RENO - There was a pleasant surprise awaiting Nevada women's basketball coach Kim Gervasoni at the recent Western Athletic Conference Media Day.
For the first time in three years, the Wolf Pack women weren't picked to finish last by the media or the coaches.
The reasons are two-fold. First, some of the better schools like Rice, Tulsa, SMU and UTEP left for Conference USA. Secondly, the Wolf Pack (8-22 last year) figure to be much improved because they are a year older and have eight new players.
"The foundation is finally built at Nevada," said Gervasoni, whose team opens its nonconference schedule at Portland on Saturday. "This is my third season, and I pretty much have all my own recruits now. I'm excited about this season. I really went after kids that played in winning programs, Our program hasn't had a lot of that. We want to change that.
"Last year's recruiting class was good. This year, we bring new depth and athleticism. We'll be able to play a more up and down style because of the depth. We've got more athleticism, and we can play a lot of people. We have the depth to press 40 minutes. We can make it a full-court game defensively."
Nevada has done that during its two exhibition games, scoring more than 80 points each time.
A tough schedule awaits Nevada. The Pack open Nov. 18 at Portland State and then visit Pac-10 power Oregon. The Pack play Minnesota and either Alabama or Virginia at the Paradise Jam over Thanksgiving. The Pack also have nonconference games with UNLV (Dec. 10) at home and USF (Dec. 31) at home.
Nevada returns three starters - junior point guard Traci Graham (8.2, 3.1), sophomore forward Meghan McGuire (13.2, 3.9) and junior forward Jessica Preslar (7.5, 5.0).
Graham is being challenged for playing time by freshman Dellena Criner.
"Traci has the edge with her experience," Gervasoni said. "Dellena keeps progressing. She challenges everyday in practice. They are going to split time. Traci is not going to play 35 minutes the way she's had to the last two years. Playing less will keep her fresh."
McGuire, who scored 22 points in the exhibition win over Sonoma State last weekend, led the team in scoring a year ago. She's an effective player inside and outside, and she dropped 20 pounds in the off-season which will help her as the Pack try to plan an even more up-tempo style.
"She brings experience and she understands the game," Gervasoni said. "She could be in better shape. She got bronchitis (during the fall) and that set her back. Her outside shooting can open things up inside."
Preslar is a strong rebounder, and she is only coming into her own as a scorer. She has good range up to 15 feet.
Also in the backcourt are 5-10 freshman Brandi Fitzgerald, 5-9 freshman Nicole Hayman, 5-10 freshman Bre'Anna Henry, 5-10 Coty Feest, 5-10 Kate Saltmarsh and 6-1 Jourdan Willard, who redshirted last season after suffering a knee injury.
Fitzgerald had a nice game against Sonoma State, scoring 15 points and recording three steals.
Besides McGuire and Preslar, the Pack also have 5-11 Cherlanda Franklin, 6-2 Andrea Sitton, 6-foot volleyball star Salaia Salave'a, 6-5 JC transfer Evelina Janisyte and 6-2 Sabrina Keys, who transferred from Purdue, in the frontcourt.
Franklin started several games last year for the Pack, and her athleticism blends nicely with Gervasoni's up-tempo style. Salave'a was an all-state player in high school and came to Nevada on a volleyball scholarship. Gervasoni doesn't expect her to be able to contribute until the conference season starts in January.
Keys will be a real, pardon the expression, key for the Pack. She brings strength, big-time experience and maturity.
"She is excited to be back on the court," Gervasoni said. "She's like a big sister on the court. She's very mature. She talks a lot on and off court. They (teammates and especially younger players) will listen. She just doesn't talk all the time. They respect her attitude and the fact she has played at a big school."