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Profile of a possible savior: Eric Musselman

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From Wolf Pack to Wolfpack?

Sacramento Kings v Golden State Warriors Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Oh, Nevada. I’m shaking my fist at you, Nevada. Plagiarizer of nicknames. Taker of twins. Perhaps it is time for us to take from you. Alas, what could you possibly have that we would want? Well, would you look at that? The two-word Wolf Pack have themselves an intriguing basketball coach. We need a basketball coach. Could Eric Musselman be the savior for the one-word Wolfpack?

Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:

1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?

Musselman’s coaching experience is mostly from the professional ranks, but he did win a national title of sorts last year in his first season with Nevada. The Wolf Pack beat Morehead State in overtime to win the CBI championship.

Admittedly, this isn’t the sort of banner we’re looking to hang in the rafters, but it’s not Musselman’s lone championship. Remember the USBL? Musselman won USBL championships in both his seasons there and holds the defunct league’s highest career winning percentage, a ridiculous .946. He also holds impressive marks in the CBA (270-122) and the D-League (77-30), where he was once coach of the year, as well.

2. Has he built a program from the ground up?

This would appear to be the case at Nevada, where the Martin twins will play for him starting next year (assuming Musselman is still in Reno). The Wolf Pack had a lot of success under Mark Fox a decade ago but were a raging dumpster fire when Musselman took over, having had three losing seasons in a row.

3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?

Oh yes. Nevada won 15 more games in his first season at the helm than it had the previous season. The KenPom rank jumped from 271st to 124th in one season. That’s stunning. The Wolf Pack have taken another huge step this year, rising to 70th.

4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?

The Nevada gig is Musselman’s first as a head man at the NCAA level. He was wildly successful at numerous minor league jobs as a professional coach. And, of course, he was an NBA head coach, though that didn’t turn out quite so well. Musselman was 108-138 in three seasons in the NBA, two with Golden State and one with Sacramento. The Warriors did have a 17-game improvement in his first year on the sidelines, their most wins (38) in almost a decade, and Musselman was runner-up to Greg Popovich for NBA COY. His star was extraordinarily bright, but it flamed out quickly.

5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?

On the college level, Musselman was an assistant coach for HWSNBN at Arizona State. He also looked on in horror as Big Beefy dropped that sweet lefty hook to jettison LSU from the Big Dance. He left his assistant gig at LSU for Nevada, and LSU immediately started sucking despite having ESPN-anointed GOAT Ben Simmons.

Musselman has also piloted both the Dominican and Venezuelan national teams.

He was an assistant for five different NBA franchises, and worked under some pretty impressive names in the world of basketball, such as Chuck Daly, Mike Fratello, and Lon Kruger.

Musselman’s father, Bill, built Minnesota into a college power in the 70s. Attendance at Golden Gopher games rose over 400% during the elder Musselman’s term. Years later, Bill also guided South Alabama to the tournament after an impressively quick turnaround of a terrible team. Arizona narrowly avoided a first-round loss to the Jags on its way to a national championship. Dad won over 65% of his games as a D-I college coach but did not enjoy success after his move to the NBA, where Eric was for a time his assistant.

6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?

Nevada is tied with Colorado State at 11-4 atop the Mountain West standings and 22-6 overall. The Wolf Pack are 16 spots ahead of San Diego State for tops in the league in KenPom’s rankings. The MWC is not a bad league, ranking 10th in conference RPI out of 32. Nevada is 40th in RPI this morning and may well not need to win the MWC to get in the tournament.

7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?

Musselman’s reputation is more “offensive guru” than “defensive-minded,” but his first Nevada team went from 211th the year prior to 57th in AdjD. I don’t have enough superlatives to even try to quantify that. Alas, though the other Pack have continued to rise overall as a program in year two, their defense has slipped to outside the top 100. Still, Mark Gottfried’s Pack are 226th at this moment in AdjD, so it’s nice to imagine Musselman pulling off that kind of instant turnaround here.

For what it’s worth, his first Golden State team had the worst defensive rating in the NBA but did improved 11 spots in year two under Musselman. The Kings (22nd/30) were pretty bad defensively as well.

8. So how about offense?

You see the same rise in offensive performance at Nevada, though the big leap was in year two. The KenPom AdjO ranks: 291st (pre-Musselman), 210th, 46th. That there is 245 spots in two seasons. It’s as if he focused chiefly on defense the first year to be competitive while he put the pieces in place to run a more aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball. That has meant pumping the brakes a bit this year. Nevada was actually 31st in pace of play in his first season but have dialed it back to 130th this season. Still, you are not going to get any sort of Virginia molasses business with this dude. In his opening press conference in Reno, he said he told his new team that they won’t need to worry about the shot clock since he doesn’t have any sets that take 30 seconds to run.

