RENO - When you think of Reno, you think of the bright marquees on Virginia Street, and gamblers hoping to strike it rich playing the game of their choice.
Nevada basketball coach Mark Fox isn't a gambler by any means, but the Pack head coach said he "hit the jackpot" when he filled out his staff with Kwanza Johnson and Doug Novsek during the off-season.
The pair were hired after Josh Newman left to take the head job at Arkansas-Fort Smith and Dedrique Taylor left for an assistant's job on Herb Sendek's staff at Arizona State.
Adding two assistants is no easy task, but Fox said the transition has been a smooth one.
"They have been absolutely terrific," Fox said Tuesday as the 11th-ranked Pack prepared to face Fresno State on Thursday night. "Doug brings a wealth of experience at this level. Kwanza is a valuable addition to our program because of his coaching and playing experience."
Fox said that with Novsek being from Illinois and Johnson from the Texas and Oklahoma area, it could bolster Nevada's recruiting efforts.
"One thing you've seen is that we've had to go everywhere to recruit," Fox said. "I'm sure we'll take advantage of it."
Both coaches have been on the road in recent weeks recruiting, and Novsek will go out again before the week is over since Nevada doesn't have a game this weekend.
VETERAN FROM NEBRASKA
The 42-year-old Novsek assisted at Nebraska from 2002 to 2006, and before that he worked as an assistant at Indiana State, Southwest Texas and Illinois State.
Novsek found himself out of a job when his boss, Barry Collier, left Nebraska to take the athletic director's job at Butler. As part of an agreement with the university, Novsek would have gotten paid for six months, and he admitted that had the Nevada job not come up, he probably would have stayed in Nebraska until the end of the school year.
"People that I lean on (for advice) said that it will never hurt you being associated with a winning program," Novsek said. "That can help you as much as anything.
"Mark and David (Carter, associate head coach) have established such a success environment. That made it very easy to come in. This is a great place to work. When you have great players this makes it fun."
Novsek wasn't hired until August, and that's an extremely late hire date for a college basketball program. He essentially had to learn the players and the program on the run.
"That was the hardest part of this transition," Novsek said. "Usually you have a spring and some spring workouts and al the summer to get to know the players.
"We have some real dedicated kids, and they have experience. They know how Mark wants things done. It's a good environment. The kids would have been respectful of whoever came in here."
Novsek worked with post players for two years at Nebraska, one year with the point guards and one year with the perimeter players. In Novsek's final year at Nebraska, Charles Richardson Jr. became the first point guard in Husker history to post at least 100 assists, and he ranked fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big 12.
Novsek has been instructing players individually on shooting and teaching proper footwork. You can usually see him on the floor with some of the Pack's young big players like JaVale McGee, Matt LaGrone and Richie Phillips. He is oh so patient as he instructs them on the proper position of their hands and follow through.
The veteran coach admits that he loves to teach. That and just the competition are the main reasons he got into coaching.
And, he admits that someday he'd like to be a head coach, but he admits it has to be the right situation, a school that has a chance to succeed.
JOHNSON BACK IN THE WAC
The 34-year-old Johnson played for two years at Tulsa, and then assisted there from 2001 to 2005.
He spent the 2005-06 season at Eastern Illinois. He also worked at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and University of Arkansas-Little Rock for a year apiece.
Fox admitted that he had tried to lure Johnson to Nevada before when he had an opening.
"A lot of it had to due with Tulsa being my alma mater," said Johnson, who earned a law degree from Tulsa in 1999, and originally wanted to be a sports agent. "We had a couple of lean years. I felt obligated to help get the ship righted."
Johnson admitted that he made the first overture this time around when he heard that Nevada had an opening.
"I've always been impressed with what coach Johnson, coach Fox and coach Carter have done to build this program. The program has been getting better and better, and I wanted to be part of it."
Johnson knows that two new coaches takes an adjustment by the players and coaches alike. The fact that Fox and Carter were still here made the adjustment a lot easier.
"They (the veteran players) already had coaches here they trusted," Johnson said. "They are a tough group (mentally). The younger kids and I were in the same boat. We were all the same. We all get a long pretty good, yet at the same time, I know what their comfort zone is."
Fox said earlier in the year that he liked Johnson's toughness, and the young assistant has been able to instill that in some of the players.
When Johnson was asked what his forte is, he didn't hesitate.
"If it came down to defense or offense, it would be defense," Johnson said. "I couldn't play a lick of offense. I was not as good on offense as I was on defense."
It was that defensive prowess that got Johnson playing time under legendary coach Tubby Smith, the former Tulsa coach, who is now at Kentucky. He was not a scorer, but a role player. He was named to the Missouri Valley Conference defensive team in 1995.
"It (defense) might not be what everybody sees," Johnson said. "It is such an important part of the game that is taken for granted.
"Sometimes you aren't going to be 'on' offensively. Defense and rebounding are always going to be there if you work hard at it."
Johnson also would like to be a head coach, but he knows that it's a process that takes time.
"I still have a lot of stuff I need to learn," Johnson said.
And, no doubt Nevada hopes that he continues to grow within the Wolf Pack family.
•Contact Darrell Moody at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1281