Instead of participating in NBA Summer League, Cody Martin spent the offseason training with the Nevada Wolf Pack, including a unique activity called “The Tahoe Run.”
During the high-altitude session, surprised hikers and fishermen cheered the team. As they negotiated across foreign alpine conditions, some players stumbled on rocks and roots, and a couple of them tumbled to the ground.
Martin became winded early but soon forgot about it. “I just appreciated the scenery,” he said.
Martin and his twin brother Caleb, who also turned down the chance to leave school early for the pros, are from a tiny country town, Mocksville, North Carolina, which has the motto, “Time Well Spent.” That also can serve as the mantra for the senior-laden Wolf Pack in 2018-2019 – this is the year everyone feels Nevada basketball will have its greatest run.
After winning its second straight Mountain West Conference title — and reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tourney for just the second time in school history — the Wolf Pack return three all-conference players: the Martin twins and forward Jordan Caroline, who also flirted with an early entry to the NBA. A fourth starter, point guard Lindsey Drew, named to the all-conference defensive team, also returns. He is rehabbing from an achilles injury and is expected to by ready by conference play.
Eric Musselman, Mountain West Coach of the Year, returns for a fourth season. His philosophy of acquiring transfers from mid-major programs has resulted in an 81-29 record. Winning is what Musselman does, both in college and in the pros. He started his professional coaching career at age 23 and has a .625 winning percentage in seven years, including stints as head coach with the Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors.
Freshman phenom ‘has a very high ceiling’
After Drew went down in February, 6-foot-7 Cody Martin moved to point guard. The Wolf Pack showed amazing resilience when with a six-man rotation won two thrilling games in the NCAA tourney before losing by a point to Loyola-Chicago. This year, depth won’t be a problem. Five transfers are eligible and Nevada’s highest profile recruit, 6-foot-11 Jordan Brown, is poised for an impressive freshman season. “He has a very high ceiling,” Musselman said.
“We have Caleb (team-leading 18.9 points a game) and Cody Martin (14 points, 6.3 rebounds, team-high 4.6 assists) and Jordan Caroline (team-high 8.6 rebounds, 17.7 points) and Lindsey Drew (8.1 points, 4.1 rebounds) and there are new pieces we’re trying to put together,” Musselman said. “It’s an older team, a veteran team.”
Indeed, a projected first-10 list for Nevada has seven seniors, a pair of transfer juniors and the freshman Brown.
“We understand that there is a national spotlight on our program,” Musselman said. “CBS came here and did a special on us, and Sports Illustrated was here. There is a lot of hype around our program and we’re used to it now.”
On Friday, ESPN Power Rankings listed the Wolf Pack No. 4 in the nation, writing, “There might not be a team in the country with more college-proven depth.” Vegasinsider.com lists Nevada at 12-1 to win the NCAA Tournament.
‘This is like the size of a real-life NBA team’
Media Day on Thursday included practice in the Ramon Sessions Basketball Performance Center. The size of the players — and the physicality in a controlled scrimmage — is most apparent.
Hurtling for a loose ball, junior guard Nisre Zouzoua summersaulted over the back of 6-foot-10 freshman K.J. Hymes. Both players thudded to the hardwood, writhing for a few anxious moments. “OK, nobody’s hurt, let’s go,” Musselman counseled, and the action resumed.
“It’s an eye-opener,” freshman walk-on Jalen Townsell said. “This is like the size of a real-life NBA team.”
Standing as tall as any of the players is Trey Porter, who is listed at 6-11 but confided he’s a mere 6-10 in his stocking feet.
“Eventually, defense will be our strength,” said Porter, a Virginia native and one of several players from the East Coast. “We have a lot of length and a lot of great athletes.”
Because he is a graduate student, Porter is the rare transfer who did not have to sit out a season to become eligible. He started his college career at George Mason and played the last two years at Old Dominion, where he was second on the team in rebounds and third in scoring. An athletic shot-blocker, he’s the Wolf Pack’s likely starting center.
Moving from practice time to playing time
After spending a year on the practice squad, guards Zouzoua, Corey Henson and Jazz Johnson, along with swingman Tre’Shawn Thurman, are vying for playing time.
“I know that feeling,” said Cody Martin who with Caleb had to sit a year after transferring from North Carolina State. “But if gives you that much time to get better. These guys took advantage of that. Working to improve, it never stops.”
Thurman is a versatile player who at 6-foot-8 has the ability of playing inside and outside. He scored 1,164 points in three seasons at Omaha. He played various roles on the practice/scout team last season, helping prepare Nevada for its thrilling postseason streak.
“Cody did a great job stepping up at point guard (after Drew was injured),” Thurman said. “I never doubted he could make a run. These guys went to the Sweet 16 without me. This year, I will do whatever they want me to do.”
The Wolf Pack lost three important players from the 2017-18 team, Hallice Cooke, Josh Hall and Kendall Stephens, who led the Pack in three pointers.
Three transfer guards join the team with plenty of offensive skills. Senior Cory Henson is a career 36.4 percent three-point shooter, scoring 1,150 points with Wagner College in New York. Junior Nisre Zouzoua (pronounced (Niz-ray Zoo-zwah) of Brockton, Massachusetts, scored 1,025 points in just two seasons with Bryant University. Another junior, Jazz Johnson made 40 percent of this three-point shots in his two seasons at Portland, scoring 26 points against Saint Mary’s and 25 vs. UCLA.
Making an instant impact
The 18-year-old Brown is expected to make an instant impact in the frontcourt. He averaged 23.5 points and 13.1 rebounds in his senior year at Prolific Prep high school in Napa, California. The native of Roseville scored 26 points in the prestigious McDonald’s All-Star Game.
“I’ve been able to bang with people, that’s never been a problem for me,” Brown said. “I played in a Sacramento league filled with football players and I went against Wendell Carter (Duke/Chicago Bulls) with Team USA.
“Reno was the best opportunity for me. They went to the Sweet 16 and have returning players to guide me and help me get to the next level. Trey (Porter) has really taken me under his wing. He teaches me every day.”
Porter is impressed with the youngster.
“His footwork is more advance than me and he’s more physical than I thought. He’s 210 pounds but plays like he’s 230-240.”
Great enthusiasm, expectations this season
The Wolf Pack plays an exhibition game against Washington of the Pac-12 Conference at 3 p.m. Sunday at Lawlor Events Center. On Monday, the first national ranking of the season will be released. Nevada should be near the top.
“I know in the past there has not been a lot of Mountain West teams ranked in the Top 15,” Musselman said. “You can feel the wave of enthusiasm inside the locker room and on the campus and across the nation. I think those guys like that.”
Thurman confirmed Coach Muss.
“It makes these guys hungrier for more,” he said. “We want more than we had last year. Our goal is winning as many games as possible. Every team we will play is circling us on the calendar.”
Cody Martin foresees the Wolf Pack atop the Mountain West before ascending to greater heights. The NBA can wait.
“(My brother and I) took our decision to return very, very seriously,” he said. “Some thought we were messing with people. We wanted to make the best decision for both of us.
“The goal last year was to win the national championship. If at the end of this season that doesn’t happen, it will be a disappointment.”
It’s going to be quite a run.
— Tim Parsons
Related story: Wolf Pack opens with exhibition Sunday vs. Washington.