Murray’s Mailbag: What are the odds Nevada wins Mountain West Tournament?

This week’s Monday Mailbag is the opposite of a mullet. It’s all business, front and back. No party. We didn’t get many non-Nevada basketball questions this week, so it’s all Wolf Pack hoops all the time as the team prepares for the Mountain West Tournament, which begins Wednesday (Nevada’s first game is Thursday). Let’s get right to the questions. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

(Note: If you’re not seeing the tweets, it’s because you’re not using Google Chrome. Use Google Chrome.)

The top-three things Nevada must do:

(1) Beat Boise State

(2) Beat San Diego State

(3) Beat Utah State

The odds of doing that? TeamRankings.com gives the Wolf Pack a 2.7 percent chance. So not great! I would boost that into the 6 percent to 8 percent range, and I’d also note the Wolf Pack’s implied betting odds pencil out to a 4 percent chance of winning the tournament. Nevada is 17-6 against the spread this season, so it’s been an overachiever. But the odds the Wolf Pack wins this year’s conference tournament is somewhere in the single digits. As I noted in this story, the Wolf Pack has proven its the equal of the top-four teams in the conference. But it’s still asking a lot to beat three NCAA Tournament-caliber teams three nights in a row.

As for my less sarcastic answer to the top-three things Nevada must do, I’ll go: (1) Get three good games out of Desmond Cambridge Jr., the team’s big X factor; (2) Play much defense than we’ve seen post-pause (Nevada’s defense has been bad after the 18-day break); and (3) hit a lot of threes (Nevada is a sold but not great 3-point shooting team at 35.4 percent).

As I’ve noted previously, Nevada has only once won its conference tournament without being the event’s No. 1 seed (in fact, it’s only won five conference tournaments ever, which shows how hard it is to do). But the one time Nevada won the conference tournament as an underdog was 1984 in the Big Sky. Nevada finished tied for third in the conference at 7-7 and was the fourth seed. It upset No. 1 seed Weber State (23-8) and No. 2 seed Montana (23-7) in addition to beating No. 6 seed Idaho (9-19). While Weber State and Montana were good that season, if Nevada won the MW Tournament this week, it’d be the most impressive — and most difficult — path to an automatic NCAA Tournament berth in Wolf Pack history. It’d have to beat three top-60 teams in the nation.

Five is definitely out the window. It would have required Nevada winning the conference tournament to get five, and if the Wolf Pack wins the tournament, Boise State isn’t getting in because it would have taken a loss in the quarterfinals. Four is a possibility but not the most likely outcome. ESPN’s latest bracketology has Boise State and Colorado State among the “last four in” and Utah State as the first team out. That’s three bubble teams that all need good results this week. SDSU is in. If Boise State, Colorado State or Utah State gets to the MW title game, they should be in. But that only gives you three teams since one of Colorado State or Utah State would lose in the semis. Best-case scenario for the MW would be Utah State or Colorado State beating Boise State in a close MW title game. That could net four teams. I’d put it at 55 percent odds the MW gets three teams in, 35 percent the MW gets four teams in and 10 percent the MW gets two teams in. Of course, a lot depends on what happens with other conference tournaments across the nation in terms of bid stealers.

Fiction. Let’s take the NFL, for example. Since the merger, there are 22 instances of a team sweeping an opponent in the regular season and facing them again in the playoffs. The sweeping team is 15-7, a 68.2 winning percentage. My favorite example of this is the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. Jacksonville lost only three games that season. All three were to Tennessee, including twice in the regular season and once in the playoffs. Jacksonville had a great team, but its matchup with the Titans was not a favorable one. Jacksonville’s three losses to Tennessee came by 15.6 points per game.

I would put it this way: Would Wolf Pack fans rather face Boise State (a team it swept) or Utah State (a team it was swept by) in the quarterfinals? They’d rather face Boise State despite the “beating the same team three times in a season being hard” cliché. The Broncos’ lack of rim protection is a big plus for Nevada. That’s what makes this a favorable matchup for the Wolf Pack. It doesn’t mean Nevada is going to win. Boise State is still a 4-point-ish favorite. But if Nevada loses, it’s not going to be because it’s hard to beat a team three straight times.

