How do you forget a painful home loss to Fresno?
Easy. You play your best basketball of the year, pick up the two biggest wins of the season, and grab sole possession of first place in the Mountain West all in a span of seven days.
Nevada sits in the driver’s seat after convincing wins at Boise State on Wednesday night, 76-57, and at home against New Mexico on Saturday afternoon, 82-65. Those are two of the conference’s heavyweights and Nevada beat them by a combined 36 points.
With so many new parts this year (Marcus Marshall, Jordan Caroline, Josh Hall, Leland King, Devearl Ramsey) it was presumed this team would endure a learning curve early and progress as the season unfolded and familiarity grew.
It’s fair to say this team, sitting at 18-4, 7-2 in conference play, is getting familiar.
The biggest reason for resounding defeats, however, wasn’t one of this year’s new faces. Instead, it was a familiar name that sparked what may end up being the season-defining stretch.
Sophomore Cam Oliver was a force, giving NBA scouts plenty to look at. In the two wins, he scored 43 points on 16-of-33 shooting, 4-of-11 from deep. He made all seven free throws he took and grabbed 25 rebounds.
That is the dominance many pundits foreshadowed in the offseason, naming Oliver a Mountain West Player of the Year front runner. He’s shown glimpses this year. The consistency just hasn’t been there. Yet.
Marshall is Nevada’s best player this year, his range is limited only by the white line that strangles the court. But after the last two games, it’s clear Oliver is the most important player on this team. He turned in the two strongest efforts of his sophomore season and Nevada, in turn, picked up its two best wins of the year in dominant fashion.
The Wolf Pack is the best team in the conference when Oliver plays like he did against the Broncos and Lobos. Bar none.
Boise State doesn’t have the fire power to keep up. Colorado State just lost three key players to academic ineligibility. Fresno State didn’t see the Oliver that showed up last week in the Bulldogs’ two wins over the Pack. New Mexico has already lost twice to Nevada. And nobody else has a winning conference record.
It gets even better for coach Eric Musselman’s squad. The second half of the schedule is far more forgiving. Of the nine games remaining, six are against the bottom four teams in the Mountain West standings (Utah State – twice, UNLV – twice, San Jose State and Air Force).
The other three games are at a struggling San Diego State, then home dates against Boise State and Colorado State.
Already with a lead, a generous schedule, and now a resurgent Oliver, Nevada will have every opportunity to run away with the Mountain West regular season title.
Nathan can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His weekly column, ‘Shoup Shots,’ was named the best column in the state of Nevada (community division) by the Nevada Press Association. It runs in the hard copy of the Sparks Tribune every Tuesday morning.