Joe Santoro: Alford faces 'first time for everything' with young Wolf Pack

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Don’t be surprised if Steve Alford channels his inner Norman Dale at some point during this Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season.

Dale, the fictitious Hickory High head coach in the 1980s movie Hoosiers, measured the distance from the rim to the floor when his wide-eyed team walked into Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time before their state tournament game.

“I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurement as our gym back in Hickory,” said Dale, played by actor Gene Hackman in the movie.

Alford, who once scored 57 points in a state tournament semifinal game at that very same Hinkle Fieldhouse as a New Castle (Indiana) High senior in 1983, hasn’t gone that far with his young Wolf Pack this year.

Not yet, at least.

Alford has not told 6-foot-2 guard Grant Sherfield to climb atop the shoulders of 7-foot center Warren Washington and hold the tape measure against the rim in every new gym the Pack has walked into this season.

But you know he wants to. His team, after all, is every bit as wide-eyed and as frightened and unsure of itself as Dale’s Hickory Huskers. And the Pack doesn’t even have a Jimmy Chitwood to take all the big shots.

“We are a very, very young team,” said Alford, who will take his 8-3 Wolf Pack to San Diego State for key Mountain West games this Thursday and Saturday night. “This is a team going through things for the first time for everything.”

When Alford says everything, he means every single thing imaginable. Yes, the distance from the rim to the floor is still the same. And, yes, the basketball is the same size as always.

But that’s about it. The site of tiny Hickory High, which could have seated every person in its hometown in Hinkle Fieldhouse with social distancing, is only slightly more strange than what the Pack is going through this pandemic season.

“This is all new for all these guys,” Alford said. “We are the youngest team in the Mountain West.”

Coaches love to tell everyone how difficult the challenges are for their team. And Alford is no exception. He devised a hollow “we-are-young-and-inexperienced” theme last year despite a starting lineup that included Lindsey Drew, Jazz Johnson, Jalen Harris, JohnCarlos Reyes and Robby Robinson and a bench that had Nisre Zouzoua. Drew, alone, had more experience than most current NBA backcourts.

Alford’s justification for calling that team inexperienced was that their roles had changed, which is sort of like saying Clint Eastwood was inexperienced in the 2012 movie “Trouble With the Curve” because he never played a cranky baseball scout before.

Last year’s team could have coached this year’s team. This Wolf Pack team, compared to the 2019-20 version, drinks from sippy cups, wears Peppa Pig and Sesame Street pajamas to bed and runs straight to Mickey’s Toontown the moment it enters the gates at Disneyland.

The starting lineup of Washington, Sherfield, Desmond Cambridge, Tre Coleman and Zane Meeks has just one player (Meeks) who played for the Pack last season. The only player back this season that started more than one game last year is Robinson, and he now plays just 13 minutes a game.

Washington, a sophomore, and Cambridge, a junior, have Division I experience but neither one played a second last year after transferring from Oregon State (Washington) and Brown (Cambridge). Cambridge had two big seasons at Brown but Washington only played eight minutes a game as a freshman at Oregon State.

Sherfield played 30 games for Wichita State just last year but he is just a sophomore and, talk about a new role, he is in a brand new environment and trying to be the team leader at point guard.

DeAndre Henry, Daniel Foster, Alem Huseinovic and Coleman are freshmen. Meeks, K.J. Hymes and Kane Milling are sophomores but the three combined to start just one game (Hymes) last year, playing an average of just 14 minutes and scoring four points a game.

Hickory’s Jimmy Chitwood was more experienced and played in more big games than this Pack team combined.

“I have all the confidence in the world in these guys,” said Alford, who brought everybody on the roster to Nevada that has played this season except Hymes, all in less than two years. “It’s just that they are doing things for the first time.”

Toss in a pandemic and, well, this is all new for everybody, even Alford. Think Clint Eastwood becoming a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race or The Great British Baking Show.

Yes, every school has had to deal with the pandemic this season. Every gym that every team plays in this year will look as cavernous and daunting as the empty Hinkle Fieldhouse appeared when Dale measured the height of the rim. But Alford has had to deal with the pandemic and try to blend five new starters and an almost brand new bench together at the same time.