I’ll take Utah State over San Diego State for the third straight season. SDSU is rolling, but I always favor teams that aren’t 100 percent in the NCAA Tournament in these conference tournaments. They’re just more of an edge to a team that has to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament, plus Utah State swept SDSU, so that’s a solid matchup for the Aggies, who have won back-to-back conference tournament titles.

Great question, and I wish had the rights to all the Wolf Pack photos so I could post them here. Alas, I don’t. But the one above would make the list. It’s an amazing photo. That would be my background photo for the rest of my life if I was Caleb Martin. Some others I’d add include:

* Colin Kaepernick diving into the end zone against Boise State in 2007;

* Jeff Horton coming back to Nevada for the first time in UNLV red;

* Josh Hall with both arms raised after the final buzzer against Cincinnati in 2018;

* Kirk Snyder’s gleeful face after winning the 2004 WAC title;

* Garry Hill-Thomas’ dunk face;

* Trent Johnson’s “O” face;

* Marion Motley, Stan Heath, Tommy Kalmanir and Rabbit Bradshaw together;

* Colin Kaepernick being carried off the field at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl;

* Marcus Marshall at New Mexico;

* And the one below of Chris Ault from his playing days always stood out to me.

During work trips? I’m typically pretty boring. I like to stay at South Point so I can go bowling and watch a movie on site. I also like to eat Metro Pizza. There’s typically not a lot of free time on Vegas trips because I usually go down the day of the game unless it’s a tournament setting like this week, during which I fill my spare time with bowling, movies and pizza.

You could throw in the Nevada-Colorado State ending, too. But, no, I don’t think the basketball gods will be smiling upon their fans any more this season than a normal year. But the good news is you don’t need basketball gods to do so. There are so many games during March Madness that a couple of them are going to come down to game-winning shots in the final seconds. So that’s going to happen without any intervention. And it’s going to be really fun to watch after last year’s NCAA Tournament was canceled.

Yes. I thought the outcry against making up those games was ridiculous. San Diego State and Boise State seemed to be the worst in that regard. These were makeup games that counted toward the the regular-season standings. You don’t cancel regular-season games to protect one of your teams from taking a “bad loss.” That’s not fair to a team like Fresno State, which made up a pair of games, beating Boise State and almost beating Utah State. You don’t put the Bulldogs on a pause for a week and take away their chance of winning games. That’s idiotic. You finish the games you were scheduled to play all season.

Now, if the MW decided to cancel all of its makeup games and bring its teams to Las Vegas early to quarantine in advance of the conference tournament to avoid any potential COVID issues this week, I would have been fine with that. But canceling games during the season to try and game the system to get teams into the NCAA Tournament because you think they might take a bad loss? That makes no sense. These were previously scheduled conference games, and the MW specifically built its schedule at the beginning of the year so it could make up postponed games. The MW 100 percent did the right thing by playing those games. A conference title and seeding was on the line. Those were important games for all the teams in the MW, not just the ones in line to potentially make the NCAA Tournament.

The first one. You don’t cancel games simply to protect your top teams. You only cancel games if it is mandated because of health and safety reasons. If Boise State didn’t want to take a bad loss to Fresno State, it could have beaten the Bulldogs, something no other top-tier team in the Mountain West had issue with this season (Fresno State was 0-7 against the top five teams in the conference outside of its win over Boise State last week).

It’s impossible to know because we don’t have the full details of the Mountain West’s television contract other than it pays $270 million over six years. We don’t know what percentage of that is for football games versus men’s basketball games. We don’t know whether the MW loses all of its money if it doesn’t fulfill the contract or a certain percentage. But I’m pretty confident in saying a MW team playing in the NCAA Tournament is more valuable financially for the conference than the makeup games were. In 2020, an NCAA Tournament unit was scheduled to be $282,100, or $1,692,600 over its six-year life. That’s roughly $154,000 per school. I doubt the MW made an additional $1,692,600 by playing six extra TV games last week. That doesn’t mean those games weren’t worth making up. But financially, NCAA Tournament units are almost assuredly more valuable than an extra week of television games.

