Eric Musselman Building A New Gonzaga at Nevada?

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Nevada basketball’s run to the 2018 Sweet 16 was no fluke: Head coach Eric Musselman is building a program capable of perennial contention. 

That’s the takeaway from Friday’s news that Musselman landed a commitment from 5-star prospect Jordan Brown, a 6-foot-10 forward from California. With Brown’s pledge, the Wolf Pack currently have more 5-star recruits in the fold for 2018 than such noteworthy names as Arizona (which was a finalist for Brown), Michigan State, Syracuse, Purdue — and certainly more 5-stars than your average mid-major. 

Now, the mid-major label is one applied to the Mountain West Conference with necessary disclaimers. Despite sending just one team to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and 2017, the Mountain West routinely landed multiple bids from its inception in the 1998-99 season through 2015. What’s more, the MW was demonstrably better than the Pac-12 as recently as 2012 — and with the Pac’s dismal showing in 2018, the potential for the Mountain West to surge ahead of its regional counterpart exists. 

In the same way consistent success has allowed Gonzaga to shed the mid-major label for all intents and purposes, any Mountain West program has the foundation to do the same. San Diego State appeared poised for such distinction, and the Aztecs’ run to the 2018 Tournament positions a veteran roster for a resurgent 2019. A worthy rival for the immediate and long-term future only furthers the lofty potential for Nevada basketball.

Nevada reached the Sweet 16 this past March with Eric Musselman running the show, and behind a core trio of twins Cody and Caleb Martin, and versatile Jordan Caroline. The first major offseason victory came with Musselman’s decision to stay, despite his being a favorite name bounced among pundits for openings. Keeping a successful head coach is the first building block for non-traditional programs: VCU lost both Shaka Smart and Will Wade, and George Mason saw Jim Larranaga exit for Miami. 

Nevada’s experienced the devastation of a successful coach leaving. Trent Johnson coached the Pack to their last Sweet 16 before 2018, and Mark Fox left shortly after coaching Nevada to its last NCAA Tournament win. Xavier has proven a program can weather losing head coaches and still grow into a bonafide power, and Butler’s beginning to follow suit in its transition from Brad Stevens to Chris Holtmann to LaVall Jordan. 

But both Xavier and Butler benefited from conference realignment and the name-brand of the Big East. While the Mountain West is ahead of the typical mid-major, its closest parallel is the Atlantic 10. Keeping Eric Musselman around Reno is the most reliable course to achieving sustained success and power designation. 

Suitors from athletic departments with deeper pockets will come, but they can be thwarted. Gonzaga proved it with Mark Few continuing to helm the program and leading it within a few plays of a national championship just two season ago. 

Gonzaga’s run to the Final Four and national championship game marked a culmination to repeat success. Building off the initial buzz of two NCAA Tournaments and a Sweet 16 is essential for Nevada moving forward, and the Pack should do so in 2019. 

I ranked Nevada No. 16 in my Athlon Sports Top 25 last month, with the caveat that returning a majority of its three-man core was crucial. Nevada’s seen how difficult it can be to maintain when stars leave, going a decade between Tournaments after Nick Fazekas graduated.

While the Pack are better with the Martins and Caroline next season — perhaps even a preseason Top 10 — landing Brown is an important safety net. He joins an influx of transfer talent, part of a big-picture strategy Eric Musselman’s already had success implementing. Microwave-shooter Ehab Amin announced his intent to spend a graduate transfer season in Nevada earlier this week. Another graduate transfer — Old Dominion post Trey Porter — declared his move to Nevada two weeks ago. 

With or without the Martins and Caroline, Musselman is reloading. And the nation will take notice, which is vitally important. 

National buzz plays a key part in expanding the brand name, scheduling high-profile nonconference games, and establishing a true powerhouse. But national buzz starts at the local level, and Reno is a perfect place. 

Wolf Pack rival UNLV grew into one of college basketball’s banner-carriers under head-coaching fixture Jerry Tarkanian during the 1980s. Runnin’ Rebel games became the hottest ticket in Las Vegas, and national telecasts emanating from the Thomas & Mack Center gave off the aura of a big-time event. 

Reno’s quite a bit different from Las Vegas — it’s not known as the Biggest Little City in the World for no reason — but it’s a community that will embrace its local sports with fervor. On a family vacation to Lake Tahoe last summer, I couldn’t help but notice that the Reno airport was decked out with memorabilia celebrating Wolf Pack sports, including a display case for former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick. 

I grew up attending basketball games at the University of Arizona in Tucson, a city comparable to Reno. Hoop heads in the Old Pueblo tout Tucson as “Basketball Town;” Reno has similar potential. Before you dismiss it, consider the electric atmosphere that permeates from basketball broadcasts in Spokane, Washington.