In a conference that plays on a small stage, Nevada sophomore Cameron Oliver is a big-time player. This is the time for him to prove it.
Much more than revenge is on the line when the top-seeded Wolf Pack face Fresno State in a Mountain West tournament semifinal tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s a one-bid league, so it’s win now or wait for an NCAA Tournament invitation that never will come.
Nevada (26-6) is no doubt the best of the Mountain West, and probably the only team capable of pulling an upset next week, but its 0-2 record against the Bulldogs is a black eye.
Fresno is a team that wins with toughness and timely 3-point shooting, traits on display Thursday in its comeback victory over New Mexico.
Oliver, a strong 6-foot-8 forward, and 6-7 Jordan Caroline can overpower and outwork most opponents. Caroline had 22 points and eight rebounds, and Oliver totaled 19 points and 11 rebounds Thursday in a blowout of Utah State.
Both teams are trending in an impressive direction. The Wolf Pack have won and covered seven straight, with six wins by double digits. The Bulldogs have won and covered six in a row.
Something about the matchup has worked in favor of Fresno, which won 77-76 on New Year’s Eve and 81-76 on Jan. 21. It’s not tough to beat a bad team three times. But it’s extremely tough to beat the best team in the conference three times.
Nevada coach Eric Musselman will have his team fired up to play.
Oliver and Caroline, players with pro ability, are capable of taking over the game.
With everything on the line, and with a slight site advantage in Las Vegas, I’ll side with the Wolf Pack as 5½-point favorites.
Six more college basketball plays today:
Indiana (plus-5) over Wisconsin: James Blackmon Jr. scored 23 points in a 22-point blowout of Iowa on Thursday, when the Hoosiers hit 12 3-pointers. The Badgers won both regular-season meetings, but both games were tight. Similar to Michigan, Indiana looked like a dangerous team coming into the Big Ten tournament.
Maryland (-1½) over Northwestern: The Terrapins have the best player on the floor — junior guard Melo Trimble — and an edge by playing in Washington, D.C. Trimble scored 32 in a 74-64 win at Northwestern on Feb. 15. The Wildcats are in the NCAA Tournament, so this game is not a make-or-break scenario.
Vanderbilt (plus-6) over Florida: Sharp money showed against the Commodores on Thursday, but it was as sharp as a spoon. Vanderbilt (18-14) has won six of seven to get on the right side of the NCAA bubble for now. The underdog is playing with more urgency.
Notre Dame (plus-2) over Florida State: The Fighting Irish just passed a tougher test by beating Virginia 71-58. Junior forward Bonzie Colson leads the way for Notre Dame, which handled the Seminoles 84-72 a month ago. Also, Mike Brey is the better coach.
Arizona (plus-2½) over UCLA: The Wildcats are 7-1 in their past eight games, with the Bruins handing them the loss in Tucson. UCLA barely slipped by Southern California on Thursday, when Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier led Arizona to a convincing win over Colorado. I’ll back the better defensive team to avenge its only recent setback.
San Diego State (-2) over Colorado State: After surviving a scare in the first round and overcoming a 21-point deficit to defeat UNLV, the Aztecs are suddenly rolling. The Rams won both regular-season meetings on dramatic shots in the final seconds, so this situation favors San Diego State. Malik Pope scored 22 points Thursday before limping off with a knee injury, but he should be ready to go.
Thursday: 3-3 against the spread