Is the Nevada Wolf Pack a Mountain West contender? We’ll know soon, says Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com

Is the Nevada Wolf Pack a Mountain West contender? We’ll know soon, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada's Zane Meeks dunks over Wyoming's Hunter Maldonado in the first half on Tuesday.
Thomas Ranson/Nevada News Group

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team is in a rut. The Pack has lost two of its last three games and hasn’t played all that well since an 83-66 win over Boise State at home on Jan. 4. The Pack is 1-4 in road games this year on the opponent’s home floor. The Wolf Pack needed a layup by Jalen Harris with nine seconds left to beat lowly Wyoming, a team still in search of its first Mountain West victory, at Lawlor Events Center this past Tuesday night. The Pack lost at San Jose State, in front of less than 1,500 fans, for goodness sake. Everything about this team right now screams out 18 wins and a trip to the CBI in March.

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There is nothing wrong with the CBI. Hey, it worked wonders for Eric Musselman’s first Wolf Pack team in 2015-16. It could do the same for Steve Alford’s first Pack team this year. The CBI, after all, was always a reasonable expectation for a Pack team that was gutted by the loss of five starters and its entire coaching staff last spring. But nobody in silver and blue should settle for the CBI just yet. This team is better than it has shown lately and it is time to prove it. The next three games (at San Diego State on Saturday and home against UNLV and New Mexico next week) could change the course of this season and lift the expectations back toward the direction of the NCAA tournament. The Pack needs to win at least one of the next three games to re-establish itself as a legitimate Mountain West contender.

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Pack coach Steve Alford has said on more than one occasion this year that San Diego State, Utah State and New Mexico are the top three teams in the Mountain West. Alford, though, might be overlooking one team. UNLV is just 10-9 overall this year but first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger’s Rebels are 5-1 in the Mountain West and have won six of their last seven games. The Rebels are beating a lot of bad teams (like the Pack) and are doing it with mirrors, but they also have a deep and talented roster and, for the first time in a long time, are extremely well coached. Otzelberger nearly knocked off Musselman’s Wolf Pack in December 2018 at Lawlor Events Center as coach of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, losing just 72-68. Otzelberger will bring his Rebel mirrors to Lawlor on Wednesday (8 p.m.).

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Nick Rolovich, the Wolf Pack’s former offensive coordinator from 2012-15, is now the head football coach at Washington State. Rolovich was 28-27 as Hawaii’s head coach in four (2016-19) seasons. He never won a Mountain West title. He was 15-17 in Mountain West games. But now he will make $3 million a year for five years to coach in a conference he likely cannot win. Parents, stop telling your children to become doctors or lawyers. If you want them to become filthy rich just have them come up with three dozen or so 5-yard passes to wide receivers on slants and screens and tell them to become a college head coach. Washington State, though, fell in love with Leach’s unfiltered personality and pass-crazy offense and, well, Rolovich does a pretty good Leach impersonation.

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No less than six Mountain West schools (San Diego State, Fresno State, Hawaii, UNLV, Colorado State, New Mexico) have changed head football coaches since the season ended in late November. Four of those schools (San Diego State, Fresno State, Hawaii, UNLV) are in the Wolf Pack’s West Division. That leaves only Nevada’s Jay Norvell and San Jose State’s Brent Brennan as the only two holdover coaches in the division. One could reasonably argue, therefore, that Norvell is the best current head coach in the West Division. Norvell, at 18-20 overall and 12-12 in the Mountain West with one bowl win, has had far more success than Brennan (8-29 overall, 4-20 in the Mountain West and no bowl wins). Norvell is also 3-0 against Brennan. You could say that Brennan is keeping Norvell employed at Nevada.

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Hawaii just might look to Nevada to help fill its now vacant coaching staff. Former Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang has been on Norvell’s staff for the past three years coaching wide receivers and tight ends. He’s ready for a promotion. Chang has also been an offensive coordinator at two smaller schools (Emory & Henry and Jackson State) and was a graduate assistant under former Hawaii coach June Jones at SMU. It’s time he takes a step into a more prominent role on a staff, like offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach or head coach. Chang, one of the best run-and-shoot quarterbacks in the history of college football, could certainly keep Hawaii’s tradition alive. Wolf Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme might also be attractive to Hawaii. Mumme, after all, lost his play-calling duties at Nevada last season and might be looking to become a Division I head coach. Hawaii, after all, looked to Nevada for its last head coach (Rolovich).

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It’s hard to imagine the Ryan Tannehill-led Tennessee Titans’ offense keeping up with Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. If the Chiefs don’t turn the ball over, the AFC Championship game could be over by halftime. The 49ers simply have too many weapons on offense and a much better defense than the Green Bay Packers. Put Sunday’s games in Green Bay and Nashville and you might get a different result. But the better teams are playing at home. Kansas City 34, Tennessee 14. San Francisco 28, Green Bay 17.