Nevada coach Steve Alford shown during the 2021-22 season. (Photo: Nevada Athletics)
The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season is starting over.
“Whether you have a good year or a bad year, and ours obviously has been bad, you are now starting zero and zero,” Wolf Pack coach Steve Alford said after a 79-78 regular season-ending loss to the San Diego State Aztecs on Saturday at Lawlor Events Center. “This is the time of the year when you wipe everything clean, regardless if your season has been good or bad.”
Nevada (12-17, 6-12), which begins Mountain West tournament play in Las Vegas on Wednesday (11 a.m.) against New Mexico (13-18, 5-12), has lost its last four games. The Wolf Pack, which must win four games in four days to win the tournament, has lost 10 of its last 13 games since Jan. 21 and 13 of its last 19 games since Dec. 18.
“We have to refresh it all,” Alford said.
The four-game slide equals the Pack’s second longest losing streak heading into a conference tournament with the 1993-94 team under coach Pat Foster in the Big West Conference. The 2012-13 (Mountain West) team under coach David Carter owns the Pack record for the longest losing streak heading into a postseason tournament at seven. Carter’s 2013 Pack did not win a tournament game while Foster’s 1994 Pack won one.
Alford is well aware that his Wolf Pack has to beat difficult odds to win the 23rd Mountain West tournament this week. No Mountain West team, after all, has ever won four games in four days to win the tournament. The Pack is the No. 8 seed and no seed larger than No. 6 (Colorado State in 2003) has ever won the tournament.
“We know we have to win four games to keep our season alive,” Pack guard Grant Sherfield said. “We know that.”
The No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won 16 of the first 22 Mountain West tournaments. This year the Pack went 0-10 against the Top Five seeds (Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV). The Wolf Pack will play No. 1-seed Boise State on Thursday (noon) if it beats New Mexico on Wednesday.
“We beat nobody in the upper five,” Alford said. “That’s not good.”
PACK CONFIDENT DESPITE ODDS: The Wolf Pack insists it has confidence heading into the tournament. Part of that confidence comes from playing toe-to-toe with two of better teams in the conference last week in close losses to No. 1-seed Boise State (73-67) and No. 3 San Diego State (79-78).
“It was good to see how resilient we were and how we fought back (in both games) with a chance to win,” guard Desmond Cambridge said. “Everyone has a chance (to win the tournament). Even the last seed has a chance. We can beat any team in this league.”
Six of the Wolf Pack’s 10 losses against the top five teams in the league were by 10 or more points. Just two were under six points, both to San Diego State.
“We all know we can play with anybody in this league,” Sherfield said.
ALFORD HAS DONE IT: Alford has gone where the Pack wants to go this week in Las Vegas.
Alford won two Mountain West tournaments as coach of the New Mexico Lobos in 2012 and 2013. Current Pack assistant Craig Neal also won the tournament as New Mexico’s coach in 2014.
Alford has even won four games in four days to win a tournament, doing the trick as the Iowa Hawkeyes coach in 2001 in the Big Ten. Iowa was the sixth seed that season and beat No. 11-seed Northwestern, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 7 Penn State and No. 4 Indiana at the United Center in Chicago to go to the NCAA tournament with a 22-11 record.
“We told the team we had a team at Iowa that won four games in four days,” said Alford, who nearly did it again the next year (2002) only to lose in the title game in the fourth game. “We told our guys we know how to do it and we’ve done it.”
Alford said it all comes down to the players.
“The players have to believe,” Alford said. “If they have that mindset we’ll have a chance. If we don’t have that mindset the season will be over quickly.”
Alford has a record of 34-20 in conference tournaments in his Division I coaching career with five championships. He is 9-6 in the Mountain West (New Mexico and Nevada), 6-4 in the Missouri Valley Conference (Southwest Missouri State), 13-6 in the Big Ten (Iowa) and 6-4 in the Pac-12 (UCLA).
This year’s Wolf Pack, though, has the worst regular-season record of any team Alford has ever brought to a league tournament. The Pack’s 12-17 record is Alford’s worst in 27 Division I seasons and its 6-12 record in league play equals his worst with the 2015-16 UCLA team.
