How Eric Musselman and his Nevada players have reinvented themselves to make Sweet 16
ATLANTA – Nevada coach Eric Musselman began his head coaching career just two years out of college, when he became the head coach of the Rapid City Thrillers of the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Players drove courtesy cars that displayed a large sticker of the Thrillers’ logo on the side paneling and during his time with the Thrillers, Mussleman’s duties included interviewing candidates who had applied to be the team’s mascot – the Thrilla Gorilla.
“You really got to promote to make it work in the minor league level,” said Musselman, who has coached in eight states across more than a dozen different coaching positions since coaching in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the CBA. He's the son of the late Bill Musselman, a former NBA head coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves who Musselman called his best friend.
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He’s coached in the CBA and United States Basketball League (USBL).
He’s coached four different countries in international competition.
Now, Musselman, 53, is coaching in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament in just his third season as a college head coach at Nevada, where he’s led a roster of players who, like himself, have reinvented themselves in Reno.
Nevada has become “Transfer U,” according to senior guard Hallice Cooke, who ironically transferred from Iowa State, which was a frequent landing spot for transfers that Cooke said was also deserving of the moniker under former coach Fred Hoiberg.
Ten of the Wolf Pack’s 16 players are transfers, including the team’s top four scorers – Caleb and Cody Martin (North Carolina State), Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) and Kendall Stephens (Purdue).
- Jordan Caroline, Southern Illinois
- Hallice Cooke, Iowa State
- Corey Henson, Wagner*
- Jazz Johnson, Portland*
- Caleb Martin, N.C. State
- Cody Martin, N.C. State
- Kendall Stephens, Purdue
- Tre'Shawn Thurman, Omaha*
- Darien Williams, St. John's
- Nisré Zouzoua, Bryant*
* = redshirting this season
Four players are redshirting this season after transferring to Nevada.
Each case is different. Stephens transferred from Purdue after seeing his playing time diminish late in his junior season. A former teammate and close friend had passed away, and Stephens took about a week off from the team late in the Big Ten season and had difficulty re-establishing his role.
Hoiberg left Iowa State for the Chicago Bulls after Cooke's redshirt year in Ames (his college career began at Oregon State), resulting in Cooke transferring after playing just one season for the Cyclones.
The Martin twins wanted to look for a fresh start after their sophomore seasons at North Carolina State.
“We knew that everybody wanted Caleb. Everybody in the country,” Musselman said. “And we kind of didn't worry about Caleb and just went after Cody really hard. We knew that they were going to play together no matter where they went, so we recruited Cody more than we recruited Caleb, and Caleb actually liked the fact that we wanted his brother so badly, and I know that his mom felt the same way.”
Cooke remembers that recruiting process, when he was told he could be one of four transfers from a major conference school to commit to Nevada in the offseason.
“Coach Muss was like, ‘There’s a high possibility we could get Kendall Stephens and the twins,’” Cooke recalled. “So I was texting them like, ‘Man, we could do something special, four high-majors at a mid-major.’ Just building that chemistry off the court is what helped us on the court.
"We all know what’s at stake for one another, we all know what we’ve been through – the tough times we’ve gone through in college – and we’re invested in one another’s dream.”
Unfortunately, an unexpected death played a role in Stephens transferring from Purdue to Nevada, where he helped Cooke cope with a loss of his own in his personal life. Cooke’s father, Robert, passed away from lung cancer last summer. That was after Cooke worked to recover from hip surgery, then a heart condition, and also his mother being diagnosed with cancer.
“Definitely the locker room, man,” Cooke said, when asked what he uses to cope with the loss. “These guys are always there listening. Kendall Stephens, I probably spend like 95 percent of my day with him. Through the tough times, through the happy times, they’ve always been there for me.”
“That’s what it’s all about, the relationships you have,” Cooke continued. “Nobody remembers who scores what but they remember winning, so to have this is big.”
The Wolf Pack made it to Atlanta after erasing deficits of 14 and 22 points against No. 10 seed Texas and No. 2 seed Cincinnati, respectively. They'll face No. 11 seed Loyola Chciago in the Sweet 16 on Thursday.
“I think that our team has a togetherness, a chip on its shoulder so to speak,” Musselman said. “When we get down in games, we keep chipping away and I think that’s our mentality is we never quit.”
With four players redshirting this season and starting guard Lindsey Drew out of the season after tearing his Achilles, Nevada has essentially played with a six-man rotation for the last month and a half. The Wolf Pack, full of players and coaches who have reinvented themselves mid-career, have had to reinvent themselves mid-season.
Cody Martin has moved to the point guard position while his twin brother, Caleb, has moved to the "four" spot on some offensive possessions. Both are playing out of position from their natural positions.
Cody said the last time he played point guard was at N.C. State, where he played the position "once or twice." "The last true time I played point was probably at Oak Hill Academy," he said.
Oddly enough, Nevada's lack of depth after Drew's injury has perhaps made the Wolf Pack more versatile and harder to guard out of necessity. In their last five games, their most common lineup features a 6-7 player at every position, according to KenPom.com. Cody Martin at point guard, Stephens at shooting guard, Josh Hall at small forward, Caleb Martin at power forward and Caroline at center.
While most college centers at the DI level aren't 6-7, neither are most starting guards, which gives Nevada a size advantage in its backcourt in virtually every game it plays.
"We're still going through an identity crisis, so to speak, without Lindsey Drew, who has been our three-year point guard starter," Musselman said. "And Cody has done an unbelievably incredible job, but we're just a different team...we're kind of still evolving, so to speak.
"And I think that's why we have the ability to continue to get better throughout this tournament, because we haven't peaked in who we are. We feel like we're still getting better, which is probably why we've advanced, as well."
It's the perfect fit, the reinvented college head coach who used to interview candidates to wear his team's gorilla costume as he chased his NBA aspirations, and high-major transfers who took the scenic route before ultimately finding their home in Reno.