Only the most unexpected example of a healthy college basketball culture, that’s all.
You don’t happen to come to Reno. You’re never just passing through here. The city is too remote, too gritty, too far from Las Vegas. It is the butt of too many jokes. To come here, you need a purpose. For adventurous visitors, the draw is nearby Lake Tahoe. There should be another prime motivator: Nevada men’s basketball.
Despite a few late-season stumbles, the Wolf Pack (29-4) enters its third straight NCAA tournament one victory shy of setting a school record for wins. Nevada is disappointed it lost in the semifinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament and fell to a No. 7 seed for a challenging first-round matchup against Florida, but it has been a season full of accomplishments. The team remained in the top 20 all season and rose to No. 5 in late November, its highest ranking ever. After a run to the Sweet 16 last season, the players are hungry for more, and they start five fifth-year seniors who play with an appropriate combination of savvy and urgency.
This is not just a hot program with a smart coach who is guaranteed to leave and move up soon. You’ve seen that plenty of times. Nevada has experienced it, too, with Trent Johnson and Mark Fox building and bolting in its recent history. Some day, Eric Musselman might not be able to resist the temptation of big money and a higher profile, either.
But here is what’s different about his creation at Nevada: For the past four years, the former NBA coach has strengthened the program and revitalized his career around the notion of the second chance. Musselman didn’t happen to win big here. He executed an unconventional yet ideal plan for the situation. He turned Nevada into a refuge for reinvention.
A hard-earned philosophy
Musselman relies heavily on recruiting transfers. He doesn’t want a roster full of blue-chip high schoolers, which is often the draw of a major-conference college job. As a twice-fired NBA coach with extensive experience navigating the minor leagues of basketball and guiding international teams, he craves grit. He is a coach with something to prove, seeking players with something to prove and living in a city with something to prove. Nevada isn’t his steppingstone. In Reno, Musselman, 54, is free to express every elaborate layer of his goofy, passionate, high-energy, shirt-shedding personality.
He is comfortable in this town and in his skin. He is old enough to know that this matters more than the next job. He became a head coach at 23, for the Rapid City Thrills of the Continental Basketball Association. By 37, he was leading the Golden State Warriors. And before he turned 43, the Warriors and the Sacramento Kings had fired him and left a promising career in doubt. So his ego doesn’t need a better job. He just needs to work and fulfill a vision that took ample hardship to crystallize.
“I was so fortunate to get these jobs when I was young, but I didn’t know who I was,” said Musselman, who swallowed his pride and took assistant coaching jobs at Arizona State and LSU to learn the college game before Nevada hired him in 2015. “I was still in search of who I was as a man, who I was as a coach. I’d love to say that, when I was coaching the Warriors, I knew exactly what offensive philosophy and defensive philosophy I wanted. But I didn’t know. I was still growing in that aspect. Now, I feel comfortable in practice. I feel comfortable in film sessions. And I felt that way for, like, 10 years, but you’ve got to go through all these other experiences to get a job where you can put it all together.”
When Nevada Athletic Director Doug Knuth interviewed Musselman, he expected a deep discussion of basketball philosophy. After all, he was about to talk to the well-traveled son of the well-traveled Bill Musselman. Since 1963, a Musselman has barked from the sideline. The father — who coached in high school, college, the ABA, NBA, CBA and Western Basketball Association — died in 2000. The son probably has another 20 years of coaching in him.
But when Eric Musselman spoke with Knuth four years ago, he talked mostly about fatherhood. He talked about coaching as a divorcée and missing too much time with sons Michael and Matthew. He got married again, to television sports reporter Danyelle Sargent, and they have a daughter, Mariah, who was born in 2010. Still, Musselman wished he had been around more often for his sons, and he told Knuth that he coaches now to “make a difference in kids’ lives.”
“You have to know that’s really important to me,” Musselman said.
For Knuth, Musselman had emerged as the obvious hire. It seemed an unorthodox move at the time, but Knuth knew he was special. He has been in the presence of coaching greatness throughout his career, including Tom Izzo at Michigan State and Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma at Connecticut. He saw so much of them in Musselman that he could ignore the limited college experience.
