- A huge influx of talented transfers has Nevada on college basketball's center stage this March.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nevada’s upset of Cincinnati in the second round of the NCAA tournament will be remembered, first and foremost, for its sheer implausibility. Down 22 points with 11:37 left in the second half, the Wolf Pack looked all but certain to bow out against a 31-win No. 2 seed with the second-best defense in the country. They proceeded to rip off a 32-8 run against the Bearcats to produce a meme-worthy win probability chart, complete a comeback that tied for the second largest in tourney history and earn the program its first trip since 2004 to the Sweet 16, where Nevada will face No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago on Thursday in Atlanta.
The victory was stunning on its own terms, but zoom out, and it also amounted to a triumph of roster-building resourcefulness. Of the six players who logged at least one minute during Nevada’s recent wins over Texas and Cincinnati, only one (sophomore Josh Hall) signed with the Wolf Pack out of high school. The rest came to Reno as transfers. As wrongheaded commentators continue to decry the rise in transfers across college basketball as an “epidemic” afflicting the sport, head coach Eric Musselman has built a burgeoning mid-major power by attracting players looking to reboot their careers.
Musselman, an energetic, 5’7" former point guard at the University of San Diego who pounds Diet Cokes, Bais, Vitamin Water Zero lemonades and revels in shirtless celebrations, took over the program in 2015 for the latest stop in a peripatetic coaching path that includes stints in the NBA, CBA, USBL and D-League. He says he looked at the increase in players switching programs across the country and thought that pursuing transfers would be a roster-building method that was “under-the-radar, outside-the-box.” Musselman studied how Fred Hoiberg successfully integrated transfers during his time at Iowa State, and at a non-Power 5 program coming off three consecutive sub-.500 seasons under previous head coach David Carter, a similar approach made sense. “I just think that, with the transfers—that was a way for us to get good as quick as we could,” Musselman said.
There was no transition phase in Nevada’s turnaround under Musselman. It happened right away. The Wolf Pack made a quantum leap in his first season in charge (2015-16), improving from 9-22 to 24-14 with a College Basketball Invitational title. Two transfers from the Missouri Valley—high-scoring guard Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) and combo forward-turned-center Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois)—pushed the Wolf Pack to 28 wins, the Mountain West conference tournament championship, and a trip to the NCAAs in 2017 (the program’s first in a decade).
That season was a prelude to Nevada’s second-weekend breakthrough this March. After sitting out in accordance with NCAA rules last season, four transfers suited up to propel the Wolf Pack to 29 victories, a 15-3 mark in the MW, their second consecutive conference regular-season title and a No. 7 seed in what’s become the most wide open region in the bracket (the South). Those four transfers hail from the Pac-12 (Hallice Cooke, Oregon State), the Big Ten (Kendall Stephens, Purdue) and the ACC (twins Caleb and Cody Martin, NC State). Nevada’s starting lineup against Cincinnati was composed of that quartet plus another transfer, ex-MVC standout Caroline.
To be clear, Musselman and his staff have not eschewed high schoolers altogether. Cameron Oliver, a former three-star prospect from Sacramento who initially signed with Oregon State, earned Mountain West freshman of the year honors in Musselman’s first season at Nevada and rated out as one of the league’s top defenders last season before turning pro. Lindsey Drew, a 6’4" junior and the son of current Cleveland Cavaliers interim head coach Larry Drew, revoked a verbal commitment to Arizona State before signing with the Wolf Pack in 2015. He had been serving as their starting point guard this season before going down with a ruptured achilles in February. Then there’s Hall, a class of 2016 signee who snared a pivotal offensive rebound and dropped in the floater that gave Nevada its first and only lead against the Bearcats with 9.1 seconds left. (The Wolf Pack also have added two three-star power forwards with multiple Power 5 scholarship offers, Vincent Lee and K.J. Hymes, in their 2018 recruiting class.)