None this year, which was a nice reprieve after last season when I got threats of violent acts being committed against me (no death threats, though) from San Diego State fans after I voted Jalen Harris over Malachi Flynn for MW player of the year. SDSU basketball fans can be pretty ruthless. But I’ve gotten use to it. I usually get a couple of emails, tweets, etc. a day telling me I’m stupid for one reason or another. That’s basically what social media was created for, I’ve realized at this stage. Gotta have thick skin as a media member.

Yes. Sooner rather than later. Wolf Pack fans should be rooting for Archie Miller to be fired after this season. If Coach Alford left Nevada for Indiana this offseason, his buyout would be $6 million. Even for a school like Indiana, that’s a lot of money. That goes down to $4 million after next season and $3 million after 2022-23. Those are more reasonable figures. I don’t get the feeling Coach Alford wants to leave Nevada and go back to the Power 5 again, but Indiana is just different. If the Hoosiers wanted to bring Coach Alford back home, I don’t know how he’d say “No” to that. But this year’s $6 million could be too prohibitive, so if Indiana opens this offseason, that’s probably good news for Nevada.

In its bigger games this season, Nevada has shrunk its rotation down to eight players, which is what most teams do come March. It’s the right call. Now, we can quibble over who those eight players should be. But coaches are going to extend the minutes of their stars and minimize the minutes of their role players when the stakes increase like they have over the last couple of weeks. Nevada likely will be without Zane Meeks at this week’s conference tournament, so I don’t expect more than eight players to get minutes (the five starters plus K.J. Hymes, Kane Milling and maybe Robby Robinson off the bench). Additionally, Nevada has to take two players off scholarship after this season given its two over the limit for 2021-22, so there’s not much use in developing the team’s younger players if they’re not long-term pieces and/or won’t be on the roster next season. While many criticized Eric Musselman’s small rotations, I think eight players per game is perfect for a team. You go beyond that and you’re cutting too deeply into the minutes of your best players.

Yes. The number of fouls called in the Nevada-Colorado State game was excessive. The Rams were called for 26 fouls; the Wolf Pack for 27. That’s 53 total. The teams combined to shoot 71 free throws. That’s ridiculous. These aren’t high-volume (or high foul) teams, either. The refs took way too much control of that game.

Nevada does not list combined foul or free throw attempts in its record book, but the most Wolf Pack fouls in a game is 38, accomplished twice, most recently at Wichita State in 2015. Nevada allowed 62 free throws that game, with the Shockers making 44. The Wolf Pack’s most attempted free throws came at Cal State Northridge on Nov. 17, 2001 (38-of-61). From an NCAA perspective, the record for combined fouls in a game is 84 between Arizona and Northern Arizona in 1953. Arizona had a record 50 fouls called on it in that one. That game featured 130 free throws, also an NCAA record.

Since Thomas & Mack opened in 1983, the Wolf Pack is 10-16 in the arena against UNLV and 6-7 there in the conference tournament. So 16-23 overall. It took the Wolf Pack 12 years before winning its first game at Thomas & Mack. It’s 16-16 since then.

I found it interesting Coach Alford pointed out in his weekly press conference today that Nevada didn’t play at Thomas & Mack this season, and he thinks that might be a disadvantage. I hadn’t really though about that. But only three players on Nevada’s roster who are expected to play this week have played a game at Thomas & Mack (K.J. Hymes, Robby Robinson, Kane Milling). Does that matter? Honestly, I don’t know. But every arena has different sight lines, so maybe it does.

Depends on what you mean by buzzer-beater. Technically, Grant Sherfield’s game-winners this season haven’t been buzzer-beaters since time was still on the clock after the shot. If we’re talking about game-winning shots in the final 10 seconds, nothing beats Josh Hall’s game-winner against Cincinnati to send Nevada to the Sweet 16 in 2018. That came with 9.1 seconds remaining. But if we’re talking about real buzzer-beaters, a game-winner with no time left, the only one I remember in the last 10 seasons was Deonte Burton’s banked-in 3-pointer to beat Chattanooga, 83-81, in 2013. Burton admitted after the game he didn’t mean to bank it in. He finished that game with 28 points and five assists.

