The way Eric Musselman sees it, the Morehead State Eagles desperately need to beat the Nevada Wolf Pack Monday night in Kentucky in the first game of the College Basketball Invitational championship series.
“That first game is real critical for them,” the Wolf Pack’s first-year coach said of the opener of the best-of-three title series.
Consider the pressure clearly on the Eagles (22-12) of the Ohio Valley Conference on Monday night in Morehead, Ky. (ESPNU, 5:30 p.m.), Musselman said. The Wolf Pack, after all, will have the comfort of knowing that Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) will be at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.
“The home team can ill afford to lose Game One because then they have to go on the road and win twice,” said Musselman, who has guided the Wolf Pack to a 22-13 record in his first season as head coach.
The home team has lost the first game in the previous eight CBI championship series just once. Fresno State lost at home in 2014 to Siena and eventually lost the series in three games. The home team has a record of 16-6 in the previous eight CBI title series. Home is clearly where the victories are in the CBI overall. The home team in the CBI since the tournament began in 2008 has a record of 106-42, a winning percentage of 72 percent.
“It’s just a tremendous advantage if the road team can win Game 1,” Musselman said.
A loss for the road team in Game 1, though, is not all that critical. UTEP lost the first game on the road in 2009 against Oregon State and then won its two home games to win the series. Oregon did the same to Creighton in 2011 as did Pittsburgh to Washington State in 2012 and George Mason to Santa Clara in 2013.
“Having those two home games waiting for us does ease the pressure on us a little bit in that first game on the road,” junior guard D.J. Fenner said.
The road team has won just three of the previous 14 CBI games this year and Morehead State has two of those road wins. The Eagles won at Siena (84-80) in Albany, N.Y. and at Ohio (77-72). Playing in Reno, though, could be a difficult task for the Eagles. Morehead State has not played a game farther west than St. Louis this year and is 9-10 away from home this year.
The Wolf Pack also loves playing at Lawlor Events Center. The Pack is 14-3 at home this year including CBI wins over Montana (79-75), Eastern Washington (85-70) and Vermont (86-72).
“We’ve become very comfortable at home,” Musselman said. “Home games are very important in this tournament.”
The game on Monday will be the first time the Pack has played away from Lawlor since it was eliminated from the Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas by San Diego State 67-55 on March 11. The Pack also hasn’t played in an opponent’s building since a 76-57 loss at Boise State on March 2. The game at Morehead State will be just the Pack’s second in the opponent’s building over a span of 37 days.
The Wolf Pack, though, isn’t required to win a game on the road to win the CBI title. The Pack could become just the third (after Tulsa in 2008, Oregon in 2011) team to win the CBI championship without winning a game on the road.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we feel invincible at home,” Fenner said. “But it does kind of give us that invincible feeling. We’re very confident at home.”
Morehead State averages just 2,836 fans a game at home. The Eagles have won two road games this year in the CBI but those came in front of 3,712 fans at Ohio and 2,061 at Siena. The Wolf Pack has averaged 5,570 fans for each of its three CBI home games this year and is expecting a huge leap in attendance next week as students return from spring break.
“We’re hoping to pack the place on Wednesday,” said Musselman, referring to Lawlor’s capacity of just over 11,000 fans. “I can sense the excitement building in the community.”
“Our fans have been amazing lately,” Fenner said. “They help us so much.”
Morehead State, Musselman said, is clearly the best team the Pack has faced in the CBI this year. The Eagles were 11-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference this year and have won 10 of their last 11 games overall and has gone 16-5 since early January.
‘They play real hard, they are a great offensive rebounding team, and they do an unbelievable job of creating turnovers off of ball pressure,” Musselman said.
Morehead State coach Sean Woods said after his team’s 77-72 semifinal win at Ohio last Wednesday that, “This team doesn’t want to stop playing. We’re fighting and scrapping because we want to win so badly. This team is just so relentless. We’re doing everything from a hustle and toughness standpoint that you can possibly do.”
Musselman, who prides himself on teaching his team how to play with energy and toughness, has said similar things about his team this entire season.
“This has been a neat progression for us this year,” Musselman said. “We are playing better and better as the year goes on.”
Morehead State, Musselman said, will require the Wolf Pack to play its best basketball.
“Morehead State, no doubt, is the most athletic team we’ve seen in the tournament,” Muselman said. “The other three teams we’ve played were all kind of similar in that they were good three-point shooting teams that weren’t as athletic or physical.
But Morehead State is as athletic as any team we’ve played all season long. And they attack the rim and can shoot the three.”
“This series will come down to who is the tougher team,” Wolf Pack senior point guard Marqueze Coleman said.
“They (Morehead) are bigger, more physical and faster than the teams we’ve been playing lately,” Fenner said. “They are more of a Mountain West type of team than Montana, Eastern Washington and Vermont. We definitely have to be on our game.”
The Eagles’ 6-foot-2 guard Xavier Moon is averaging 10.5 points a game and is shooting 43 percent beyond the arc. Corban Collins, a 6-3 guard, averages 11.7 points and is shooting 44 percent on threes. Lyonell Gaines (6-6) averages 6.1 points and 3.8 rebounds but had 14 points and 13 boards against Ohio, including five offensive rebounds. Gaines also had six offensive rebounds in the win over Duquesne.
The Wolf Pack was able to wear down Montana, Eastern Washington and Vermont in the second half, especially on defense, but that might be more difficult to do against Morehead State. The Eagles have 11 players that average nine or more minutes a game. Just seven Pack players average nine or more minutes a game.
“Their depth is a huge advantage for them,” Musselman said. “That’s a big concern for us because we might have to play three games in five days next week.”
Two more wins will give the Pack the school’s first postseason national tournament championship. And the celebration could take place in front of their fellow students on their own home court. The NCAA tournament and NIT, for example, play their championship games at a neutral site.
“That is amazing to think about,” said Fenner of the chance to win a championship at Lawlor. “But it’s not going to be easy.”
Coleman played 29 minutes against Vermont and had 20 points and three assists. It was his most playing time and production by far since injuring his left ankle on Feb. 24 against Utah State.
“I can’t think of a better way to end my career here than to win a championship,” Coleman said. “Anytime you can play for a championship it’s an honor for us as athletes and for the university.”