What a Sweet March deal
Thanks to the University of Nevada, Reno Wolf Pack men’s basketball team, I have a reason to turn on the TV and actually be excited about sports during the month of March. It’s a miracle. When the Pack tip off tonight at 6:40 p.m. in a Sweet 16 showdown against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on CBS, I will be planted on the couch, anticipating the game just like I would a Giants or 49ers playoff game.
Not that I can label myself a fan of the Pack, necessarily, but I finally have that connection to Division I college sports that was always lacking in my life (I graduated from Chico State). My father is a graduate of UNR, and my parents met at the university and got married in the Biggest Little City. I have been coming to Reno since I was 6 (my grandparents and uncle live there now), and I currently live in Reno. So I’m thinking, I guess I do have a legitimate reason to cheer for the Pack. If you have that connection, it makes the NCAA tournament more exciting than simply following office pools.
Admittedly, it is ironic that the year I move to Reno, the Pack makes its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1985, wins its first ever NCAA tournament game, posts the best team record in school history (25-8), and knocks off Gonzaga (in what was virtually a home game for the No. 2 seed in the St. Louis bracket) in advancing to its first ever Sweet 16. And it wasn’t even close – Nevada killed the Jesuit school out of Washington state by 19 points. I hollered joyously at the TV in my neighborhood Laundromat on Saturday; at the same time, wild, innocent little kids ran in circles around the washers and dryers, almost driving me into another kind of March Madness.
That is kind of how I see UNR going into tonight’s game against Georgia Tech – a cute, little kid that can’t do wrong. If UNR wins, it’s another milestone for the school, and Reno-Gazette sports writers start speaking of miracles, and walking on water, and divine intervention. If it loses, it has already earned the respect of millions just by making it that far – reflections on it would say it was a cute run that may have been as lucky as it was superb.
Not that a 19-point demolishing was lucky, but maybe other things about Nevada’s situation are lucky. Perhaps Nevada shouldn’t have made it to the second round at all; its first opponent, Michigan State, had a late-game meltdown and suddenly couldn’t score when it mattered, and Nevada was able to pull away down the stretch. Perhaps the 23 fouls called in the first half of the Gonzaga game was the refs’ way of showing the world that this Nevada school is likable. Perhaps Gonzaga would beat Nevada seven or eight times out of 10 on any given day; but that is the beauty of The Tourney – it’s one and done in the pool of 64 teams.
And Gonzaga is well done, ousted mainly because it went 3 of 22 from three-point range against Nevada and got outhustled and outcoached. The Zags were done long before the first half had ended. Nevada took a 15-point lead into the locker room at halftime, and that is when I escaped from the Laundromat eight or nine loads later. When I got home, I watched Nevada stun the Seattle KeyArena “home” crowd with 91 points, rubbing it in with big dunks, killer threes, feisty defense and forceful rebounding. It was great, and it was even greater that I cared.
I’d like to see this Nevada Sweetness go on forever because it’s almost enough excitement to whet my appetite before the start of MLB season. April 5 could be quite a night, in fact, if I’m flipping back and fourth between Bonds spoiling Jeff Kent’s Houston Astros home opener at Stupid Park and Nevada stomping, say, the Duke Blue Devils in the championship game. Oh, what a night it could be. Imagine the possibilities.
But I have a feeling that Nevada may end up regretting a Dec. 21 victory against the Kansas Jayhawks in its own Dodge Holiday Classic played in Reno. It was a thrashing actually, 75-61, in which Nevada earned a 40-20 lead at half. At the time, people thought, “What can Kansas do to get back on track?” It was in 2003, when the line of thinking wasn’t yet, “This may be Nevada’s breakout season.” What I’m getting at is Nevada may end up facing Kansas in the Elite 8 if both teams win their respective games. What that means for Nevada is a confrontation unlike any other so far in the tournament – battling a team that is familiar with them and has a personal vendetta attached to the primary goal of winning it all. It could be Nevada’s toughest game if it can get by Georgia Tech.
There are other reasons to watch Nevada:
— It’s easy to root for the Pack’s head coach Trent Johnson. He came from Stanford as an assistant coach and became Nevada’s coach five years ago. He has improved his team’s record each year. Johnson is as cool as they come, and he may be the muse that can control emotions among these young men and lead them to unprecedented heights.
— Kirk Snyder, the WAC Player of the Year, has established himself as the leader of his team and as a national presence, and it may take him to places he never thought imaginable. An interesting note: Snyder dropped 29 on the Jayhawks around Christmas, going 3 for 7 from the 3-point line.
— Another intriguing matchup would pit Nevada against University of Connecticut Huskies in the championship game. Way back in the season, when Nevada was still no one on the day of Nov. 19, 2003, the Pack suffered a 93-79 loss to the Huskies. It could be a reverse situation of the Kansas possibility, with Nevada out for revenge, but I would really be stunned to see Nevada in the championship game. My prediction is Nevada squeaks by Tech with a one or two-point victory and then falls in the Elite 8. But who knows?
Win or lose, Nevada has made leaps and bounds in 2004, but it must do what the Gonzaga-type teams have done before it – after coming out of nowhere a few years back, Gonzaga became a regular name in the tournament. That is UNR men’s basketball program’s challenge from here on out: To stay consistently good. Fortunately and unfortunately, it has already used up the “Cinderella story” tag in 2004.
A Bonds homer off Clemens (let’s pretend he’s the opening day Astros starter) mixed in with a Kirk Snyder three in the face of a Duke or UConn defender in the championship game. April 5 definitely has some potential.
Matt Brown is sports editor for the Sierra Sun.