“The traits were there: super Type A personality, incredibly focused, detail-oriented, focused on preparing as much as winning,” Knuth said. “Obviously, Muss has that. He’s not a guy looking for shortcuts or to avoid taking the hard way.
“He’s constantly reading and constantly learning. I love that about him.”
Throughout his pro career, Musselman had difficulty getting players to match his persona. As a college coach, control isn’t an issue. He understands the personalities that can thrive under his direction, and he has gotten creative in acquiring those kinds of athletes.
Ten players on the roster, including the team’s top six scorers, transferred from another school. They come from programs of every size, region and reputation: North Carolina State, Louisiana Tech, Southern Illinois, Portland, Bryant. The Wolf Pack’s stars — rugged forward Jordan Caroline and the twin tandem of Caleb and Cody Martin — are transfers. The role players are transfers. Nevada does mix in high school recruits, including heralded freshman big man Jordan Brown. But this is mostly a veteran college team of players who relished the opportunity to start over and entered Musselman’s program with open eyes.
Musselman and his coaches have made a system and a culture out of transfers. Teams typically snag one or two transfers to fill unexpected needs. Nevada recruits transfer classes. Every year, three or four players are sitting out, per NCAA transfer rules, and developing their game at Nevada.
It seems like a wonky strategy until you see it up close. The Nevada staff takes player development seriously. There’s a detailed plan for what each player will accomplish during his “sit-out year,” as Musselman calls it. There’s a sense of mission because, during their recruiting visits, potential transfers hear the coaches talk in detail about their future roles. They point out obscure strengths. They even project their statistics at Nevada, and sometimes the numbers end up being eerily accurate.
That thoughtful evaluation wows the players. When he transferred from Omaha, senior forward Tre’Shawn Thurman recalls getting a detailed report about how he would fit in with Caleb and Cody Martin, and the twins hadn’t yet played a game at Nevada. When he transferred from Wagner, senior guard Corey Henson was impressed that Musselman had studied every shot he had missed, appreciated that most of his jumpers were on target and illustrated why Henson was on the verge of becoming a great shooter.
“I was surprised,” said Henson, a former DeMatha Catholic High standout. “For him to say something about that, you know he’s paid attention to my whole game.”
Transfers often deal with unfortunate stigmas: not good enough, too arrogant to fit in, difficult to coach, too much trouble, selfish, impatient, opportunists seeking more fame. At Nevada, they’re respectful, hard-nosed young men who want to be a part of something special.
“We’re here for a reason. We have a purpose,” Thurman said. “We come together because we want to change the narrative on ourselves.”
'A connection to these players'
That’s one reason Reno embraces them. “The Biggest Little City in the World” wants to be more than ridiculed and overlooked. Nevada basketball embodies an eccentric greatness that inspires the city.
What are you doing in Reno? Watching Nevada win another game with remarkable effort and execution. Laughing when Musselman tears off his shirt in celebration and lets his wife take a marker and scribble “3 PEAT” across his bare chest to celebrate another Mountain West regular season title. Marveling at the sellout crowd at Lawlor Events Center arriving early to take pictures and record videos of the players during pregame warmups. The buzz was so incredible you would’ve thought that Stephen Curry was about to make an appearance in the layup line.
“There’s a connection to these players, and it’s something different than I’ve seen anywhere else,” Knuth said. “There’s something special about it. It’s a little bit of Eric Musselman, a little bit of the transfer culture and the fact that Reno has the same chip on its shoulder. Everyone identifies with having something to prove.”
This season, Nevada has proved plenty. Still, for all the national intrigue and high rankings, the great disappointment was the realization that this newfound appreciation paled in comparison to scrutiny of the Wolf Pack’s frustration — including Caroline’s punching of a glass fire extinguisher case — after a March 2 loss to court-storming Utah State.
It’s one thing to be known, another to be understood.
And so, about an hour after an 81-53 blowout of San Diego State to end the regular season, you saw Nevada guard Jalen Harris, a transfer sitting out this season, walk back onto the court. The confetti had fallen, the nets had been cut down, and the senior day speeches had been given.
Harris put on headphones, grabbed a basketball and started shooting. Teammates loitered with family, friends and fans, but it didn’t matter. Harris kept shooting.
You don’t come to Reno to bask. There’s always something to prove.