Rising Wolf Pack to test Gaels

by Michael Vernetti

Eric Musselman waited a long time to land a D-1 head coaching job, and he proved last season at Nevada that he doesn’t plan to give it up for a long time.

After stints with five NBA teams, including head coaching opportunities at Golden State and Sacramento, two head coaching jobs in the NBA Development League and assistant positions at Arizona State and LSU, Musselman landed the Nevada job in 2015. He took the Wolf Pack to a 24-14 record (10-8 in the Mountain West Conference) and its first-ever “national championship,” even though it was in the decidedly non-elite CBI.

Five of his wins came in that tournament run, whose weirdness is exemplified by the fact the Nevada played Morehead State three times before clinching the championship (winning two in Reno and losing one at Morehead).

Musselman began stockpiling players from the moment he walked on the Reno campus, signing three transfers who sat the bench last season waiting for their NCAA eligibility to resume, and landed two four-star high school players as well. Adding those new faces to returning stars Cameron Oliver, the versatile, 6-8 sophomore forward out of Sacramento’s Grant High School, and 6-6 senior guard D.J. Fenner, gave Musselman the nucleus for a team he hopes will do better than the CBI this season.

Oliver (13.4 PPG and 9.1 RPG) and Fenner (13.7 PPG and 4.6 RPG) are the heart of the Wolf Pack attack, but two of those transfers, 6-7 forward Jordan Caroline from Southern Illinois and 6-3 guard Jordan Marshall from Missouri State, will also contribute. Rounding out the Wolf Pack’s expected starting five is 6-4 sophomore guard Lindsey Drew, son of former NBA star Larry Drew, who garnered 56 steals as a freshman.

One of those four-star recruits, 5-10 guard Devearl Ramsey from Los Angeles, is expected to be a significant force off the bench. Ramsey joins Oliver and Drew as outstanding defenders. With Drew’s steals and Oliver’s 13th leading blocks-per-game average of 2.6, Musselman’s Wolf Pack has a definite defensive edge.

In Nevada’s 88-58 victory over San Francisco State in an exhibition game last  week, Oliver scored 21 points in 22 minutes, Ramsey chipped in 12, Fenner 10 and former starter Elijah Foster, a 6-7 junior forward, also scored 12 points. Gael fans may remember Saint Mary’s opened last season against San Francisco State, winning 80-56 behind Emmett Naar’s 27 points and seven three-pointers.

Wolf Pack-Gaels match-ups

Nevada is decidedly smaller than the Gaels in the front court, with Oliver their only true big man at 6-8. The other expected starter in the front court is the 6-7 Caroline out of Southern Illinois. But they are tall everywhere else, with Fenner and 6-6 and Drew at 6-4 giving them a strong defensive presence in the back court. The other expected starting guard is Marshall, the transfer from Missouri State, who is listed at 6-3.

Saint Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett’s first decision is who to put on Oliver to start the game. This is where the Gaels’ outstanding depth on the front line will come in handy. If normal post starter Dane Pineau draws the assignment, his greater height (6-9) and experience battling outstanding centers such as Domantas Sabonis of Gonzaga, should stand him in good stead against Oliver.

Bennett can bring in Jock Landale (6-11) if he wants more height and strength against Oliver, or Jordan Hunter (6-10) if he needs more quickness. In sum, the Gaels seem to have the horsepower to keep Oliver from dominating the game.

Wolf Pack guards Fenner and Drew will be considerably taller than the Gaels’ slick but smallish starters Naar and Joe Rahon. But those two have found ways to penetrate and score against bigger guards throughout their careers, and it is unlikely they will cough up the ball under pressure. Newcomer Jordan Ford, although small himself at around 6-0, gives the Gaels a quick, change-of-pace attacker from the back court. Again, experience dictates that the Wolf Pack will not present obstacles in the back court that Saint Mary’s has not overcome before.

Forward advantage

It is at power forward and small forward that Saint Mary’s seems to have a definite edge. Nevada has no one on its roster who, on paper, presents a problem for the Gaels’ outstanding stretch 4, Evan Fitzner. At 6-10, Fitzner can shoot over most players who guard him, and he has shown defensive chops that should enable him to keep up with Caroline, if the Southern Illinois transfer is his assignment. Caroline posted averages of 9.2 PPG and 6.2 RPG as a freshman, earning him a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team.

For his part, Fitzner averaged 8.7 PPG and 4.4 RPG and earned a spot on the WCC all-freshman team. Caroline has good heft at 235 pounds on his 6-7 frame, but Fitzner has bulked up to 230 pounds himself, and will not be a pushover if Caroline attempts to post him up.

Although Fenner is listed as a guard, it is assumed he will draw the Gaels’ Calvin Hermanson, a small forward. Hermanson is the same height as Fenner, 6-6, and weighs about the same. If Fenner proves too quick for Hermanson, Bennett has his Swiss Army Knife substitute in 6-6 Kyle Clark to slow him down. Hermanson also has a distinct shooting advantage, particularly from three-point land, over Fenner. Hermanson’s 74 three-pointers led the Gaels, a three-point-shooting team, last season.

Experience may be the deciding factor

Fenner is Musselman’s only senior with considerable experience in the program (transfer Marshall is a senior also, but is in his first year with the Wolf Pack), and the bulk of the team is made up of sophomores and freshmen. Although considered a young team last year, Saint Mary’s is now deep in experience. Two starters, Rahon and Pineau, are seniors, while Naar, Hermanson and Landale are juniors. Fitzner, Stefan Gonzalez and Clark are sophomores, but all saw considerable action last year. Hunter is the only sophomore who didn’t see a lot of playing time behind Pineau and Landale, and Tanner Krebs logged a full year practicing with the team while riding the bench during games as a redshirt. Ford is a true freshman who may play major minutes for the Gaels.

It’s more than years of  service that gives the Gaels an advantage, however. This group went through an extraordinary season last year, winning 29 games without the benefit of multiple wins in a dodgy tournament (the Gaels’ two wins in the NIT, against New Mexico State and Georgia, were legitimate). They beat Gonzaga twice and tied for the WCC regular-season championship.

The only thing missing was an NCAA Tournament invitation, and if they learned anything from that experience it was the value of a solid out-of-conference performance. They get their first test in that regard Friday night against a good, rising Nevada team, and it seems unlikely they will blow the opportunity.

Jordan Hunter, the Gaels’ springy post man, is shown going against Jock Landale in last week’s Blue-White scrimmage. He could play a key role in helping defend Nevada’s outstanding sophomore forward, Cameron Oliver. Photo courtesy of Tod Fierner.

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