Alford, after all, grew up playing under the unforgiving microscope of Indiana high school basketball and in college at Indiana for Bobby Knight. If his father Sam (his high school coach) and Knight didn’t tell him what he did wrong in a game, thousands of New Castle High and Indiana Hoosiers fans would. Alford regularly played in front of five-figure crowds in high school in the biggest high school gyms in the country. Scoring 57 in a state tournament semifinal game in front of 15,000 fans at Hinkle was a normal day at the office for Alford, even as an 18-year-old.

But even this year is strange and weird for Alford, who thought he had experienced everything there was to experience in the sport before this year.

“I never thought in my 30 years (as a coach) I’d ever play New Mexico in Lubbock,” said a smiling Alford, whose Wolf Pack beat the Lobos 68-54 and 84-74 last week in Texas instead of Albuquerque because of COVID-19 restrictions.

For Alford, playing New Mexico anywhere but at The Pit, the Lobos’ arena that he called home for six (2007-13) seasons as New Mexico’s head coach, was almost like cheating the basketball gods.

“It’s not the Pit with 15,000 people in it,” smiled Alford last week, referring to the 3,000-seat Rip Griffin Center on the campus of Lubbock Christian University. “But with an extremely young team I’d just as soon play New Mexico there than in The Pit.”

The Wolf Pack, Alford reminds us, is playing college basketball this season but it isn’t real college basketball.

“There’s no crowd, no noise, no enthusiasm,” said Alford, who played his entire career in boiling kettles of noise, enthusiasm, pressure and expectations.

“Our players are not really getting the experience we hoped they would get playing road games (in front of hostile crowds). Road games are not really road games and home games are not really home games this year. They are all neutral (site) games. There’s no crowds. It’s very, very different. So next year we will have to talk about some of the same things (about being inexperienced).”

The Wolf Pack is extremely fortunate to have a head coach as experienced and battle tested as Alford in this trying season. Even Bobby Knight, after all, would have had challenges and stressful moments leading his 1975-76 perfect Indiana Hoosiers through a pandemic season. But to do it with a wet-behind-the-ears roster in empty gyms, well, the Pack’s 8-3 record right now has to be considered one of the best starts in program history.

“We have to be patient, do a good job as coaches and continue to help and teach,” Alford said.

Consider this season a crash course in college basketball for this young Pack team in an atmosphere as quiet and peaceful as a library on spring break. And so far the players are doing their homework.

Sherfield has already been a program-saver for the Pack and one of the best transfers in the nation this season. Alford originally signed him to play at UCLA but the Bruins turned stupid and fired Alford on New Year’s Eve in 2018 and Sherfield eventually ended up at Wichita State.

Thanks to those dimwitted UCLA moves, firing Alford and letting Sherfield get away, the Pack is navigating this trying pandemic season extremely well so far and has a bright future.

Sherfield has averaged 33.6 minutes a game, scoring 17.2 points, dishing out 5.4 assists with 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He’s a pint-sized version of Cody and Caleb Martin and there isn’t a more valuable player in the Mountain West right now.

“We’re talking about a young, young point guard and he’s running a very young team,” Alford said. “It’s not like we have a veteran team. There’s been a lot of pressure put on him. But he’s growing. And he’s going to end up producing a great career.”

Cambridge, a legitimate big-time scorer, has also paid huge dividends already, averaging 15.4 points a game with 4.1 rebounds and 30 3-pointers. Sherfield and Cambridge are the heart and soul of this team as their young teammates mature in this weird season.

“Win, lose or draw, I just hope our guys are growing,” Alford said. “Every test we get, every challenge we get, I want to see our guys get some growth.”

The schedule only gets tougher from here on out, with experienced rosters like San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV, Boise State, Colorado State and Utah State coming in the next eight weeks. Yes, the maturation process can be difficult.

“How do you handle it when a team punches you in the mouth,” Alford said. “We haven’t handled that great so far. I want to see how we fight together.

“We showed growth against New Mexico. We made big plays. We made the shots, we got the stops, we got to the foul line. We got the big rebounds.. It’s not like we played perfect, by any means. But they’re learning, I think they’re growing. They are doing a lot of good things together.”

This Pack team likely won’t get 57 points from any one player anytime soon. If this team is successful this year, they will have to do it together.

“If we get to (San Diego State) and grow, then we’re going to give ourselves opportunities to be successful,” Alford said.


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