The postgame scene in Reno was festive. It included a coach hoisted by jubilant players, ferried about like the man of the hour, or the season.
It was Eric Musselman, and the image of the former Kings coach with his arms triumphantly stretched, shirt pulled up exposing his stomach, prompted a torrent of teasing from players and friends. Musselman, in his first season as Nevada’s coach, led the Wolf Pack from nine wins in 2014-15 to 24 this season, so he earned this victory ride.
The April 1 celebration came after Nevada beat Morehead State 85-82 in overtime to win the College Basketball Invitational at Lawlor Events Center. If the Wolf Pack reaches the NCAA Tournament next season, Musselman vows that he won’t wind up semi-shirtless.
“I was trying to put on a championship T-shirt, but then the guys grabbed me and carried me on their shoulders, and the shirt didn’t make it all the way on,” Musselman, 51, said Friday. “My abs showed. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. But it was so cool what we did this season.”
Musselman is a teacher of the game, and he finds he is able to do that better in college than the NBA, where he worked for seven teams in 13 seasons, including as head coach of the Warriors (2002-04) and Kings (2006-07) and an assistant coach for Minnesota, Orlando, Atlanta and Memphis. He’s also coached in the NBA Development League, including the 2010-11 season for the Reno Bighorns, the Kings’ affiliate. He was an assistant coach for two years at Arizona State and one year at LSU before taking the job at Nevada.
“I’m loving it here,” Musselman said of his first season coaching the Wolf Pack, whose 15-win improvement was the second-best in the country. “You have so much of an impact at this level on the players’ lives. You have a bigger impact as a coach in a game compared to an NBA game. Over a 48-minute NBA game, the talent eventually takes over. If it doesn’t on that given night, certainly, without question, it does over 82 games. The talent shows, and it’s so true.
Musselman is a teacher of the game, and he finds he is able to do that better in college than the NBA.
“In college, we got better daily. The players’ skills are still developing, and it shows, and you have a way bigger impact on teaching the game. Shooting percentages improve, learning the game. It’s all about them working hard, and they have.”
One of Nevada’s top players is Cameron Oliver, an explosive 6-foot-8 forward from Grant High School who had a stellar freshman season. He averaged 13.4 points and a team-leading 9.1 rebounds, and his 99 blocked shots are a school season record and the most ever by a freshman in the Mountain West Conference.
Oliver committed to Oregon State after graduating from Grant, but when the Beavers’ coaching staff turned over, he elected to attend American River College for a year, though he did not play ball. Musselman, after joining Nevada just over a year ago, swooped in.
“Coach Musselman has been great,” Oliver said. “He really changed the culture here. His three words are ‘effort,’ ‘energy,’ ‘enthusiasm,’ and we did that.”
Oliver often set the tone with his relentless pursuit of the ball.
“I am very pleased with what I did this season, what we did as a team,” Oliver said. “I surprised myself. I didn’t know that I’d have this kind of impact. Sitting out last year, I was hungry. Can’t wait for next season.”
Said Musselman: “Cam went from being a good college freshman to being the best freshman in the conference. He did everything for us. I don’t think I’ve been prouder of a player over a course of a season with how he got better than Cam. He played hard, with intensity. Really, really good player.”
99 Blocked shots by Grant High School graduate Cameron Oliver, a Nevada season record and the most ever by a freshman in the Mountain West Conference
Musselman said the college game has provided a soothing measure of coaching balance. He and his wife, Danyelle Sargent Musselman, have a 5-year-old daughter, Mariah. Musselman also has two sons from a previous marriage, Michael, a sophomore at Eric’s alma mater, the University of San Diego, and Matthew, a freshman at Monte Vista High in Danville who spends a good portion of his winter, springs and summers playing basketball. Michael will take summer courses at Nevada.
Musselman regularly visits his sons, or they visit him, including for the CBI championship.
“It’s been an awesome experience for our family,” Musselman said of this season. “It’s a different vibe in college. Players come to our house to eat. It’s a different animal than the NBA.”
A good animal, with, apparently, a fit coach leading the charge.
“Coach showed his belly on that victory ride, but it’s OK,” Oliver said. “He works out. He looked pretty good.”