Joe Santoro: Steve Alford vs. the transfer portal

Nevada head coach Steve Alford against Kansas on Dec. 29, 2021, in Lawrence, Kan.

Nevada head coach Steve Alford against Kansas on Dec. 29, 2021, in Lawrence, Kan.
Charlie Riedel/AP

We could be sitting in the middle of the worst off-season in Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball history. The regular season, which saw coach Steve Alford suddenly turn into David Carter as the Pack muddled its way to a 13-18 record, was bad enough.
But since the season mercifully ended the Pack has lost its second (Desmond Cambridge) and third best (Warren Washington) players to Arizona State in the dreaded transfer portal and is well on the way to losing its best (Grant Sherfield) player. Sherfield is also currently in the transfer portal after declaring for the NBA draft, so he is exploring all his options of getting out of town. We understand Cambridge and Washington leaving. Cambridge has already played four full seasons in Division I (two each at Brown and Nevada) and will play his final season at Arizona State with his brother Devan. Washington likely left town because Alford, for some reason, refused to play the 7-foot center more than 29 minutes in a game.
But Sherfield’s decision to leave Nevada is difficult to understand. Sherfield, even with Cambridge and Washington on the roster, was the Pack’s alpha dog. Alford seemed scared to even take him off the court. The ball was in Sherfield’s hands the entire game (except, of course, with a Mountain West tournament game against Boise State on the line in the final seconds). Sherfield appeared to have everything a college basketball player craves – minutes, control of the team, trust from his head coach, unquestioned leadership of the roster. And, it seems, he is going to throw all of that away.
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Sherfield, though, is not gone yet. He still has plenty of time to come to his senses and realize he has it pretty darn good at Nevada. We understand Sherfield’s presence on the 2022-23 Wolf Pack is a long shot right now. Sherfield, after all, doesn’t stay anywhere for very long. He went to high school in Texas and Kansas. He’s played college basketball at Wichita State and Nevada and that was after originally committing to Alford at UCLA.
So, yes, Sherfield’s belief that he is even remotely ready for the NBA or somehow needs to jump to yet another Division I program with two years of eligibility remaining, probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. Welcome to the new world of college basketball, where players feel they are being disrespected if someone isn’t constantly recruiting them.
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The Wolf Pack, as the roster sits today, will be lucky to win a dozen games next year. So it’s a good thing the season is still roughly seven months away. Kenan Blackshear, Will Baker, K.J. Hymes, Tre Coleman, Daniel Foster and Jalen Weaver will be back and Alford will fill out the roster with recruits. The good news is that Sherfield could still return and would be welcomed back with open arms by Pack fans and coaches. As part of his incentive to return, Alford would likely let Sherfield pick the starting lineup and the hotels where the team would stay on the road.
The other silver and blue lining right now is that the Pack hasn’t put the entire program in the transfer portal with hopes of joining the Big 12 or Pac-12. The Pack, as things stay now, will play in the Mountain West next year and will likely finish better than eighth (their 2021-22 finish), even if Sherfield is the starting point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers or UCLA Bruins.
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Why can’t Alford keep his players? Didn’t the Pack hire Alford because players would supposedly want to play for him? The Pack finished 13-18 this season and the reaction of nearly half the roster (Cambridge, Washington, Sherfield, Alem Huseinovoc, DeAndre Henry) was to jump head first into the transfer portal. Whatever happened to players getting right back into the gym trying to improve their game and their team after a disappointing season?
Signing Alford to a 10-year deal, though, was supposed to safeguard the Pack from losing its best players to the transfer portal. When Eric Musselman jumped into the transfer portal in 2019 and signed with Arkansas the Pack tried to find another Muss. So they hired the cheapest big name in an effort to keep Lawlor Events Center filled. But it hasn’t worked yet. Alford, so far, has been good, not great. He’s been more Len Stevens than Eric Musselman.
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Is Alford a great coach? Can you be considered a great coach if you’ve never advanced past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament? Would a great coach have gone from Iowa to New Mexico or UCLA to Nevada? Alford has flirted with becoming a great college coach. He went 28-9 with UCLA in 2013-14 and 31-5 in 2016-17. He won 25 games at Iowa in 2005-06. But that’s about it.
He never won a Big Ten regular season title in eight seasons at Iowa or a Pac-12 regular season title at UCLA in five seasons. He’s never gotten past the Sweet 16. Yes, he dominated the Mountain West for six years but that was the Mountain West and he played in a home arena (New Mexico’s Pit) where the officials wouldn’t let him lose.
Alford, no doubt, is a solid college basketball coach. He’s won a ton of games (over 600). He had an outstanding career as a player at Indiana. And he is still young (just 57). He shouldn’t be burned out, even if he looked that way this past season at times. Is he content to continue to battle all of the things a coach must battle at Nevada as a mid-major? Or is he, too, thinking of jumping into the transfer portal so he can finish out his career somewhere else? Either way, it’s time he justifies his 10-year deal at Nevada.
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In Alford’s defense, the transfer portal has drastically changed college basketball. It’s not all Alford’s fault that he couldn’t keep his best players at Nevada. Players, because of the transfer portal, are no longer loyal to anything other than the name on the back of their jerseys.
Yes, of course, players have always transferred from one school to another. The Wolf Pack football team, for example, benefited greatly from transfer players such as Stan Heath, Marion Motley, Tommy Kalmanir, Dick Trachok and others in the 1940s. Cambridge, Washington and Sherfield, don’t forget, transferred to Nevada. Musselman brought in transfers Caleb and Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline and others to build his program and career.
But none of Musselman’s transfers left Nevada. Neither did the football stars in the 1940s. The transfer portal (and the added year of eligibility because of COVID-19), though, has made it easy for players like Cambridge, Washington and Sherfield to transfer a second time.
What if there was a transfer portal in the 1970s? How long do you think it would have taken Edgar Jones to jump to another school? What about Alex Boyd in the late 1960s? You might have also seen Deonte Burton leave after the Pack went 13-19 his freshman in year in 2010-11. Does Nick Fazekas stay four years at Nevada if the transfer portal existed?
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Are you ready for some football? The Wolf Pack football program will stage its annual Silver-Blue scrimmage Saturday at Mackay Stadium (6 p.m.), giving us a sneak peak at Ken Wilson as a head coach. Wilson has even given the event a new name. He’s calling it the Battle Born Showdown, a silly, goofy, contrived title that clearly disrespects the Wolf Pack-UNLV rivalry that Pack fans live for each fall. There is no such thing as a showdown in late April, let alone a Battle Born Showdown. Wolf Pack fans are smarter than that and Wilson, more than anyone, should understand that.
What you will see Saturday is more like a “The Players Jay Norvell Left Behind Against the Overlooked Ducks Wilson pilfered from Oregon Showdown.” But that, unfortunately, doesn’t make for a cute, catchy little tweet on Twitter.

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