The University of Wyoming men’s basketball team has hosted 24 games against nationally ranked opponents since the Arena-Auditorium opened in 1982.
Tonight will be the 25th when UW (6-18 overall, 2-9 Mountain West) takes on No. 7-ranked Nevada (23-1, 10-1) at 8 p.m. in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPNU.
UW is 11-13 against ranked foes at the A-A and won five of its past six, including a 104-103 double-overtime victory over then No. 23 Nevada last season.
The Wolf Pack are rolling this season. They have been ranked in the top 10 for 15 consecutive weeks, and have won nine straight by 20 points entering tonight.
UW has defeated teams ranked higher than this Nevada team in the A-A, but could this Wolf Pack squad be the best to step foot in what is dubbed as the “Dome of Doom” to this point?
A strong argument can be made it is.
Nevada has six redshirt seniors, most of whom are its biggest contributors. Senior guard/forward Caleb Martin, at 6-foot-7, was the preseason MW player of the year, and leads the Wolf Pack with 19.3 points per game. Senior forward Jordan Caroline is a 6-7 230-pound dynamo who owns the MW record with 41 double-doubles, and averages 19 points and 10.1 rebounds per contest. Caleb’s twin brother, Cody, also is 6-7 and is one of the more well-rounded players in the region as he averages 11.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game.
Those three get a lot of the attention and recognition, and deservedly so. Caleb Martin and Caroline both made the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award midseason watch lists.
Including those three, Nevada has seven players who have scored 1,000 or more points during their college careers. However, none of them started their careers at Nevada.
Fourth-year coach Eric Musselman, the fastest coach to 100 victories in MW history, has built his success on NCAA Division I transfers. The Martin twins came from North Carolina State. Caroline from Southern Illinois. Throw in 6-11 senior graduate transfer Trey Porter from Old Dominion, 6-8 senior forward Tre’Shawn Thurman from Omaha and 5-10 junior point guard Jazz Johnson from Portland – all 1,000-point scorers – and you not only have a lot of production, but rare experience among college basketball’s elite where one-and-done’s seem to be the norm.
Only four of the 15 players listed on Nevada’s 2018-19 roster didn’t transfer from other Division I schools. Two of them are walk-ons, and one hasn’t played this season due to an injury he suffered last season (guard Lindsey Drew). But the other is 6-11 true freshman Jordan Brown, Nevada’s first five-star recruit out of Roseville, California. Brown has averaged 3.4 points 2.4 rebound and 11.1 minutes per game this season.
If a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American was on any other MW roster, he’d likely be the focal point of the team.
Nevada is different.
“They’re really talented, and they’re old,” third-year UW coach Allen Edwards said. “You can’t really call them kids. They’re all about the same size so they switch a lot and it really screws everything up trying to run offense against them.
“Another thing of being old is they don’t panic. They stay the course. Whether they are up or down in a game, they’re good. They don’t rush things, they just go about their business. They have a lot of different players who can hurt you. It is like a pick your poison thing when trying to decide how to defend them.”
Best of the best?
Comparing teams can be difficult, especially the further back you go.
College basketball has changed a lot since the A-A opened in 1982. The 3-point line and shot clock implemented in the mid 1980s changed the game dramatically.
Players have evolved as well. Point guards are bigger. Power forwards are more athletic, and have the ability to run the point and run the floor like guards. Fewer teams have true centers who make their living in the paint.
Nevada is good example of all of the above.
Nevada isn’t the highest ranked team to play in the A-A. Texas-El Paso in 1984, Utah in 1998 and San Diego State in 2014 all were ranked fifth when they came to Laramie. UW defeated Utah and San Diego State.
For the argument’s sake, the 1998 Utah team draws an interesting comparison because of all the nationally-ranked teams to have played in the A-A. That Utah squad had the most successful season as it lost in the 1998 NCAA Tournament championship game to Kentucky 78-69. The Utes went 30-4, finished second in the coaches poll and seventh in the Associated Press poll. Utah defeated two No. 1 seeds in the tournament in Arizona and North Carolina en route to the championship game appearance.
Edwards played on that Kentucky team.
The Utes were big, led by 6-11 senior center Michael Doleac, who led the team with 16.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. They also had 6-11 sophomore Hanno Mottola (12.5 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) and 6-10 freshman Britton Johnsen (3.5 points, 1.6 points per game). Junior point guard Andre Miller was 6-2 – big for a point guard at that time – who averaged 14.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game. Senior guard Drew Hansen, a 6-5, was the Utes’ best 3-point shooter, and 6-7 sophomore Alex Jensen did a lot of things well, but nothing spectacular.
Four players from that Utah team played in the NBA.
“Utah was more traditional,” Edwards said. “Doleac was a true center. Guys like Miller, Jensen and Hansen were more slashers and shooters than ball-handlers.
“When you look at this Nevada team, if you take out (Porter), they all can dribble, pass and shoot.”
One thing this Nevada team and the 1998 Utah squad have in common is defense. Nevada entered the week tied for first in the MW in scoring defense (66.6 points per game). Utah was fourth in the country at 57.6 points per contest. Teams shoot 40.4 percent against Nevada, compared to 38.6 percent against Utah.
Another commonality is free throws. Nevada makes nearly 18 free throws per game. Utah made 17.3.
What sets Nevada apart from Utah is its offense. The Wolf Pack average an MW-best 82.5 points per game. Utah averaged 70.
The 2013-14 San Diego State team also was dominant defensively. The Aztecs allowed 57 points per game and opponents shot 38.6 percent. Those marks were second and eighth in the country, respectively. Offensively, it averaged 70.3 points per game.
That team went 31-5, and two of those losses came to Arizona – one in the second game of the season and the second in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Let the debate continue
No matter what team you think is the best to ever play UW in the A-A, one thing is certain about tonight’s game – this is by far the best team that’s played in Laramie this season, no offense to Fresno State and Utah State, who are in second place behind Nevada in the MW standings.
But although built unconventionally compared to teams of the past, this Nevada team is built to make a deeper run in this year’s NCAA Tournament compared to its Sweet 16 appearance last year based on its experience, size and versatility.
Edwards didn’t predict how far Nevada will go this season, but said it deserves its top 10 ranking. Edwards offered another reason why this squad has a chance to be special.
“There is no selfishness with Nevada,” he said. “They don’t complain who shoots it. They are confident enough to believe that if they stay the course, they win games. I’m impressed with that.
“There was speculation prior to the season if there would be enough basketball’s to go around with all the pieces they have. Coach Musselman has done a good job of removing that ego. It is like what (former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino) used to tell us: ‘if we win, everybody eats.’ Nevada has that.”
Did you know?
The highest-ranked team to ever play a men’s basketball game at UW was St. Joseph’s, which was ranked second when the Cowboys beat them 99-92 on Dec. 23, 1965 in War Memorial Fieldhouse.
UW is 34-123 all-time against ranked foes.
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.