As we hit the midway point of most conference schedules, we’ve begun to see which of the “mid-major” teams look like potential spoilers for the Big Dance. In the Mountain West in particular, the Nevada Wolf Pack have continued their torrid pace from last season, jumping out to a 19-4 record (8-1 MWC) with a win over Rhode Island and close losses to TCU and Texas Tech. Eric Musselman’s group earned a 12-seed in last year’s tournament and cut the Iowa State lead to just four points with under 10 minutes left before the Cyclones eventually put the game away. This season, Nevada looks to build on that experience as they roll through the Mountain West Conference on their way to what looks to be another tourney bid.
With the tournament just about a month away, we caught up with CBS Sports Network analyst and former Rutgers head coach Bob Wenzel to get his thoughts on the Wolf Pack and some other mid-major schools that could make some noise come tournament time.
CBS Local Sports: Nevada has been the class of the conference this year, what makes Eric Musselman’s squad so tough to beat?
Bob Wenzel: There’s a couple of reasons. Most of it is personnel, of course, and Eric Musselman has this philosophy where he has to, wants to have guys sit out. So, he has four transfers that came in and are playing major roles for the team this year and, he actually has four transfers sitting out this year who will be ready next year.
The two that have made the most impact are the Martin twins who are both transfers from North Carolina State. Caleb is the more scorer of the two, while Cody is more of the facilitator but also a very good player in every aspect of the game. He leads them in blocked shots, he’s the steals leader, he scores plenty. Caleb is a guy who can carry a team offensively. Those two players, along with Jordan Caroline who was a major cog in their machine last year, are playing major roles.
Then, we know that Purdue is having a great year this year, but one of their players from last year transferred by the name of Kendall Stephens. He’s one of these guys that shoots about 45 percent from three point range. They have a lot of good players obviously. But, the other thing is, Musselman as a coach, is extremely unusual.
His teaching methods in practice are inventive and very successful. He will have all of these papers that have diagrams on them and footwork placement, and how we’re going to guard a particular guy or where we’re going to push this guy. Then he puts each of those pieces of paper out on the floor and each of the players runs to a spot and decides how he’s going to play that man. Then they bounce from one thing to another, it’s extremely interesting to watch. So, the combination of his coaching and the way they have made their personnel successful is the reason behind their success.
CBS Local Sports: Despite Nevada’s dominance, both Boise State and Wyoming have had strong seasons so far. Is this a multiple-bid league in your mind?
Bob Wenzel: Nevada and Boise are the two teams that have the best chance. Nevada has the highest RPI by far and if we were to start the tournament today, they would be in no doubt. I think the Mountain West fans, and the administration and the people who follow the Mountain West pray that Nevada will lose in the conference tournament and that someone else will win so that they will get two bids.
Boise is on the proverbial bubble right now. We’re only halfway through the conference season so there’s a lot of games left, eight or nine for most teams. Nevada is clear-cut, and I think Boise is hazy but they have a very good chance.
CBS Local Sports: The Missouri Valley has traditionally been a one-bid league and for the past several years, Wichita State was that team. Without the Shockers this year, three teams are battling at the top of the conference (Loyola-Chicago, Bradley, Southern Illinois), which one of those teams has the best chance of making noise in the tournament in your opinion?
Bob Wenzel: Loyola does. Loyola has been knocking on the door the last few years. Typically, they’re a team that doesn’t have any big people and they shoot a lot of threes. They’ve got four guys on their team who shoot north of 40 percent from three and that is very, very good. They could have all four of them on the floor at the same time. They have a freshman named (Cameron) Krutwig who has changed the dynamic for them a little bit because he’s a big guy and they haven’t really had a lot of those in the past couple of years. I think they have the best chance, they’ve proven themselves over the course of the year.
Typcially in the Missouri Valley, we always looked at Wichita State and then Illinois State was 17-1 last year and Northern Iowa always makes a run when they get into the tournament. But, over the last four or five years, it’s been a one or two bid league and the one was always Wichita State and the second one was either Illinois state or UNI.
This year, it’s very mixed up. I think it’s a one-bid league, and I think it’s going to be a great conference tournament in Arch Madness because of the fact that nobody is dominant. All of these teams can beat one another on a given night and not only is that theory but I think we’re seeing it in actuality as well.
CBS Local Sports: As we get closer to the tournament, people will be looking for those “mid-major” teams that could pull an upset or two in March. Who are some of the teams you have your eye on?
Bob Wenzel: Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10. Interestingly, Rhode Island and Nevada played each other at Nevada and Nevada won that game. Danny Hurley has done a fabulous job there. Usually the A-10 is a multi-bid conference but I’m not so sure it’s going to be that way this year. Similar to the Mountain West, I think Rhode Island is going to be in for sure no matter what happens.
Other than that, Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky in Conference USA are the two to look at there. The American Conference, I don’t think that they would like to be considered a mid-major, and believe me, they’re not. The American has Wichita, obviously and Cincinnati, who are the two clear-cut tournament teams. Then you have Houston and SMU who have a pretty good chance also.
Cincinnati, has the look of a Final Four team to me. Gary Clark, you know we typically look at 1,000 point scorers as a benchmark, but Gary Clark of Cincinnati has 1,000 rebounds and that doesn’t happen very often. Usually guys that can rebound that well are in the NBA after their first year.
CBS Local Sports: What player or players are we not talking enough about this season?
Bob Wenzel: Well, I’m not sure he flies under-the-radar because he’s on the number one team, but Jalen Brunson is a guy who doesn’t necessarily have NBA written all over him because people think he’s not that fast, and not that big, but he’s so smart, so tough and so competitive. Villanova won the national championship without having any of those true NBA one-and-done type players. And, North Carolina won last year without any of those types of players.
The fact that you have these super-talented guys like the ones you mentioned is great. But, it’s still a team game and connectivity, teamwork, balance and all of those things that come with more experience are valid ways and proven ways of winning. It’s nice to see the teams that are high-profile and have high-profile freshmen that excel, I love watching them. But, I also love watching the Villanova’s of the world, the Cincinnati’s of the world who don’t have that don’t have that type of guy on their team from year to year and they still play extremely well.