Eric Musselman turned on his clock radio, cracked open another soda – or two or three – and worked throughout Sunday night, stubbornly fighting fatigue, refusing to succumb to his greatest fear.
If he fell asleep, he would wake up a few hours later, and what if this was all a dream? What if this never really happened?
His undersized, seventh-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack rallied from a 14-point deficit against No. 10 Texas and 7-foot center Mohamed Bamba. Two days later, they stormed back from 22 points down with 11 minutes remaining to steal a victory from No. 2 Cincinnati in the final seconds.
The history books were all over it. Only BYU has overcome a larger deficit (25 points) in the NCAA Tournament. The media can’t get enough of it. There are the comebacks; the compelling narrative of his next opponent, Loyola-Chicago; his precocious daughter’s telegenic charm; his opponent’s own good luck presence, 98-year-old Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, a proud, and self-proclaimed international Twitter star.
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Then there is Musselman himself. Even when he keeps his shirt on, he bares his soul, and spins quite a tale.
“I don’t know how we’re doing this,” he said from his cellphone Monday. “I play six guys. We don’t have anyone taller than 6-foot-7. But we have such great chemistry and move the ball, and all our guys hate to lose. Really, it’s been unlike anything I ever experienced.”
And he has no shortage of experience, having spent most of his life in some corner of a gym, somewhere. The son of the late college and NBA coach Bill Musselman, Eric has coached several teams in the NBA Development League, been a college assistant, an NBA assistant, and head coach of the Golden State Warriors and the Kings. His was the classic nomadic basketball existence, the envy of frequent fliers everywhere.
That all changed three years ago when he was hired to invigorate a moribund Wolf Pack basketball program, and to the surprise of many, found a place to call home: Reno. It fits; it works. What’s the name of that television series? This is Muss.
He is a wiry, boyish-looking 53, and there are times he behaves like a kid. He rips off his shirt after big victories and tells corny jokes that leave his players rolling their eyes. He so intense, so incapable of sitting still, his wife Danyelle often becomes exhausted and chases him off to play with his 8-year-old daughter.
Yet there is a method to his manic ways, and this has never been more obvious than these past three years. When he arrived in Reno, he asked himself this question: How do we become good as quickly as possible and yet have sustainability?
Musselman, who maintains relationships with his NBA and minor-league peers, bluntly concedes that he stole from former Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg. The idea is to bring in one or two freshmen each season, but reserve several scholarships to accommodate Division I transfers.
“It’s a lot easier to recruit those guys,” Musselman said at a booster luncheon earlier in the season. “You’re dealing with people when they transfer who just want to know, ‘What is your program about? What’s your school about? What’s the region like?’ Those types of things instead of worrying about, ‘Do you fly charter? What’s your practice facility like?’ Those are the things you deal with with high school guys. With transfers, you deal with what’s real.”
The unconventional approach has thrust the Wolf Pack into the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three years, leaving once-prominent downstate rival UNLV in the dust. Current players Caleb and Cody Martin (North Carolina State), Kendall Stephens (Purdue), Hallis Cook (Iowa State) and Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) receive the bulk of the playing time, along with former prep standout Josh Hall, who hit the game-winning basket against Cincinnati.
Yet Musselman can’t help but wonder how much better his squad would be if 6-10 former Grant High School standout Cameron Oliver had returned for his junior season instead of declaring for the NBA draft (and not getting drafted), and more recently, if junior point guard Lindsey Drew, another former prep star, had not torn an Achilles tendon five weeks ago.
The injury to Drew, a terrific defender and son of acting Cleveland Cavaliers coach Larry Drew, forced Musselman to shift forward Cody Martin to point guard and tighten his rotation even further. On their best nights, they compensate with traps and aggressive defensive schemes, and a high-powered offense that features exceptional passing, 3-point shooting and open-court opportunities.
“People have been telling me, ‘Your dad is up there, looking down on you and feeling so proud,’ ” Musselman said, with a chuckle. “But really, he would be saying, ‘Have you lost your mind? What’s with your style of play?’ My dad was all about milking the clock, isolation and dribble drives. I’m completely the opposite. When I was an assistant for him with the Timberwolves, I kept thinking that we never got any easy baskets. But every night, because we are small, we need that ball to go in.”
So it’s on to the Ramblers in the Philips Arena, and after that, who knows? Musselman could well emerge as a candidate for one of the higher-profile D-I openings, though that does not appear to matter, for a number of reasons. Nevada’s profile is rapidly rising. His oldest son, Michael, joins his staff next season as a graduate assistant. His younger son, Matthew, is a junior in the Bay Area, close enough for Eric to attend “15 or 17 of his games.” His daughter, Mariah, and wife are in love with, and beloved by, their northern Nevada community.
“We just need a big guy,” said Musselman. “That’s all we’re looking at.”