatement.

Although the game wasn't pretty, the 79-65 win over UC Irvine on Saturday gave the Wolf Pack their best start since opening the 2006-07 season at 7-0. Coincidentally, that was the last time the Wolf Pack were nationally-ranked. With future NBA players Ramon Sessions and JaVale McGee on the roster, the ‘06-’07 Wolf Pack squad was ranked in every AP poll that season.

As one of 13 undefeated teams remaining in college basketball, the question remains: When will Nevada be ranked?

“That's what I came here for: To be on a ranked team and turn the program around,” junior forward Jordan Caroline said after the Wolf Pack’s eighth win, “To actually get there would be my childhood dream. And I’m hopeful that once we get it, we won’t let it go.”

The Wolf Pack have been knocking on the AP poll’s door already. They received 61 votes in the latest poll, but were the second team left out of the rankings.

Choose a statistic, and Nevada is in an enviable position. They’re No. 35 on KenPom.com, fifth in RPI, ninth in strength of resume, projected to repeat as Mountain West champions and are a seven-seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket projections. Or one could click on their KenPom page, see a lot of green and assume they’re really good.

But statistics aside, watching the Nevada Wolf Pack is fun as hell.

Here are a few qualities that stood out during their school record-setting eighth win:

The Wolf Pack are extremely balanced and athletic

Check out this combination of lineups the Wolf Pack can trot out:

Screenshot from KenPom.com

If the Wolf Pack really wanted to, they could play five, 6’7” guys who can play nearly every position on the court. Nevada’s roster is the mid-major version of position-less basketball. It’s like Head Coach Eric Musselman forgot to adjust the height of his roster in his create-a-player settings, but ended up tweaking the sliders so everyone has different specialties.

The game against UC Irvine was no exception.

“We played with five guys out without a true post guy,” Musselman said, “I thought that helped us offensively.”

Even Caroline, the closest thing to a post player in Nevada’s lineup, is able to stretch the floor. This season, Caroline averages 18.4 ppg and 9.1 rpg, including three double-doubles, which leads the team per sports-reference.com. Twins Caleb and Cody Martin have more than made up for last season’s departures Marcus Marshall (graduation) and Cameron Oliver (NBA) — the North Carolina State transfers average double-digits in scoring, per their sports-reference.com pages.

Not to be overlooked by his 6’7” counterparts, point guard Lindsay Drew leads the team in assists (4.9 per game) has a 4.8-0.8 A/TO ratio, and is No. 43 nationally in offensive rating, per KenPom’s metrics.

Run with the ‘Pack

Nevada plays at a relatively quick pace (they’re No. 95 nationally, per KenPom) and are exceptionally devastating in transition. Everyone in their starting five has the mobility and handle to run the break, and with their relative size in the backcourt, they have multiple players with good court vision on the floor at any given time.

In particular, the Martin twins are exceptionally fluid in transition. With NBA-level builds and solid handles, both Caleb and Cody are forces to be reckoned with in transition. It doesn’t hurt that Cody leads the Wolf Pack with 2.1 steals and 2.0 blocks per game; naturally, he’s usually the catalyst of the fast break.

“They’re exciting to play with in transition,” Caroline said of the Martin twins, “It’s great. Like the one I had to give up to Cody on the break [with 12:30 to go in the first], then he ended up dunking on a guy. I just had to watch. That got me going.”

As a whole, the Wolf Pack are very comfortable in transition. It’s not uncommon to see high degree-of-difficulty moves from any of the players in the open court; for their size, the Martin twins can dial up nifty behind-the-back passes to their teammates like quarterbacks going through pre-planned reads.

“Is he your only scorer?” Or, the Kendall Stephens story

UC Irvine’s lead going into the second frame was short-lived, thanks to a barrage of threes.

Musselman dialed up an out-of-bounds play at the 18:53 mark involving not one, but three different players making baseline cuts to the right corner. Sophomore guard Kendall Stephens, who had been struggling as of late, was the final recipient of the play, and he nailed a three near the right corner.

“It’s interesting because I got a text from Caleb [Martin], and he said ‘Hey, let’s run some stuff early for Kendall [Stephens] to get him going,’” Musselman said, “That’s the type of teammates we have. Caleb’s a big-time scorer, and here he is texting me about new plays we can run to kickstart Kendall that the opponent hasn’t seen yet.”

The end result looked a lot like the Portland Trailblazers’ mesmerizing offense, which makes since given Musselman’s NBA coaching experience.

By the time the Anteaters could make defensive adjustments, Stephens was 3-for-3 from distance — all before the first media timeout.

Stephens’ third three elicited a sarcastic “Is he your only scorer?” quip from one of the UC Irvine students. Thankfully for the Wolf Pack — and unfortunately for the Anteaters — the answer to that question was a resounding, “no.”

The rest of the Wolf Pack followed suit: Caleb Martin and Lindsay Drew hit threes to put Nevada up for good with more than 14 minutes to play.

Jordan Caroline is a one-man wrecking machine

Of all the Wolf Pack’s versatile, athletic players, none were more valuable on Saturday than junior forward Jordan Caroline.

For the majority of the game, the Southern Illinois transfer was the only Nevada player to find success against the Anteaters’ 2-3 zone. Built like a middle linebacker, Caroline muscled his way into the paint for eight of his 11 points in the first half. His ability to get to the line ended top being paramount in the second half, as UC Irvine starters Brandon Smith and Jonathan Galloway found itself in foul trouble midway through the second half.

Not only that, Caroline can stretch the floor too. His three with 1:32 to play not only gave him the game high with 24 points, but also all but sunk UC Irvine’s comeback chances.

What’s next?

Aside from perhaps an appearance in the next college basketball polls, the Wolf Pack have big games ahead of them.

Even though the biggest challenges await Nevada — they’ll travel to No. 22 Texas Tech, then hit the road to play No. 23 TCU in Los Angeles — the team is no stranger to playing on the road.

“I don't know how many teams have this many road wins,” Head Coach Eric Musselman said, “And forget about wins, I don't know how many teams have played this many road games [so far]. This was a game we had to win.”