“I’m very optimistic this team can do it,” Alford said of the Pack. “To win it we need everybody to be on the same page and everybody has to be ready to go.”
DEFENSE CAN’T REST: Alford believes defense will be the key to the Pack’s success in Las Vegas.
The Wolf Pack is currently 10th in the Mountain West in defense, allowing 73.8 points a game. The one team in the league that has allowed more points per game is New Mexico (75.2), the Wolf Pack’s first tournament opponent.
“We haven’t been consistent defensively for 40 minutes,” Alford said. “That’s kind of been our identity all year. We haven’t been able to defend at the level we need to defend for 40 minutes.”
Defense, though, was the key to Nevada’s comeback against San Diego State this past Saturday. The Pack trailed by 18 (59-41) with 12 minutes to play before losing 79-78.
In holding San Diego State to just 20 points over the final 12 minutes, the Pack did something few teams have done this year. The Pack made the Aztecs look inept against the press.
“We looked like we are not used to dealing with the press,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said after beating Nevada. “But we’ve been pressed all year and have been pretty good.”
WOLF PACK IN CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS: This week will be the Wolf Pack’s 39th conference tournament since its first in 1982 (they did not qualify in 1993 and 1999 in the Big West).
The Pack has a record of 41-33 in conference tournaments with five championships. The Pack won the Big Sky Conference in 1984 and 1985, the Western Athletic Conference in 2004 and 2006 and the Mountain West in 2017.
The Pack has finished second in the conference tournament eight times, four in the Big Sky (1982, 1983, 1987, 1992), twice in the Big West (1995, 1997) and Western Athletic Conference (2003, 2009).
Sonny Allen was 10-4 in Big Sky tournament games as Pack head coach. Len Stevens was 1-5 in the Big Sky tournament, Pat Foster was 6-5 in the Big West, Trent Johnson was 7-4 in the Big West and Western Athletic Conference, Mark Fox was 7-4 in the WAC, David Carter was 3-6 in the WAC and Mountain West, Eric Musselman was 6-3 in the Mountain West while Alford has gone 1-2 in the Mountain West with the Pack.
FIRST LEAGUE TOURNEY WIN A WILD ONE: The Wolf Pack joined the Big Sky Conference in the 1979-80 season but did not qualify for the postseason tournament its first two seasons in the league. The Pack finished fifth both years when just the top four teams qualified for the postseason tournament.
The Pack’s first league tournament game in school history, therefore, was a thrilling victory over Montana, 97-93, in two overtimes on March 5, 1982 at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.
Montana had the ball and the lead, 78-76, with just nine seconds to play in regulation. The Grizzlies’ Doug Selvig, though, wasn’t able to in-bound the ball in the allotted five seconds after a three-point play by Billy Allen narrowed the Montana lead to just two points. Pack guard B.B. Fontenet then hit a short jumper to tie the game and send everyone to overtime.
“Everything was perfect in those last nine seconds,” Pack coach Sonny Allen said.
Fontenet, though, missed a free throw with 15 seconds left in the first overtime that would have given the Pack a three-point lead. Selvig, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, then tied the game at 86-86 with a 25-footer that would have won the game if a 3-point shot existed in 1982.
The Pack played the second overtime after three of its starters (Allen, Ken “Tree” Green and Sam Mosley) had already fouled out.
“The team kept getting smaller and smaller,” Allen said.
Greg Palm (28 points, 18 rebounds, four blocks) and Fontenet (27 points) combined to score nine of the Pack’s 11 points in the second overtime. Joe DeBraga had the other two.
The game ended after midnight in Reno. The victory sent the Pack to the Big Sky tournament title game the next day against the host Idaho Vandals. Idaho beat the Pack, 85-80, in front of live television audience in Reno.
“A game like that (against Montana) has a thousand turning points,” Allen said. “They had a thousand chances to win the game and we had a thousand chances.”
Allen would go on to win the Big Sky Conference tournament with the Pack in 1984 and 1985. Allen’s Pack also lost to Idaho State in the 1987 Big Sky tournament title game.