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The Biggest Little Team.
March 26, 2004

by Bill Hogan

Posted Thursday March 25, 2004

 
 

Thanks to the University of Nevada basketball team, "The Biggest Little City in the World" has become a little bit bigger. At least as far as the college basketball world is concerned.

When you qualify for the "Sweet 16" in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, it's a big to-do for a small program playing in a conference that gets little recognition. And if you happen to live in little old Reno and root hard for the Wolf Pack, it's a really big to-do.

 
 


Everybody in town has been talking about the team since they upset Gonzaga last weekend. Store fronts are covered with Go Pack signs. Public buses are flashing GO WOLF PACK between destination notices. The Reno Hilton, the tallest casino in town, has changed its traditional white building lights to Nevada blue.

Hundreds of fans were on hand at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport to greet the team when they arrived home from Seattle. My family was among the masses, and when Nevada's 6-foot point guard Todd Okeson signed my son's Wolf Pack t-shirt, the five-year old was grinning from ear to ear. As far as he was concerned, it may as well have been Michael Jordan himself signing autographs in Terminal B.

The Governor proclaimed this past Wednesday Wolf Pack Day at the "Dancing with Wolves" pep rally for the team as they readied themselves for the trip to St. Louis. Hundreds of excited fans turned out to see the team off, lining Reno's busiest downtown street just for the chance to wave at the passing bus.

In an article posted on espn.com, basketball analyst Dick Vitale wrote "Oh, baby, can the Nevada Wolfpack play!" Maybe after another couple of day's worth of publicity, Vitale will learn that the surprise team from Nevada is called the Wolf Pack, not Wolfpack.

But then, what did anyone outside of Northern Nevada really know about this team before last weekend. Now they are rapidly becoming the sweethearts of this "Sweet 16." Especially on the West Coast where the Wolf Pack are the sole remaining team this side of Kansas.

Brian Murphy, of the Macon Telegraph in Georgia, wrote "All of a sudden, they are America's darlings. Everyone with a bracket already busted will be rooting for the upstarts from Reno." What Murphy doesn't know is that these "upstarts" have been heading in this direction since head coach Trent Johnson arrived in Reno five years ago.

The writer's description of this Wolf Pack team is akin to calling an actress who spent years toiling in off-Broadway productions and B-movies an overnight sensation the first time she is recognized for her achievements. I'm sure those who knew her best weren't surprised at her success.

University of Nevada fans are very excited that the basketball team will be playing in St. Louis this weekend, but not surprised. They saw the Pack give the University of Connecticut all it could handle in November. And they were in the stands at the Lawlor Events Center when the team routed Kansas 75-61 in December.

As the highest seed left in the tournament at number 10, Nevada has their work cut out for them if they are going to advance. Call me a homer, but I think they can beat Georgia Tech and reach the "Elite Eight." And if they happen to face Kansas in the Regional Finals, well, we already know what's possible.

Though no team seeded higher than eight has ever won the National Championship, it is not unprecedented for a double-digit seed to make it to the final weekend. In 1986, Louisiana State won four games to take its region from the 11 seed.

So who says the Wolf Pack can't make it to San Antonio? I think they have as good a shot as any team remaining. I know there are a couple of hundred thousand Northern Nevada residents that would agree with me. And, by now, there are millions of basketball fans around the country that will be pulling for them as well.

But the people that are just now starting to jump on the Wolf Pack band wagon won't have the opportunity to stand in line at the Nevada Student Union and wait impatiently for the "Sweet 16" t-shirts to go on sale. I'll be there.

If Kirk Snyder and Todd Okeson keep playing as well as they have, I'll be back there when the "Final Four" t-shirts go on sale.

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