Joe Santoro: Expectations for Nevada Wolf Pack basketball? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Expectations for Nevada Wolf Pack basketball?

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Athletic director Doug Knuth, right, introduces Steve Alford, left, as the new Nevada basketball coach in Reno on April 12.
Andy Barron/AP | The Reno Gazette-Journal

The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team, for some unknown reason, thinks the conference’s media has disrespected them. The media, after all, picked the Pack to finish fourth in the Mountain West this year after the team won the last three regular-season titles. “It’s been like that since Muss (former coach Eric Musselman) left,” junior Jalen Harris said this week. “We’re just going to use it as a chip on our shoulder and let it motivate us.” The media, in reality, actually showed the Wolf Pack a ton of respect. This is a program that returns just two players (Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua) that played on last year’s 29-5 team. And one of them (Zouzoua) barely saw the court. The rest of the active roster is made up of guys who sat out last year (Harris, K.J. Hymes), were injured all year (Lindsey Drew) or are totally new to the program (Robby Robinson, Gabe Bansuelo, Zachary Williams, Johncarlos Reyes, Kane Milling, Zane Meeks, Eric Parrish). Bansuelo, Milling and Meeks are freshmen. Robinson, Williams are junior college transfers. The media did the Pack a favor and was very generous in picking them for fourth. It was a pick likely based on the respect that new coach Steve Alford brings to the program. Who knows this team? This team barely knows itself. Is the Mountain West so mediocre that an almost entirely new team can be picked to finish fourth with a bunch of players that don’t know each other? Fourth place is a sign of respect for the Pack and Alford.

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This Wolf Pack team might win 20-plus games and go back to the NCAA tournament. Or it might win 15 games and find itself fighting to get into the CBI this March. It might win the Mountain West or it might finish seventh. Nobody really knows right now. Even Alford, whose Wolf Pack will host Cal State East Bay at Lawlor Events Center on Saturday (5 p.m.) in an exhibition, admits it is far too early to make predictions. “We’re nowhere near where we have to be,” Alford said. “We’re seeing progress (offensively and defensively) but we’re also seeing breakdowns in both. We’ve got a lot of inexperience.”

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Hymes, a Musselman recruit that redshirted a year ago, was named the Mountain West’s Preseason Freshman of the Year. The 6-foot-10, 210-pounder averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds his senior season two years ago at Phoenix’s Hillcrest Prep. “It’s good (the honor) to have but at the end of the day I haven’t done anything yet,” Hymes said. Alford wants Hymes to use the honor as motivation. “Preseason is one thing,” Alford said. “And that’s nice. But can it now be a postseason award? I just told K.J. that, ‘Whoever did the voting has confidence in you. So you need that confidence in yourself.’” It seems that Hymes has plenty of confidence. “I was around last year so I saw a winning team,” Hymes said. “I feel like we’re really good. I feel like we can do the same (as last year’s team). Everybody just wants to show that we can keep the winning tradition going.”

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Drew, a senior, is hoping to return to the floor for the first time since getting injured Feb. 14, 2018 at Boise State. He was Musselman’s starting point guard for his first two-plus seasons, playing 96 games. “I’ve never really been hurt like that before,” said Drew, who injured his Achilles and hip. “Having basketball taken away from me was the toughest part.” Drew was averaging a career-best 8.1 points a game when he got hurt. He averaged a career-best 4.8 assists as a sophomore and has also averaged over four rebounds a game for his career. “He hasn’t played in 18-20 months,” Alford said. “You are not going to show up against Utah (in the season opener on Nov. 5 at Lawlor) and think the rust is gone. He’s perfectly healthy but he has had a lot going on. I think his hangup is, ‘OK, I can do the things I used to do for two days in a row. But can I do it on the third day?’ He’s got to get the confidence back of saying, ‘Everyday my body is fine and my talent is going to that level, too.”

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Drew said he has already noticed a difference between Musselman and Alford. “It’s definitely been tough,” Drew said. “We do more live (scrimmaging) with Alford. It’s banging everyday. So I had to get used to that. It’s just constant every day. It’s tough but it pushes me to get better.”

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Harris, like almost all of the remaining Pack players on the roster, explored the possibility of transferring after Musselman left to become Arkansas’ head coach. The most high-profile player the Wolf Pack eventually lost was freshman Jordan Brown, who joined Arizona, where he is redshirting this year. “When all that stuff happened, everybody was in the (NCAA transfer) portal,” Harris said. “When I came out (of the portal), there was just me and Jazz (Johnson) on the team. So I didn’t know who I was going to be playing with this year.” Harris, though, likes the Pack roster right now. “I want to show everybody that we’re better than everybody thinks,” Harris said. “I want to go out and win the same amount of games as last year with the same expectations.”

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Harris, who played two seasons at Louisiana Tech, is now looked at by Alford as one of the Wolf Pack’s keys this year at both ends of the court. “We’re going to need him defensively and we’re going to need him scoring as well and creating for others,” Alford said. “He can be an elite defender and he’s a very good downhill driver and has a very good basketball I.Q.” Harris averaged 12.2 points in 38 games over two seasons at Louisiana Tech.

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Alford is looking for Johnson, the one returning player who played significant minutes last season at Nevada, to be a team leader. “Roles change,” Alford said. “Maybe (Jazz) wasn’t asked to do a lot of leadership last year. They had a very old team last year. This year it’s a very inexperienced team so I need his leadership to expand.” Harris said he is also ready to become a team leader. “Watching the twins (Cody, Caleb Martin) last year, watching Jordan (Caroline), the Treys (Trey Porter, Tre’Shawn Thurman), that helped me out to become a better leader,” Harris said.