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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 1 Nevada Wolf Pack

The spotlight shone on Reno during the offseason, but do the Wolf Pack have what it takes to keep it on them in late March?

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Nashville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

2017-18 Record: 29-8 (15-3 MWC), Sweet 16
Key Returning Players: Jordan Caroline (RS Sr. G/F), Caleb Martin (RS Sr. G), Cody Martin (RS Sr. G)
Key Losses: Kendall Stephens (G), Josh Hall (G, to Missouri State)
Key Newcomers: Jordan Brown (No. 19 24/7 Composite), Corey Henson (RS Sr. G via Wagner), Jazz Johnson (RS Jr. G via Portland), Trey Porter (RS Sr. F via Old Dominion), Tre’Shawn Thurman (RS Sr. F via Omaha), Nisre Zouzoua (RS Jr. G via Bryant)

We’ve heard of Tobacco Road, Allen Fieldhouse, Rupp Arena, and so many more.

But this season, the Biggest Little City in the World will take center stage in college basketball, thanks to one of the deepest, most talented group of transfers the sport has ever seen.

The Nevada hype wasn’t always apparent. It was all set in motion a season ago, when twins Caleb and Cody Martin resumed their eligibility after transferring from North Carolina State. The combo guards joined the Mountain West’s outright champs, led by virtually positionless Southern Illinois transfer Jordan Caroline and the steady hand of Lindsey Drew. Throw in grad transfers Kendall Stephens, Hallice Cooke and Elijah Foster, and the Wolf Pack looked like a team that could steal a game in March.

Building on the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade was a tall task, but the Wolf Pack started strong in the non-conference. Wins over eventual Atlantic 10 champions Rhode Island and Davidson showed that Nevada could compete with the best mid-majors. The Wolf Pack entered Mountain West play with an 11-3 record, but a slim margin for error.

A rollercoaster conference season with high highs (winning seven straight, demolishing UNLV in Las Vegas, Caleb Martin winning Mountain West Player of the Year) and low lows (Drew’s season-ending Achilles’ injury, losing to UNLV at home, a quick exit in the MWC Tournament) ultimately amounted to a 7 seed. Then the Cardiac Pack was born against Texas:

...and once more against Cincinnati, in which Nevada erased a 22-point deficit in 11 minutes:

Even a Sweet 16 loss to Loyola didn’t quell the drama in Reno. With the NBA Draft deadline looming and a boatload of roster spots doled out to seven (now six) transfers plus three freshmen, it looked like any combination of the Martin twins and Caroline could disappear from the rotation. Yet all three came back — including the Martwins at the 11th hour — to set up what could be an unforgettable season.

Key Non-Conference games

Seven 20-win teams. Six postseason teams. Six ESPN appearances. Three PAC-12 schools. One Sweet 16 rematch that was inexplicably scheduled for ESPNNews.To avoid parroting an earlier column on this site, the Wolf Pack schedule is the best among non-Power 5 schools.

Nov. 6 vs. BYU
Nov. 27 at Loyola University Chicago
Dec. 1 vs. USC
Dec. 7 vs. Arizona State (in Los Angeles)
Dec. 15 vs South Dakota State

Three things to watch:

How will Nevada adjust to having so much depth?

Nevada’s days of relying on a six-man rotation are over — well, at least for this season. For the first time in his tenure, Eric Musselman has depth at every position. Compare this to the six-man rotation the Wolf Pack used during the NCAA Tournament, and this year’s team looks scary as hell.

Remember that terrible Lakers player stat prediction tweet from this summer? Nevada is the mid-major version of that. There’s an embarrassment of talent on Nevada’s roster, mostly because every incoming transfer was a double-digit scorer.

