Nevada's rookie coach came up huge down stretch
INDIANAPOLIS Cindy Fox waited for her husband in a back hallway of the RCA Dome with a smile on her face and a child in each arm 4-year-old Parker on one side, 2-year-old Olivia on the other.
Fresh off his first NCAA Tournament win, Nevada coach Mark Fox gave Cindy a victory kiss and scooped the kids out of her hands.
"'Bout time he did a little work around here," said Cindy, who is an associate athletic director at Nevada.
In fact, Fox had just finished two hours of the steeliest bench work yet in this NCAA Tournament. If you weren't familiar with the bespectacled, balding 35-year-old with the serene and sometimes silent bench demeanor, you should be now.
Down four in the final four minutes, the rookie head coach had the stones to bench the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year against Texas. And lived to tell about it.
"Pretty gutsy move," said an admiring C.M. Newton. The former coach and NCAA Tournament selection committee honcho sought out Fox after his team's 61-57 win to introduce himself and congratulate the youngster.
That wasn't the coach's only gutsy move. Fox stuck with a game-long rope-a-dope defensive strategy of guarding the Longhorns' muscly interior players one-on-one. Lived to tell about that one, too.
Lived to coach a second-round game against the No. 1 team in the nation, Illinois.
Fox has never been a head coach on any level until this year, but he's already got the we-don't-have-a-prayer poor mouth routine locked. Asked whether his Wolf Pack can run with the Illini, he said, "No. We can't walk with Illinois, either. I'm not sure what we can do with Illinois, other than look at the flag for the national anthem."
Don't believe him. Nevada will be ready and if the Illini continue their five-game funk Saturday, they'll be in trouble. Fox is the son of a Kansas high-school coach who grew up preparing for a March opportunity like this.
"This is all I've ever wanted to do," he said. "Since I was about 10 years old."
The very fact that Nevada has suffered no drop-off from last season is testament to the coach's abilities. After a wholly unanticipated Sweet Sixteen run in 2004, the Wolf Pack lost coach Trent Johnson to Stanford and junior star Kirk Snyder to the NBA draft.
But if you thought that would be the last anyone heard of Nevada basketball, you were wrong. The Pack rolled to a 24-6 season, won the WAC regular-season title and gained their first Top 25 ranking in school history.
Now they're back in the Dance, and back to eliminating high-profile opponents with higher seedings. Last year it was Michigan State and Gonzaga. This year the ninth-seeded Wolf Pack bumped off No. 8 seed Texas.
And they did it with a couple of coaching decisions that would test the mettle of a 20-year veteran.
Start with the game-long strategy of single-covering Texas big men Brad Buckman and Jason Klotz. Time and again, the broad-shouldered Longhorns backed down Nevada big men Nick Fazekas and Kevinn Pinkney for point-blank shots.
Klotz scored a career-high 20 points and Buckman added 14. But it took a combined 39 shots to score those points, and the Horns got just 23 points from the rest of the team.
"We were going to play their posts one-on-one," Fox said. "We felt if we took away their 3-point shot, their posts would have to get 30 and 30 to beat us."
They nearly did, and Texas nearly won. Nevada controlled a tight game for 35 minutes, then looked like it was going to lose when Klotz scored eight points in an 11-2 Longhorns run that produced a 55-51 Texas lead.
Fox called time with 4:07 left. Any temptation to abandon the defensive strategy and trap the post?
"Never," Fox said firmly. "We felt like we would have a chance to win doing that."
But with that chance slipping away, Fox made his guttiest move in the final minutes. Sophomore Fazekas, outweighed by Klotz by 20 pounds, was taking a beating on the block. So with the season on the line, the coach benched the league Player of the Year, who came into the game averaging 21.4 points and 9.4 rebounds.
"They did it without me tonight," Fazekas said, though that wasn't quite true, given his 10 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. "They needed it on defense and I wasn't doing well. I'm not mad at coach Fox or anything like that. We got the win.
"We played that last four minutes with a lot of toughness."
In Fazekas' place, Fox went with 7-foot, 270-pound sophomore Chad Bell.
"Chad's bigger than anybody," Fox said. "It's a tough decision to put your best player on the bench, but we needed a little better post defense at the time. If we were going to have a chance to win, we needed to shut them out."
They came close. Repelled by Bell's big body, Klotz missed his final two shots of the game and his college career as the Wolf Pack dug in defensively and outscored Texas 10-2 in the final four minutes.
They needed stops. They got stops. They won the game.
"We win ugly," Fox said. "Those of you that haven't seen us, this is a typical game for us. We play a lot of grinders."
And they win them all. Nevada is now a whopping 17-0 when it holds opponents to fewer than 60 points. In fact, the Wolf Pack is 23-1 when it holds opponents under 70.
Illinois can play that way, too. But the Illini had better be prepared for a tough team and a rookie coach who isn't afraid to risk everything.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.