You could see it coming all season long: The Nevada Wolf Pack were going to get burned by their penchant for starting games slowly. They were going to arrive at the NCAA Tournament, start a game in sluggish form, try to flip the switch in the second half, but not complete a comeback when it really mattered.
Teams don’t necessarily have to enter the NCAA Tournament on a 10-game winning streak. They don’t have to be playing their best basketball of the year — it’s certainly good, but not a prerequisite. Plenty of teams have stunk in early March or in conference tournaments and made Final Four runs — ask 2016 Syracuse or 2017 South Carolina about that reality, among others.
Nevada didn’t have to have everything figured out entering March. It didn’t have to exhibit an airtight profile without any weaknesses.
However: Teams with championship aspirations DO have to show that if they exhibit bad habits over the course of a season, they can correct them and keep them under control. They can have bad nights — such as the semifinals of the Mountain West Tournament against San Diego State — but they need to show that they can make course corrections.
Nevada never really did that, and so it happened: The Wolfpack fell behind by nine points at halftime, then 18 in the second half. They made a typically furious second-half push; crept within two points at 61-59; had a chance to tie or go ahead… but then ran out of made shots down the stretch.
The huge comeback against Texas a year ago — also as a No. 7 seed in a 7-10 first-round game — made people across the United States aware of Nevada’s penchant for first-half snooze bars and second-half drinks at “refuse to lose bars.” Nevada completed a second-half comeback in the round of 32 against Cincinnati following that win over Texas. Second-half comebacks have become such a pronounced Nevada brand, and it almost happened again this year against Florida.
This wasn’t a sustainable habit. This was a tendency which left the Wolf Pack with far too little margin for error. Coach Eric Musselman bizarrely refused to foul when Florida — leading 65-61 — grabbed a defensive rebound with just over a minute left. The Gators ran dozens of seconds off the clock and then scored on a dunk. They weren’t threatened again in a 70-61 win which knocked out a Nevada team which spent a good chunk of the season in the top 10 of the national rankings.
Nevada, in hindsight — and this is not an unfair criticism in my mind — ought to have scheduled better.
Nevada and Musselman played USC, Arizona State and Utah — those were the Wolf Pack’s most ambitious non-conference games. Yes, one can say Nevada was unlucky that the Pac-12 provided a poor measurement of college basketball quality this year, but even then: If the Wolf Pack had played a few prominent national programs — even only one — they might have had a much better idea of what to expect and adjust to against Florida.
This Nevada season drowned in a reliance that mistakes could be compensated for and slow starts could be overcome… and that a thin non-con slate wouldn’t matter.
That reliance on a house of sand and fog was misplaced, as we can all see.
The laws of averages — and Florida — knocked out Nevada in 2019, which wrote a story with an ending which was very different from 2018.
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