Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack (should) be sure bet to dance | SierraSun.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack (should) be sure bet to dance

Joe Santoro
Special to the Sun

Joe Santoro

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is so good it might not need to win the Mountain West postseason tournament to get to the NCAA tournament. The Wolf Pack’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is currently No. 17 in the country, it’s ranked 33rd in the country by the Associated Press and 34th in the USA Today Coach’s Poll. Those numbers are certainly good enough to get to the 68-team NCAA field. The problem, though, is the Pack is in the Mountain West, a conference that hasn’t gotten more than one team to the NCAA tournament since 2015. That’s why the Wolf Pack, now 15-3 with one horrible loss (San Francisco) already on its resume, can’t take any chances by putting its NCAA tournament fate in the hands of the biased selection committee.

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The Mountain West used to get respect from the NCAA tournament selection committee. It was just three years ago three teams went to the NCAA tournament. Four went in 2013, 2012 and 2010. But the conference lost Utah and BYU after the 2011 season and, well, UNLV has struggled in recent years, New Mexico isn’t as good as it once was and San Diego State is now no longer coached by Steve Fisher. It has all added up to the Mountain West turning into some sort of big brother to the Big Sky Conference and watered down Western Athletic Conference. The Mountain West is clearly better than the West Coast Conference but the WCC has Gonzaga. It’s why the Wolf Pack can’t simply assume a five or six-loss season without winning the conference tournament is good enough to gain entry into the NCAA tournament. Reality says it should be good enough. But the selection committee doesn’t deal in reality.

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If all goes as planned, the Pack will have five or fewer losses and a Mountain West regular season and tournament title when the selection committee goes to work in March. Actually, this team might not lose again this season until the NCAA tournament. Five or fewer losses (nobody is perfect) just might get the Pack its best NCAA tournament seed in school history. That honor right now goes to the 2005-06 team that was awarded a No. 5 seed after going 26-6 and winning the WAC regular season and tournament titles. We could be looking at a No. 5 or even a No. 4 seed if this Pack team doesn’t lose more than two more games in the regular season (and none in the postseason tournament) before the NCAA picks its 68 teams.

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No matter what happens over the next two-plus months to this Wolf Pack team keep in mind one thing. The Pack will be even better next year. The Pack will lose just three bench players and one starter (Kendall Stephens) after this year is completed. In their place will come four talented scorers who already have a world of college experience. Corey Henson, a 6-foot-3 junior, played at Wagner. Tre’Shawn Thurman, a 6-7 senior, played at Omaha. Nizra Zouzoua, a 6-2 junior, played at Bryant. Jazz Johnson, a 5-10 senior, played at Portland. All four averaged double-digit scoring just last year. Add those four to returning starters Lindsey Drew, Jordan Caroline, Cody and Caleb Martin and reserve Josh Hall and, well, the Wolf Pack’s fun isn’t going to end anytime soon.

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NFL playoff predictions: Philadelphia over Atlanta and New Orleans over Minnesota in the NFC and New England over Tennessee and Pittsburgh over Jacksonville in the AFC. Yes, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is a better quarterback than Philadelphia’s Nick Foles. And quarterbacks win playoff games. It’s why we like Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Drew Brees in the other three games this weekend. But Foles is better than his critics give him credit for and the Eagles have running back Jay Ajayi, who ran for 130 yards against Atlanta earlier this season when he was with the Miami Dolphins. And the Eagles are home.

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The Oakland Raiders deserve to pay a dear price (something along the lines of a first-round pick in this year’s draft and a fine of at least $1 million) for ignoring the NFL’s Rooney Rule. Raiders owner Mark Davis admitted to reporters this week Jon Gruden agreed to become the Raiders head coach on Christmas Eve, a full week before Jack Del Rio was even fired as head coach. The Raiders did later interview two minority candidates but they clearly violated the spirit of the rule. The job, after all, was already filled by the time those minority candidates were interviewed and everyone was aware of it. The Rooney Rule has a lot of flaws and loopholes but it’s the best hiring process the NFL has come up with so far to insure minorities will at least be considered for head coaching and senior football operations positions. It needs to be respected and certainly not blatantly ignored. Commissioner Roger Goodell needs to make an example of the Raiders.

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Does Central Florida, which finished 13-0 and wasn’t even part of the four-team college football playoff, have a legitimate claim to Alabama’s national championship? Of course it does. Alabama didn’t even win its own conference this year. College sports should be about the games on the field, not the budgets in the athletic departments. Central Florida won all of the games and all of the championships that it could possibly win this year. No other Football Bowl Subdivision school can say the same. Nobody is saying Central Florida is a better football team than Alabama, Clemson, Georgia or Oklahoma or even a dozen or so other schools from Power Five conferences. All we’re saying is we don’t know for sure. Expand the playoff system to eight teams.

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The Power Five schools obviously will never allow a school like Central Florida to grab a piece of the NCAA’s money pie. It’s why the four-team playoff was instituted in the first place. Schools like Boise State were starting to nibble at that pie. That’s why it’s time the Group of Five conferences (the Mountain West included) comes up with its own national playoff. A Group of Five championship game this year might have seen Central Florida go up against Boise State. That’s a game the nation would certainly watch. There’s certainly enough room in FBS football to crown two national champions, especially when every FBS team has a legitimate chance to win one of those two titles. The way things stand now more than half of the FBS schools have zero chance of winning a national title.