Nevada coach Eric Musselman called the shots for Golden State before the Warriors were The Warriors, but the Wolf Pack’s brand of positionless and uptempo basketball is unique like the offense Steve Kerr leads.
“These guys are a nightmare to play defense against,” Mick Cronin said. “I think they’ve only scored less than 70 twice this year, which is unbelievable.”
Over the course of the season, Cronin watched the Wolf Pack play on the late night game shown on CBS Sports Network. The first thing he noticed was their firepower. Next was the starting lineup that features four 6-foot-7 athletes.
Ranked eighth in the country in KenPom offensive efficiency and a top 50 team in pace, Nevada is led by twins Caleb and Cody Martin. The former notched Mountain West Player of the Year and the latter got the honors for his defense. The 6-foot-7 forwards are also the team’s primary ball handlers who constantly push the ball up the floor.
“I think that’s what really helps us out, playing five guards,” Caleb said. “And we can really spread the floor. It’s something that you don’t really have to worry about getting the ball to necessarily a one guy when you get the rebound and go.”
Because of Nevada’s unconventional starting lineup, which plays nearly the entire game, Cronin might have to shake up his lineups so there isn’t a mismatch at center. Nevada starts Jordan Caroline (you guessed it, he’s 6-foot-7), a quick, physical player whom Cronin said he tried to recruit to come to Cincinnati.
He said he might be forced to play some lineups that haven’t seen the floor much this season, including one with Gary Clark at center.
The American Atletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year averages 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game, but he’s barely been used this season as the only big man on the floor. According to KenPom, he always plays next to Kyle Washington, Tre Scott or Nysier Brooks. Just last week against Houston in the conference tournament championship game, Cronin slid Clark all the way down to the three, playing next to Tre Scott and Kyle Washington. Nevada’s lineup, he said, could slide things to the other end of the scale.
“It’s just matchups,” Cronin said. “We try to adjust as we go. Look, Eric’s a really good coach and his pro background has (made sure) they do a good job of figuring out what you’re doing and getting the isolation situation that they want.”
If he ends up playing Clark at the five and moving Jacob Evans or Jarron Cumberland to the four, Cronin has someone on the staff who could show them the ropes. Assistant director of student-athlete development JaQon Parker, who played for Cincinnati from 2009 through 2013, was a key part of a tactical change that turned around his junior season.
After a three game losing streak during Big East play in January of 2012, Cronin named Parker, a 6-foot-3 player, his team’s starting power forward. With Cashmere Wright, Sean Kilpatrick and Dion Dixon, the four- around-one approach opened up the paint for Yancy Gates’ post scoring, Parker said.
But how did they fare defensively? Ultimately, that was Parker’s responsibility, and he said it wasn’t difficult for him to limit the production of opposing power forwards. He especially remembers guarding Florida State forward Xavier Gibson (6’11”) so well that he forced the shot blocker out of an NCAA Tournament game.
“I really got the best of him. Like real bad. They ended goings small with us cause he couldn’t play,” Parker said.
He said he’s ready to teach Evans and Cumberland some of his tricks. It comes down to fronting your man on defense, boxing out and staying in their face.
“We have some nice big, strong guards,” Parker said. “If need be, they can go they and actually play against the big guys. All you’ve got to do is outwork them. Ain’t much to it really.”
While small ball lineups usually have a correlation with offensive efficiency, guard Trevor Moore said breaking Washington’s connection with Clark might limit their offensive production. According to Brooks, a 6-foot-11 spark-plug, it’s his responsibility to provide a combination of size and athleticism to make sure the Bearcats keep their rebounding and shot blocking advantages.
Playing a small ball lineup with Clark at the five would likely mean Moore, a freshman guard, would get most of Washington and Brooks’ playing time.
Parker said that any five man lineup the Bearcats play will maintain the quality defense they’ve shown all season.
“It’s just the culture,” he said. “That’s what we’re used to. Play hard. Play smart. That’s just what we do.”