While technically not buzzer-beaters, Kirk Snyder’s off-balance 30-foot 3-pointer with 4 seconds left to beat Fresno State in 2001; Marqueze Coleman’s 20-foot jump shot with 4.2 seconds left to beat UNLV in 2015; Marcus Marshall’s game-winner at Washington in 2016 with 0.8 seconds left; and Burton’s crazy three with 11.8 seconds left to beat Utah State in 2012 that sent the Wolf Pack to its 16th straight win (that one is below) are all memorable.

Burton had six game-winners in the final 15 seconds of his Nevada career, which I believe is a record. Grant Sherfield is halfway there.

Here is our Nevada basketball build-a-team challenge Coach Mumme is referring to. Nobody has gotten close to my team so far. As for your question, I referred back to my story in January that asked, “Is Jay Norvell already the second-best coach in Nevada football history?” The easy choice for $5 is Chris Ault. I’m then going Jim Aiken for $4, R.E. Courtright for $3, Jay Norvell for $2 and Dick Trachok for $1, in part because of his long tenure with the Wolf Pack. Joe Sheeketski gets the short stick.

Are we including the postseason or just the regular season? If it’s just the regular season, you’re probably looking at a 15 percent chance of 10 wins or more. If you add the postseason, that goes up to 30 percent. While Nevada is loaded, it’s not easy to go 10-2, 11-1 or 12-0, especially with two road games at Power 5 opponents. While Nevada went 7-2 last season, it’s worth noting Nevada went 0-2 against the two above-.500 teams it played and very easily could have lost to Wyoming (a 37-34 overtime win), San Diego State (a 26-21 win in which the Aztecs blew a wide-open touchdown pass in the waning seconds), New Mexico (a 27-20 win in which the Lobos got inside the Nevada 25-yard line with less than 90 seconds remaining) and Fresno State (a 37-26 win in which the Bulldogs outgained the Wolf Pack by 183 yards but were undone on special teams without a kicker or its starting punter due to COVID). That’s not meant to discount the Wolf Pack’s season, but the underlying numbers show much improvement will be needed to get to double-digit regular-season wins in 2021.

The good news is Nevada returns a ton of talent and has a manageable schedule despite tough road games at Cal, at Kansas State, at Boise State, at San Diego State and at Fresno State. My guess if the Wolf Pack drops two of those and goes 5-1 against a weak home schedule for a 9-3 regular season, but 10 wins is attainable. Nevada very easily could sweep its home schedule, which means 4-2 on the road would put it in 10-win territory.

As for All-MW performers, you’re looking at QB Carson Strong, RB Toa Taua, WR Romeo Doubs, WR Elijah Cooks, TE Cole Turner, OL Aaron Frost, OL Jacob Gardner, DL Dom Peterson, DL Sam Hammond, LB Lawson Hall, DB Berdale Robins, DB Tyson Williams, K Brandon Talton and P Julian Diaz. Lots of talent on this roster.

ESPN has the rights to most FCS games and is putting those on ESPN+, its paid subscription streaming service. That has to be a philosophical decision by ESPN, which is trying to boost its ESPN+ portfolio by creating shows like Stephen A’s World with Stephen A. Smith, Peyton’s Places with Peyton Manning and Bettor Days with Mike Greenberg (the first episode was on an eye doctor from Reno), among others. ESPN also put its 30 for 30 catalogue on ESPN+ and is parking more live events there like FCS football. From the FCS’ standpoint, it limits viewership for those games. But ESPN is trying to make money, so putting those games behind a paywall is one way of adding ESPN+ subscriptions.

Depends on where you lived, but the Romans, for example, referred to how many years they were into a ruler’s tenure. So this year would be referred to as, “The first year of Joe Biden’s presidency” or “Biden 1” rather than “2021.” In fact, BC wasn’t even invented until the 16th century, so it’s a relatively new nomenclature. The AD system wasn’t invented until 525 AD, either.

OK, I’m off to create a new system for counting years. See y’all next week!

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to write. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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