Playing in the College Basketball Invitational was not one of the Nevada Wolf Pack’s goals this season.
“The NCAA tournament is want you want to play in,” senior Tyron Criswell said. “It’s tough for our young guys to take a tournament like this (CBI) seriously because they have more years left to get to the NCAA. That’s where they want to go.”
The Wolf Pack’s main goals this year, like every Division I team, was to win the conference regular season title, win the conference tournament and go to the NCAA tournament. The Pack, 19-13 overall, didn’t accomplish any of those goals, finishing tied for fourth in the Mountain West at 10-8 and losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament to San Diego State, 67-55, last Friday night. That’s why the Pack will host the Montana Grizzlies on Wednesday night (7 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center in a first-round CBI matchup.
“There’s obviously some disappointment right now after the Mountain West tournament because our guys really believed they could win that thing,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “We had a practice (on Sunday night) and I could sense our guys still had a little hangover from the San Diego State game. That loss really stings for our guys.”
“It was definitely a tough loss,” Criswell said, “especially for a day or two afterward. But we can’t get that game back. I’m just happy I get to play at least one more game.”
The CBI’s 16-team field includes three teams (Western Carolina, Seattle and UNC-Greensboro) with losing records and another at .500 (Duquesne). Just one team (Ohio at No. 82) has a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of under 100. There are also no teams from a Power 5 Conference. Just six of the CBI teams (Siena, Ohio, Albany, Vermont, Idaho and Montana) have won as many as 20 games.
Musselman, though, didn’t hesitate to accept the CBI’s invitation on Sunday night.
“Coach (Musselman) asked us, ‘Guys, do you want to play in this thing?,’” Criswell said. “‘We can win it.’ We all agreed that we wanted to keep playing.”
“The best development tool in basketball is playing games,” Musselman said. “This is great for (Criswell) because he gets to keep playing and great for our young guys who will get more experience.”
“I definitely wanted to play,” freshman Cam Oliver said. “This gives us another chance to express our hard work. This also gives us a chance to send our seniors out the right way and gives us another chance to play for Nevada, too.”
Criswell, Musselman said, will likely be the only Wolf Pack senior to play on Wednesday. Point guard Marqueze Coleman, who injured his left ankle on Feb. 24 and missed the next three games before returning to play 21 minutes combined in the Pack‘s two Mountain West tournament games, is not expected to be available. “We’ll go with Lindsey (Drew) at the point with Eric Cooper as the backup and Juwan Anderson,” Musselman said.
The Wolf Pack will need to win five games over the next three weeks to win the CBI. A win on Wednesday will earn the Pack a game on March 21 against the winner of the Pepperdine (18-13)-Eastern Washington game. The CBI semifinals will be March 23 followed by a best two-out-three championship round on March 28, 30 and April 1 (if necessary). Five more victories will give the Pack the seventh most victories (24) in one season in school history behind 2006-07 (29-5), 1945-46 (28-5), 2011-12 (28-7), 2005-06 (27-6), 2004-05 (25-7) and 2003-04 (25-9).
“We want to get to 20,” Musselman said. “But we can’t overlook this team (Montana) at all. I know they are going to come down here thinking they can win this game.”
Montana came down to Reno last week thinking it was going to win the Big Sky Conference tournament at the Reno Events Center. The Grizzlies, which finished second in the Big Sky regular season at 14-4, ended up losing to Weber State 62-59 in the Big Sky title game last Saturday. The game on Wednesday at Lawlor will be the Grizzlies’ fourth game in Reno in a span of a week.
Montana has played in one CBI game before, losing to Duquesne 87-76 in 2011. The Pack has played in two CBI tournaments, losing to Houston 80-79 in 2008 and UTEP 79-77 the following year.
The Grizzlies and Wolf Pack used to be fierce Big Sky rivals from 1979 through 1992. Montana holds a 22-18 edge in the series, including an 87-79 win over the Pack in the 2006 NCAA tournament. The Wolf Pack’s last game as a Big Sky member was a 73-68 loss to the Grizzlies in Missoula, Mont., in the 1992 Big Sky tournament.
The Grizzlies are led by 6-foot-8 center Martin Breunig. The senior from Germany, who played his freshmen year at Washington in 2012-13, is averaging 18.9 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. He is also coming off three games in the Big Sky tournament where he averaged 22 points a game. “Their big guy is real good, one of the best players in the Big Sky,” Musselman said.
“We’ve watched some film on them and it seems almost all their plays go through him (Breunig),” Criswell said.
Montana, which beat Boise State (74-72) to open the season and lost a close game against Gonzaga (61-58) on December 8 and got blown out by Kansas (88-46) on Dec. 19, has won 17 of its last 22 games. In addition to Breunig, the bulk of their offense comes from 5-10 guard Walter Wright (13.1 points a game), 6-1 guard Michael Oguine (11.2), 6-4 guard Brandon Gfeller (8.5), 6-5 forward Jack Lopez (5.7) and 6-6 forward Bobby Moorehead (5.7).
“We’ll be extremely prepared,” Musselman said. “But it’s up to our guys to get motivated. There won’t be any big pre-game speech.”
The last time the Wolf Pack played in a postseason national tournament was 2011-12 when it won two games in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
“Hopefully we will be ready to play our best game (against Montana),” Musselman said. “Life moves on. You have to pick yourself up”
“I definitely want to go out a winner,” Criswell said.