But it’s transfers that have accounted for most of the scoring and playmaking on the Nevada squad that has slain two of the nation’s top 15 defenses in succession and stands one win from the program’s first-ever Elite Eight berth. The Wolf Pack’s four top scorers and their three top rebounders are on their second stops as college players, and among non-transfers, Hall is the only active one averaging more than seven minutes per game. Cooke is on his third stop, having appeared in more than 60 total games at Oregon State and Iowa State. “All of (our transfers) have sat out a year,” Musselman said. “So, we’ve had a year to try to get them involved with our terminology and get them involved in our culture. To me, it’s easier than a freshman because a freshman comes in, and he’s in uniform right away.”
Stephens decided to leave Purdue after having his playing time slashed as a junior in 2015-16. Musselman recalled how he knew Stephens’s father, Everette, from coaching against him in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. “That helped a lot,” Musselman said. “I mean, when he was on his visit, his dad winked at me and said, ‘Kendall’s coming here. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s coming here.’” The Wolf Pack pitched Stephens on the possibility of enjoying offensive freedom in a pro-style system that makes launching three-point shots a priority, and he’s taken advantage by canning 44.4% of his 284 long-range attempts this season. “There’s not a lot of times that I don’t feel like it’s a good shot for me,” Stephens said.
The Martin twins are both former top-70 recruits from Mocksville, N.C.—a dot of a town 25 miles southwest of Winston Salem—who finished their prep careers at famed Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. They left NC State the same offseason Stephens decamped from Purdue because, according to Caleb, “being able to play comfortable was just the main issue for us.” Caleb said he and his brother considered a handful of high-major schools, including Butler, Texas and Michigan. Nevada distinguished itself, Caleb said, with the detailed plan it presented on their visit. “The layout that they had wasn’t just generic,” Martin said. He added, “These guys had, you know, around how many points they wanted, how many assists they wanted us to average.”
The Martin twins and Stephens have emerged as three potent scorers in one of the nation’s top offenses. The Wolf Pack heads into Thursday’s matchup against the Ramblers ranked sixth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency. At 6’7", 205 pounds, Cody Martin presents matchup problems for opposing point guards, and in Stephens and Caleb Martin, Nevada rolls out two perimeter marksmen who’ve knocked down a combined 221 shots from downtown this season at a 44.4% and 40.1% clip, respectively. The Wolf Pack’s biggest strength is taking care of the ball. They turned it over just twice against Cincinnati’s smothering D on Sunday, and have done so on only 13.5% of their possessions this season, the lowest percentage in Division I. “They present a tremendous challenge as far as their offense,” Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin said. “They spread you out, they can really pass.”
One possible downside to Nevada’s transfer-heavy strategy is how it can hamper depth. With four of them sitting out this season and Drew sidelined with the Achilles injury, the Wolf Pack are forging ahead with a six-man rotation. Nevada has held up in large part because of the versatility of its players. Cook, a 6’3" guard, is the only starter who’s not 6’7". (Hall also is listed at that height.) Anyone questioning whether the Wolf Pack have enough fuel to sustain a deep run need look no further than their first two games in the NCAA tournament, when they outlasted a pair of high-major opponents with multiple projected first-round NBA draft picks between them by making double-digit comebacks in the second half. “I think the most overrated thing in college basketball is depth,” Musselman said.
In pulling off a pair of dramatic upsets and spotlighting a quotable, 98-year old nun, Loyola-Chicago became the biggest story of this tourney not involving a little-known commuter school in Baltimore. Nevada can bring that story to an end in Atlanta by cracking open the Ramblers’ stout defense, which ranks among the best in the mid-major conferences (27th in Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency). If the Wolf Pack win on Thursday, they could draw No. 5 seed Kentucky in a battle for a Final Four berth on Saturday. Even if it bows out before that, Nevada has already proven it’s far more than a small-league novelty with a ragtag roster. The Wolf Pack’s unorthodox approach is plainly a winning strategy in the Mountain West, and one that can lead to big things on the sport’s biggest stage.