NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Nevada has made itself a factor again by developing into one of college basketball’s greatest melting pots.
Only in this case, the roster doesn’t include players from a variety of different countries. Instead, guys from various Division I programs banded together in Reno to form a winning combination.
All five of the Wolf Pack’s starters began their college careers at other Division I schools. This team full of transfers has given Nevada its first NCAA Tournament victory in over a decade.
Nevada, seeded seventh in the South Region, faces No. 2 seed Cincinnati (31-4) on Sunday. A victory would send the Wolf Pack (28-7) to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.
”Everybody coming here wants a second chance and wants to win,” Nevada forward Jordan Caroline said. ”(We’re) just buying into what the program believes in.”
Twin forwards Caleb and Cody Martin came from North Carolina State. Guard Hallice Cooke started out at Iowa State. Guard Kendall Stephens transferred from Purdue. Caroline began his college career at Southern Illinois.
Transfers have helped Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman rebuild a program that had produced three straight losing seasons before he took over. Musselman has gone 80-28 in three seasons at Nevada, which went 9-22 the year before his arrival.
”We kind of all had a similar situation when we left our last schools,” Cody Martin said. ”We were looking for something like (where) we were allowed to have freedom and just play how you want to play. I think that’s something our coach does for us. He instills confidence in us. It makes us easy for our chemistry to connect because we all had similar situations that we were leaving and coming into.”
Musselman cited the example of former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who built the Cyclones into a national power with transfer-laden rosters before the NBA’s Chicago Bulls hired him away in 2015.
As he tried recruiting these transfers to Nevada, Musselman offered a simple sales pitch: They’d get heavy minutes and plenty of freedom on the court.
”We take some crazy shots sometimes, but that’s who we are,” Musselman said. ”We take quick shots. We take 3-balls. They have a tremendous amount of freedom offensively. Guys like to play in that system and that style.”
That autonomy is just what many of them wanted.
”Coach lets you play,” Caleb Martin said. ”All he does is ask you to just play defense as hard as you can. Other than that, he doesn’t ask you to do much more.”
Musselman’s strategy has paid off. The five transfers in Nevada’s starting lineup have combined for over 80 percent of the Wolf Pack’s points and more than two-thirds of their rebounds this season.
”They’re all way better players than they were when they transferred,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. ”Give credit to their team.”
Combining all these ingredients can be complicated, but the dish has turned out great for Nevada.
Caroline is in his second season with Nevada. The other four starters started playing for the Wolf Pack this season after sitting out the 2016-17 campaign due to NCAA transfers rules.
Cooke says the four newcomers room together and that they benefited from spending last season on Nevada’s campus, even though they weren’t yet playing. By the time this season started, they knew Musselman’s system and understood what each of them could do.
”When you’re more invested in each other in life, the better your relationship is on the court,” Cooke said.
These five starters have developed the kind of relationship and enjoyed the type of success that should make it much easier for Musselman the next time he’s trying to get a Division I transfer to consider Nevada.
”When transfers are on the market now, we have a lot more name recognition nationally than maybe we did three years ago,” Musselman said.
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