The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is in good hands with Steve Alford. Yes, the Wolf Pack disintegrated in the final three weeks of the season. And, yes, the Pack lost its only Mountain West tournament and NCAA tournament games. It was one of the most disappointing finishes in Wolf Pack history (four losses to end the year given its 20-6 record as late as Feb. 17). But don’t blame it all on Alford. Alford is the biggest reason why the Pack was 20-6 in the first place. That was a 14-12 team masquerading as a 20-6 team. It had no depth, no true stars and limited versatility. The Pack simply ran out of gas or was a Tesla that could never find a charging station. There was only so much Alford could do. Ever try pushing a Tesla uphill? That was Alford the last three weeks. He looked good (it was a Tesla, after all) but he didn’t get far. This was the least talented of the 10 Wolf Pack teams to ever make the NCAA Tournament. But they were also one of the most overachieving Wolf Pack teams in history (at least through Feb 17). Alford deserves credit for the overachieving more than he does blame for the collapse.
Everything changed for the Wolf Pack on the evening of Feb. 18 in Logan, Utah, at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. The Pack was 20-6 overall and 10-3 in the Mountain West and was leading the Utah State Aggies 30-9 midway through the first half. It was Wolf Pack nirvana. The Wolf Pack seemed well on its way to 27 or 28 wins and a No. 7-9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And then midnight struck and the Pack turned into a rotting pumpkin. The Pack blew that 30-9 lead, never recovered and lost five of its last seven games. It lost to San Jose State, a team it whipped twice in the regular season, in the Mountain West tournament. It got embarrassed by Arizona State and two ex-teammates (Desmond Cambridge, Warren Washington) in an NCAA Tournament First Four game. What happened? That’s what Alford needs to figure out by November.
The Wolf Pack has an opportunity to bring back its entire roster next year. But that can be a good thing or a bad thing. The transfer portal is always lurking in the shadows, but it would be stunning if there is a mass exodus along the lines of last year when Grant Sherfield, Cambridge, Washington and others left. The two most likely transfer portal possibilities this spring are freshmen Trey Pettigrew and Darrion Williams. As freshmen, they still have value to other teams and big dreams. Pettigrew, a 6-4 guard, seems to have his path to a full-time role blocked by a glut of guards on the roster. Williams, who can do anything a coach desires, would be a tremendous addition for any big-time basketball factory. Keep your fingers crossed, Pack fans, in the hope they stay at Nevada. The Pack shouldn’t have any problem remaining competitive in the Mountain West and getting back to the NCAA Tournament bubble a year from now. But how big of a leap can this team make next year with the same faces that melted down the stretch this year? Something has to change.
Alford is, without question, a good coach. But is he a very good to great coach? The great ones, after all, prove their greatness in the postseason. That‘s the one area Alford has proven to be quite ordinary during his 28 seasons as a Division I coach. Alford has gotten to 12 NCAA Tournaments in 27 seasons (one year he was fired on New Year’s Eve) and has never gotten past the Sweet 16. It is rare when a coach has a nearly three-decade career and has never gotten to an Elite Eight, let alone a Final Four. It’s hard to do. To never get past the Sweet 16, especially when a good chunk of your career is at a Big Ten (Iowa) or Pac-12 school (UCLA), well, that is truly rare air. Alford has a respectable 11-12 record in the NCAA Tournament. But more than half those wins (six) came in three runs to the Sweet 16 while at UCLA. Alford will likely finish his coaching career with nearly 1,000 career victories (he’s at 656 now, has six years left on his Nevada contract and is just 58 years old). He can easily coach another 15 years and win another 300-plus games. That would suggest greatness. He would certainly have a great resume. But if he never gets past the Sweet 16, we’ll know better.
Alford’s career has always been a bit strange, filled with controversy, unfulfilled promises, unanswered questions and riddles. Yes, he’s won a ton of games but he also left a bad taste in the mouths of the last three places he coached before Nevada (Iowa, New Mexico, UCLA). Why has he never been hired at Indiana, the place where he is a legend? If he never wanted the job, why not? He wasn’t afraid of it when he was an Indiana high school legend. Why would he be afraid of it as a coach? Why did he go from Iowa to New Mexico and then UCLA to Nevada? Does he have the required drive, focus and desire to ever win a national title? Is he tough enough on his players? Do other coaches fear facing him? Did negative experiences at Iowa and UCLA beat that drive and determination out of him? If he still has that necessary drive and focus then why, at this stage of his career, is he at Nevada? Make no mistake, the Pack is lucky to have him. That’s not even up for debate. But is Alford at Nevada simply to skate toward retirement on a stress-free extended paid vacation? Alford was great as a player, one of the greatest in college basketball history. Maybe that was enough for him. Maybe he simply doesn’t have that same drive to be great as a coach. Nobody in college basketball history has ever worked harder to become a great player than Alford. But that greatness came with a tremendous personal price, a price Alford might be afraid to pay as a coach.
One coach that seems literally obsessed with winning is Eric Musselman. Musselman is insane with the desire to win, for recognition, for success. Everything he does each minute of his life screams, “Look at me, look at what I just did. You are all wrong about me.” Everybody around him, from his wife and children to his players, assistant coaches, athletic directors, university residents and the folks who sweep the floor and pick up the trash in the arena, is all about Muss, all the time. He brainwashes the media, the boosters, athletic director and president into thinking they are important and valuable. But, really, it’s all done in the Name of Muss. That, obviously, is not Alford. Alford does absolutely zero self-promoting. Yes, he gets a bit defensive in post-game interviews. That’s just the Bobby Knight in him coming out. But all college coaches never make mistakes. Just ask them. You’ll never see Alford take his shirt off in a sold-out arena after a big win. He might not even do it in private. Musselman is a basketball tornado that never stops spinning. Alford is sort of like a nice spring shower that allows the flowers to grow and then quickly evaporates.
It is natural to compare Musselman and Alford. The two were born just four days apart in November 1964 in the Midwest roughly 450 miles apart. The day they were born their basketball coaching fathers (Sam Alford, Bill Musselman) likely dropped a basketball in their crib and taught them to dribble with each hand. They both had no choice but to play high school and college basketball and to make coaching their life's work. They both eventually became head coaches at Nevada. Alford has been a college head coach for nearly 30 years and Musselman just eight, though he’s been a head coach at almost every other level for another two-plus decades. Alford has gotten to four Sweet 16s. Musselman has already gotten to four Sweet 16s in just eight years and is now one win away from his third Elite Eight in a row. Musselman is 8-2 in the NCAA Tournament over the last three years at Arkansas after going 2-3 as the Wolf Pack coach. He’s been to six NCAA Tournaments in eight years. The two years he didn’t get there the tournament was cancelled because of the pandemic (2020) and the other time he won the CBI championship (2016). Musselman is simply a tremendous tournament coach.
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