Santoro: Pack, MW foes have three weeks to determine a title

Nevada’s Tre Coleman, shown against New Mexico earlier this season, has helped the Wolf Pack to a 20-win season.

Nevada’s Tre Coleman, shown against New Mexico earlier this season, has helped the Wolf Pack to a 20-win season.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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Sports Fodder:

The Mountain West men’s basketball postseason tournament starts in just three weeks and eight of the 11 teams in the conference still have a fighting chance at the regular-season title.

Yes, some of those eight teams have to fight a little harder than others but all eight have between four and six losses. The only three teams out of the race for the league regular-season title and No. 1 seed in the postseason tournament are Fresno State (4-9 in league games), San Jose State (2-11) and Air Force (1-11).

The Wolf Pack, at 7-5, currently (as of the morning of Feb. 20) trails Utah State (9-4), San Diego State (9-4), Boise State (8-4), Colorado State (8-5) and New Mexico (8-5) and is tied with UNLV (7-5). Wyoming (6-6), which plays at Nevada on the night of Feb. 20, is just a game back and has already beaten the Pack once.

Climbing over five teams and shaking loose from two others would seem like a tall task for the Pack with just six league games left. That’s why the goal for the Pack should be to sweep those six (Wyoming, Fresno State and UNLV at home and San Jose State, Boise State and Colorado State on the road) to finish 13-5.

We could be looking at a four- or five-team tie for the league title at 13-5 or even 12-6 and then the madness really sets in as the tiebreakers take over.

The Wolf Pack shouldn’t have any problem beating Wyoming, Fresno State and UNLV at home. San Jose State on the road also shouldn’t be a concern.

The concern, therefore, are the road games at Colorado State (Feb. 27) and Boise State (March 5).

Winning the Mountain West regular-season title is not, of course, mandatory for a successful Wolf Pack season. That has already happened since the Pack has already won 20 games and is likely just two or three more wins from securing a NCAA Tournament spot.

But the Wolf Pack, a member of the Mountain West now for 12 seasons, has won the league regular-season title (the true test of the best team in the league) just three times, from 2017-19. All three came under coach Eric Musselman.

The last time Pack coach Steve Alford won the league title was in 2013 with New Mexico. Alford, now in his fifth Pack season, coached the Lobos for six years and won four Mountain West regular-season titles.

League regular-season titles, many coaches believe, are the most meaningful goal of the season. The conference and NCAA tournaments, of course, are just lucky rolls of the dice. But winning the league title over a four-month grind shows grit, determination, focus and teamwork. It tests the entire program from top to bottom. Luck has nothing to do with it.


This is Alford’s best coaching season since he came to the Wolf Pack. He has already squeezed out 20 wins in 26 games despite a roster that has a thin bench and, at times, an inconsistent starting five.

The Pack finished 22-11, 12-6 a year ago and lasted one game in the NCAA Tournament and then lost starters Will Baker and Darrion Williams in the transfer portal.

The Pack never really replaced Baker and Williams with new talent. The new faces on the roster that have played a significant role this (Tyler Rolison, Tylan Pope) are both on the bench and have battled injuries (Pope) and freshman growing pains (Rolison).

Alford, though, has replaced the production of Baker and Williams (roughly 21.3 points, 12.5 rebounds combined) by getting returners Nick Davidson and K.J. Hymes to step up their games.

Hymes, who basically missed all of last season with an injury, has averaged 6.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in about 15-20 minutes a night this year. Davidson, a sophomore, is now averaging 12.3 points and 7.1 boards after contributing 6.9 points and 4.1 boards a year ago.

So, yes, Alford replaced Baker and Williams the old-fashioned way, with coaching and hard work by the players and not through the transfer portal.


Davidson has transformed himself into one of the most productive players in the conference over the last five games.

After scoring just six points at New Mexico in an embarrassing 89-55 loss on Jan. 28, Davidson’s career has simply blossomed. He has averaged 19.8 points and 8.8 rebounds a game over the last five games (the Pack has gone 4-1).

He set his career high for scoring in consecutive games against San Jose State (22) and Utah State (25) and also has had three double-doubles during the streak.

Before Davidson’s hot streak the Pack offense was becoming predictable and flat, relying too much on Jarod Lucas and Kenan Blackshear. Davidson has stepped up to help and the Pack has taken off.