His offenses in the NBA were above average, including taking the Warriors from 21st to 3rd in team offensive rating in his first season. They were the second highest scoring team in the league. He doesn’t necessarily have a system or style he prefers but rather molds his offenses to his player’s strengths, though he would always aim to be a fast-breaking operation if possible.

9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?

Musselman was instrumental in landing Simmons at LSU, and his vast NBA experience would certainly be useful on the recruiting path. His two-man freshman class this year was solid by MWC standards, as both pledges were just outside the top 100 overall. Devearl Ramsey had numerous high major offers (including one from NC State), and Josh Hall held a couple of ACC offers. Both Ramsey and Hall, who is a Texan, also spurned Shaka Smart to play for Musselman.

He doesn’t have a single class of 2017 signee at this moment, but that is somewhat mitigated by the impending arrival of the Martin twins, who of course were both four-star recruits. He has 21 offers out for 2018 recruits, including a number of top 100 players. He will bring in talent.

10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?

No, not really, though I don’t think this is an overwhelming concern. If he did put on a red tie, I would love to see him bring in an assistant with more local ties. Levi Watkins would seem like a potentially great fit.

11. Any other random red flags or positives?

Other than the lack of ACC connection, if that bothers you, there are some potential red flags. His dad left Minnesota with about a million NCAA violations. But, that was his dad, and that was a long, long time ago. Still, does the apple fall far from the tree?

Musselman is no whippersnapper. The preference of POAPS readers seems to be for a coach in his late 30s to early 40s; he’ll be 52 at the start of next season.

He hired Yann Hufnagel at Nevada after the former Cal assistant had to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment.

The final concern is whether State could keep him. A self-described “basketball gypsy,” if he enjoys success at the collegiate level, will Musselman parlay that into another shot in the NBA?

All of the above are legitimate concerns, but I don’t think they outweigh the positives. His former players rave about how he helped them develop their games, about how intense and competitive he is, but how he teaches and coaches in a positive way. His list of former D-League players to make it in the NBA is long, and player development has been, at best, uneven of late at NC State. Musselman can legitimately sell “I can get you ready for the NBA” in the recruiting realm.

The guy has been coaching since age 23, has the best winning percentage in USBL history, the second best winning percentage in CBA history, won a record 100 games as a pro coach before age 28, and his college team, San Diego, posted its best record in program history when he was a player there. He’s a winner who has certainly absorbed a vast amount of X’s and O’s knowledge during his life on the court and on the sidelines.

Summary:

Would he be better than Gottfried?

Like I wrote regarding Tim Jankovich, I think Musselman could beat Gott’s players with his players, or his players with Gott’s players. His diverse experience should allow him to tailor a plan to fit his players rather than trying to shoehorn them into an archaic system. And, even if he’s not a sure bet to develop an elite defense, Musselman would do more than pay lip service to it. He’s a better and more proven coach in terms of X’s and O’s, and recruiting shouldn’t be an issue at NC State. I feel like his floor would be Gottfried’s ceiling: a very good offense with a defense just good enough to pull off an occasional sweet 16 run.

OK, so what is his ceiling?

Due to his age and the possibility of wanting to return to the NBA, I don’t think you can dream on Musselman establishing a 20-year run of being a top 25 team, or some such thing, as you might with a Miller or Wade. But, in the short term, I think he would have the ability to keep the team together and lead an immediate turnaround.

He would make Wolfpack-east a tournament team again, and we’re not talking CBI. Even if it was just the CBI, his success in a tournament environment is promising. As a long-time NBA guy, he certainly has experience quickly imparting scouting reports and motivating teams to play on a quick turnaround. The window might be limited due to age and possible higher ambitions, but the ceiling would be unlimited when he returned the real Pack to the real tournament.

Would he take the job if offered?

If money talks. He’s on a five-year, two-million dollar deal at Nevada. He would likely surpass the total value of that deal in one year in Raleigh. It’s hard to imagine that a guy with his competitiveness and drive wouldn’t want to coach at college basketball’s highest level.

How would I feel if he were hired?

He’s not my first choice, but I would be pretty geeked. Musselman strikes me as a grownup. After the last decade, that’s what this program needs.

How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?

If this was 2003, Musselman would be one of those guys that the talking heads would scoff at us for even considering. The guy was coming off being runner-up in the NBA for coach of the year and seemed poised for a long, successful run in The League. His star has dimmed since then, but his quick success at Nevada shows that he can be an effective college coach. Of course some might equate him with Sidney Lowe, a failed NBA coach who didn’t pan out for the Pack, but there are clear differences, chiefly that Musselman wouldn’t be coming in with no college coaching and recruiting experience, and that Musselman’s pro résumé, be it from the minor leagues or the NBA, is more impressive.

Our thinking is so wired for “young, up-and-coming mid-major coach or Gregg Marshall” that it might come as an initial shock, but, with some time to digest it, I believe most would be pleased with the hire. Ultimately, the next coach will win or lose the fans on the court.