Joe Santoro: Pack has a coach; does it have players? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Pack has a coach; does it have players?

Joe Santoro
New Nevada men's basketball coach Steve Alford answers a question at a news conference in Reno on April 12.
Scott Sonner/AP | AP

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team has a new head coach. But does it have players? Steve Alford got a 10-year contract to coach the team last week but he takes over a roster that has been gutted. Seven seniors left after last year but five more (Jazz Johnson, Jordan Brown, Jalen Harris, Nisre Zouzoua, K.J. Hymes) have already entered the NCAA’s transfer portal, though Johnson has said he’ll remain at Nevada for his senior year. Another player (senior Lindsey Drew) has said he will stay at Nevada and hasn’t entered the transfer portal but that doesn’t mean much because Drew’s career might be over anyway since he’s coming off Achilles and hip surgery over the last year or so. Unless Alford can turn back the clock to 1987 and start shooting jumpers like he did for Bobby Knight it might be a difficult transition year at Nevada in 2019-20.

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It would be easy to assume all of the above mentioned players are thinking of transferring because coach Eric Musselman bolted for Arkansas two weeks ago. But most or all of them (except Johnson, who seemed to love playing for Musselman) might have looked to go elsewhere anyway. Brown, a former McDonald’s All American, barely got off the bench in the final three months of his freshman year and might not have been the biggest Musselman fan anyway. Zouzoua hardly played last season. Harris and Hymes sat out the year. This is what college players (football and basketball) do now. They transfer. Being true to your school only exists when that school plays you. Players transfer. Coaches are always looking for that next job. The only ones who stick around from one year to the next are the fans who are left wondering every year just what they’re cheering for.

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It’s no secret a lot of Wolf Pack fans expected Musselman to eventually leave Nevada for more money, prestige and a bigger conference. But, believe it or not, there are plenty of highly successful coaches who actually decide to remain at mid-major schools. Mark Few of Gonzaga, Gregg Marshall of Wichita State, Phil Martelli of St. Joseph’s, Bob McKillop of Davidson, Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s are just a few who are doing it right now. Porter Moser of Loyola Chicago just turned down a reported $18 million over eight years this week to coach St. John’s. He also turned down UNLV last month. “You can be rich without the dollar signs,” Moser said, explaining his decision to stay at Loyola, a school that likely won’t ever repeat its 2018 Final Four run. It’s too bad more coaches don’t feel that way.

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Brown, a former McDonald’s All American, is likely the only current active player on the Wolf Pack roster Musselman might try to steal for Arkansas. But judging by how much Muss buried Brown on the Pack bench last year the Brown-Musselman marriage might be over. Musselman is also telling the good folks down in Arkansas Brown is the first McDonald’s All American to ever play at Nevada. “Then last year we got a McDonald’s All American in Jordan Brown,” Musselman told the Arkansas media last week, in response to a question of whether he prefers recruiting freshman or transfers. “Nevada had not had a McDonald’s All American.” Of course, Musselman has been known to rewrite history before so that sort of “look what I did” statement from him is not a surprise. It’s what he does as well as any coach in the nation. But Brown was certainly not the Pack’s first McDonald’s All American. That honor goes to Luke Babbitt, who scored four points and had two rebounds and an assist in the 2008 McDonald’s All American game, playing with and against the likes of Tyreke Evans, Kemba Walker, Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe, Jrue Holiday and Lindsey Drew’s brother, Larry Drew II.

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The Wolf Pack isn’t the only college basketball program in the state currently in transition. UNLV’s new coach T.J. Otzelberger, who signed a five-year deal (average salary $1.3 million a year), by the way, is also looking at a roster filled with holes. No less than seven Rebel players have entered the transfer portal. Again, no cause for alarm. That’s now just standard operating procedure for players when there’s a coaching change. It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean they’re leaving and it doesn’t mean any other team wants them.

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Which team is now the favorite to win the Mountain West men’s basketball title next March? Utah State, which tied the Pack for the regular season championship this past season, would have to be considered the favorite right now. But even the Aggies are holding their breath over the next month or so. Sam Merrill is coming back next year along with Brock Miller but Neemias Queta, one of the best players in the conference last year as a freshman, has said he’ll enter the NBA draft process. Again, like the transfer portal, that means nothing. It’s just paperwork. See Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline last year. But if Queta leaves, the Mountain West will be up for grabs next season. The Pack will be in the mix, even if you need a program to figure out who’s on the roster.

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Alford, whose name wasn’t connected to any other job opening this spring, needs to send Musselman a Christmas card this December. Musselman’s leaving Nevada, no doubt, is the reason why Alford got a 10-year deal from the Wolf Pack. A 10-year deal is an incredible security blanket for a 54-year-old coach whose career seemingly has peaked. He was also recently fired by a high-profile program (UCLA), a program whose fan base pleaded for him to get fired. And there’s also some controversy (see Pierre Pierce, Iowa) on his resume. Alford wins a lot of regular season games and he can get to the NCAA tournament out of the Mountain West but he’s also never gotten past the Sweet 16. So, yes, there are always reasons why coaches in their 50s with long resumes would even consider Nevada and its $300,000 base salary. Alford, though, checked all of Knuth’s boxes. He’s a high-profile coach with a solid resume of success. He gets to the NCAA tournament. He can fill the arena with fans. The only question is when he’ll start to pressure Knuth to tear up that Pack-friendly contract as Muss did after just two years.

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Will Alford, as he stated in his introductory press conference last week, stay 10 years at Nevada? Do you want him to stay 10 years? Well, if he wins as much as Musselman did, he likely won’t stay more than five. If he does what David Carter did (coach a team in front of a half-empty Lawlor Events Center) Knuth won’t want him around for 10 years. Alford has already resurrected his career once at a Mountain West school. He went to New Mexico after coaching at Iowa, won a lot of games, agreed to a 10-year contract extension and then bolted for UCLA a week later. So he might have plans of doing that sort of thing again at Nevada. Don’t forget Musselman always said how much he loved Wolf Pack fans and how much his family loved Northern Nevada. But Alford is now 54 and he just might be looking for a place to wind up his career at a no-pressure school. The Wolf Pack just might be his coach’s nursing home.