It’s not an accident that Davidson has become a standout player for the Pack in just his sophomore season. He certainly comes by his athletic ability honestly. His father Kirk is a former Pack basketball player, and his mother (Kelly Martin) is a former Pack volleyball player.

Kirk, one of the best centers in the history of Northern Nevada high school basketball (he blocked a state-record 111 shots as a senior) went to BYU after graduating from Reed High in Sparks.

BYU, though, buried him on the bench and told him early in his sophomore year they didn’t recruit him to be a starter. Davidson, who never felt wanted or valued at BYU, then transferred back home to the Pack in the middle of his second season in 1990-91.

The 6-10 Davidson played two injury-filled seasons with the Pack (1991-92, 1992-93), averaging 5.3 points and 2.4 rebounds. He missed the entire 1993-94 season with another injury and the NCAA, for some reason, did not grant him a sixth year of eligibility in 1994-95, ending his career.

If he played now, considering the friendly transfer portal, the free COVID 2019-20 season and the always flexible NCAA rules, he could have played six or seven seasons.


Alford and the Wolf Pack should walk a few feet over to the Wolf Pack radio team (John Ramey and Len Stevens) every game and thank them for basically bringing Nick Davidson (a Southern California high school player) to the team.

Stevens was a huge reason why Kirk returned to the Pack from BYU. Stevens was the Wolf Pack coach at the time Kirk was looking for a new team and Stevens welcomed him to the roster with open arms. Stevens’ son Rick was a teammate of Kirk’s at Reed and Len saw Kirk play plenty of times in person. And what he saw was Kirk dominate Northern Nevada high school competition to become an all-state player and among the players seriously considered for the national McDonald’s All-American team in 1989.

Kirk and Nick clearly look alike, though Kirk was a bit taller and beefier while Nick is quicker and slightly more skilled around the basket. But Nick gets his aggressiveness, work ethic and competitiveness from his dad.


Davidson is certainly atop the leader board among the most improved players on the roster right now. But a close second might be Daniel Foster.

The 6-6 Foster, now in his fourth season, has always been a valued by the coaching staff with his ability to help facilitate the offense and guard players much bigger than he is in the paint. Foster is a coach’s dream. He is selfless, hardworking and a coach on the floor.

But this year Foster, who gives the Pack 20 or so reliable minutes off the bench each game, is averaging 4.2 points and 4.4 rebounds and often finds himself on the floor down the stretch in the second half.

Foster, who went to high school in Australia (and one year at a prep school in Oakland, Calif.), is a former Australian Rules Football player. So, his toughness and willingness to take a beating was never questioned.

He is one of the best bench players in the Mountain West, even though his stats might not show it.


The Pack, though, could use some more offensive production off its bench if it wants to make some noise over the next six weeks or so.

The Pack bench is averaging just 16.38 points a game and is ranked 261st in the nation. That would be fine if Alford didn’t rely on his bench but that is not a luxury he has this year.

Hymes’ constant foul trouble alone requires at least 20-plus minutes from the bench alone. Blackshear gets overworked at times and needs a rest, if only to clear his mind. And Lucas sometimes gets lost on the court as he frets about missed shots.

Where can the Pack find more offensive production from its bench? Hunter McIntosh, a transfer from Elon, was supposed to be a stable source of points off the bench but he’s struggled with his shot this year and is averaging 4.5 points a game. He does, however, have the potential to rediscover his jumper on any given night.

Pope, too, could be a reliable source of points in the paint. He averaged 7.5 points a game over four games in early February before suffering a leg injury. He returned against UNLV this past Saturday and didn’t score in five minutes.


Former Pack coach Eric Musselman might be home in March watching the Pack in the NCAA Tournament. Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks are struggling this year at 12-13 and 3-9 in the SEC. Musselman is in serious jeopardy of winning fewer than 20 games for the first time in his nine seasons as a college head coach.

Musselman also has gone to the last six NCAA Tournaments. He went to the Sweet 16 last year at Arkansas and the Elite Eight in 2021 and 2022. His best run at Nevada was to the Sweet 16 in 2018.

The only time Musselman missed the NCAA Tournament as a head coach was his first year at Nevada in 2015-16 (there was no tournament in 2019-20 because of COVID-19). Musselman, though, got his Wolf Pack ready for future NCAA Tournaments by winning the College Basketball Invitation (CBI) in 2016.

If Musselman can get his Razorbacks at least to .500 by season’s end, his school’s SEC pedigree and his resume should get them to some postseason tournament. And don’t bet against him winning it.


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