But here’s a crucial point that’s easy to overlook while staring at Nevada’s tidal wave of hype: There’s only 200 minutes a game to dole out. With exception of Trey Porter, who looks like a starter at this point, everyone else’s numbers are going to go down. Tre’Shawn Thurman and Jazz Johnson will probably be the first two guys off the bench. Nisre Zouzoua and Corey Henson, both number-one options at Bryant and Wagner, respectively, aren’t going to average double-figures. It’s mathematically impossible.

What is possible, however, is re-establishing roles for all the incoming transfers, which is something Musselman and co. have certainly already done behind closed doors. Look at Nevada’s roster without statistics, and the possibilities become endless.

Want a traditional lineup? Put Porter and Jordan Brown in the low post, place Caroline at his natural three-spot, use Caleb Martin as a shooting guard, then put one of Cody Martin/ Johnson/Henson/Drew (if healthy) at point. Want to play small-ball? Caroline has played an undersized five for almost his entire career, then surround him with guards — especially Johnson, who is probably the most athletic guy on the team. Need a bigger lineup to compete with San Diego State? Thurman is your first choice, then play big with Porter, Brown (who can step out and hit threes) and the Martwins.

Under most college coaches, this abundance of talent would go underutilized. Musselman is not most college coaches. With his NBA background and pro-style offense, he has the most tools in his toolbox to optimize every player’s role. The point is: With enough coaching and preparation, Nevada can shape-shift its way into the optimal lineup to beat your favorite team.

For a team with so much preseason hype, what’s the biggest concern for the Wolf Pack?

A wise man once warned to take exhibitions with a grain of salt. With that said, Nevada’s defense in the preseason exhibitions has been anywhere from underwhelming to alarming, depending on who you ask. For starters, this supercut of Musselman’s remarks after losing to No. 25 Washington doesn’t inspire confidence:

As if Mussleman’s words weren’t enough. Caleb and Cody Martin also weighed in on the team’s “bad practice habits,” a lack of pride on defense and general embarrassment — all of which can be found in this rather discouraging tweet thread from KOLO8’s Mike Steffanson. For a team so loaded with athletes, some of whom are NBA bound, the lack of defensive ability (not effort, mind you) is troubling.

So how did Nevada respond in the second exhibition against San Francisco State? Let’s check in with Nevada Sports Net’s Chris Murray:

Yes, that’s No. 7 Nevada getting out-shot in the first half by Division II San Francisco State. No, the Wolf Pack didn’t lose. But Nevada fans better pray the Wolf Pack leave their lackluster defensive performances in the rear-view mirror, or else all the hype could be for naught. Defense does win championships, after all.

How far will this team go in the postseason?

Here’s the million-dollar question. Will Nevada be the Final Four contenders everyone from Vegas to Jerry freakin’ Palm thinks they could be? Or will they get bounced by some milquetoast, underachieving Florida State or — heaven forbid — Syracuse team in the first weekend?

On paper, Nevada looks like the former. College basketball has seen talented teams before, but this version of Nevada has NBA-level talent and collegiate experience to boot. Aside from the McDonald’s All-American Brown, seniors will provide the bulk of the Wolf Pack’s production. Experience will go a long way if Nevada wants to make a deep tourney run.

Championships aren’t won on paper, though. Given Mussleman’s Red Panda-esque minutes balancing act, aforementioned defensive concerns and unpredictable injuries, question marks still exist. Don’t fill in the bracket with Sharpie.

X Factor

Lindsey Drew has been a man of mystery since rupturing his Achilles last February. It goes without saying the three-year starter would be a huge addition to this team. He averaged a 4.1-to-1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, and the pass-first point guard would be the ideal fit surrounded by so many offensive weapons.

Although Drew has been getting shots up in practice, he’s still not practicing at full-speed. Given the Wolf Pack’s crowded roster and that Cody Martin will take over point guard duties this season, redshirting has become a real possibility in order to give Drew a fully healthy senior season.

But with opening night looming, Drew and Nevada have yet to make a clear comment on his future. The Wolf Pack will be a better team when Drew is completely healthy, yet rushing his recovery to crack a crowded rotation seems unwise.