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Joe Santoro: Is a COVID championship still a championship?

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
The Nevada football team runs onto the field at an empty Aloha Stadium to face Hawaii on Nov. 28 in Honolulu. In this season dominated by a pandemic, columnist Joe Santoro asks: should the COVID champion be considered a real champion?
Marco Garcia/AP

It is now totally impossible to take this Mountain West football season seriously. It’s not the players’ fault or the coaches’ fault. They are working hard and doing their best under trying circumstances. We all are. And if they don’t mind risking their health every week, well, more power to them. Coaches coach and players play and hardly any of them (none of the coaches and more than 90 percent of the players) would even be at the school in the first place if it wasn’t for football. So go play football, if you want. But, as a college football fan, well, this Mountain West season is sort of like sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and being force-fed a bowl of Corn Flakes with warm tap water. We eat it because we’re starving for football but we leave the table a bit queasy and look longingly at the dog’s bowl of Kibble ‘N Bits. Mountain West football, even in a normal year, is an acquired taste. It’s like watching an Indy 500 race between minivans. But the competition is good and, well, we can’t all drive a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. But a normal Mountain West season has meaning, just the same. This season will mean nothing five seconds after it finally, mercifully ends.

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I get it. The Nevada Wolf Pack is in the hunt for a Mountain West championship. And any Wolf Pack championship has value and should never be taken lightly. It should be celebrated with menacing taunts with a certain finger of your choice pointed skyward toward Boise State and UNLV. But, really, is this the way you wanted it to happen? Will the Pack be a real champion or simply a COVID champion, the team that wore the most masks, watched the most ZOOM meetings, social-distanced the most and somehow beat the tests every week? The Pack might actually be the best football team in the conference this year. We’ve said all along they were. But championships should be won on the field and not in a COVID testing room.



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Another Mountain West football game (Boise State-UNLV) was called off this week because of COVID. That makes 10 this year. With two weeks left, just two teams (Nevada and Hawaii) will play eight league games this season. Boise State, Colorado State and Air Force will only play five. San Jose State, Fresno State, San Diego State, Wyoming and UNLV will play just six. Utah State and New Mexico will play seven. San Jose State is not allowed by Santa Clara to play anymore home games. Their game this week was moved to Hawaii and their game next week against the Pack might be moved to Mackay Stadium. If that happens, the Pack will have played seven of its eight games this season in the state of Nevada. That’s not a football season, it is a school play that doesn’t have the budget to take its production out on the road. Is this really the way you wanted the Pack to win its first Mountain West title?



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There is also a very good chance that the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 19 will also be played at Mackay Stadium, even if the Pack doesn’t earn it. Boise State, which is 4-0, doesn’t even know right now whether it will ever play another game this season because of COVID concerns. San Jose State, also 4-0, can’t play at home. We could see the Wolf Pack (now 5-1) and San Jose State play each other in the final regular season game on Dec. 12 and then meet again the following Saturday in the title game, simply because Boise State has called off its season. And how fair would it even be if Boise State has to play a title game having not played in three weeks with a chunk of its roster sitting out because of COVID? No matter how we get to the title game, the season is already compromised with teams playing a different number of games, players sitting out because of COVID every week and games played at random sites. There is nothing fair and honest about this season. The conference actually should call off the title game right now (they won’t, of course, because of TV money) and preserve some dignity to the championship. Talk about eating Corn Flakes with warm tap water. This is not the way anybody imagined winning a conference title.

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Grant Sherfield is everything we thought he might be coming into this Wolf Pack men’s basketball season. The Wichita State transfer, who was once recruited to UCLA by Pack coach Steve Alford, is a do-it-all guard with a tool belt loaded with skills. He has played 33 minutes a game over the Pack’s first four games and is averaging 15.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, four assists, 1.5 steals and, yes, four turnovers. The 6-foot-2 sophomore is the team’s best free throw shooter (20-of-24), which is nice because he always has the ball, and he is a leader out on the floor. He’s not Deonte Burton or Armon Johnson but he is exactly what Alford needs with this team, a smart, gritty, tireless leader who can do whatever is needed on any trip up the court for a young team still learning how to play at the Division I level.

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What else have we learned about this Pack basketball team after four games? Well, consider it a work in progress. The Pack is 3-1 and had a nice win on the road at Nebraska but also lost at home to San Francisco. This team has turned the ball over way too much (61 times) and is still learning how to play with a big man (6-10 K.J. Hymes and 7-footer Warren Washington) in the middle. But there is a lot to like so far. Sherfield is solid. Washington, Hymes and Robby Robinson (8.3 rebounds a game) are be a force in the paint on defense. Sophomore (6-9) Zane Meeks (11 points, 7.5 rebounds) seems to have made a big jump over a year ago. Desmond Cambridge (5-of-27 on threes) and Tre Coleman (1-of-7 free throws) also will likely settle down and start to produce in the near future.

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What do fans in the arena mean for home basketball teams? That question was likely answered Wednesday night when the Pack scored just 60 points in a 25-point loss to San Francisco at Lawlor Events Center. It is the fewest points scored at Lawlor by the Pack since Alford got here and the fewest at home by the Pack since a 57-54 loss to defensive-minded San Diego State on Jan. 26, 2016 in coach Eric Musselman’s first year. Lawlor and its fans are notorious for making Pack teams look better than they have a right to be. Without fans? Remember 2014-15? It is difficult to reverse a bad shooting night at home without the energy and noise that the home crowd can bring. There’s nothing, after all, to rattle the opposition (and the officials).

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Offense, so far, looks like a minor concern for this Pack team. But it’s early and nothing to be alarmed about just yet. The Pack’s best offensive game so far is a 70-58 win over Pacific. The other three games have seen the Pack light up the scoreboard for between 60-69 points. The Pack is averaging 65 points a game, down 12 points from a year ago and 15 from two years ago. But last year’s team had Jalen Harris, Lindsey drew and Jazz Johnson and the Pack of two years ago had about four guys who could be the team’s best scorer this year. This year’s offense will likely be a group effort. There is no Harris or Caleb or Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline or Jazz Johnson on this roster. But that’s OK. This, right now, looks like a team of D.J. Fenners, Tre’Shawn Thurmans and Trey Porters with a Nisre Zouzoua thrown in for flavor. And that is perfectly fine. You could do a lot worse than have a team that plays hard, is unselfish and can do a lot of different things on the court. As soon as this team cuts down on its turnovers, forces more turnovers on defense and goes to the free throw line more often (and makes them), the point totals will rise, with or without superstars.

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The Wolf Pack football team says it will conduct some sort of ceremony for its seniors Saturday night when it faces Fresno State. It is, after all, the last game scheduled at Mackay Stadium this year. But, like most everything this season, the evening won’t likely be what it seems. First of all, all of the Pack seniors will have the option of coming back next season because of a NCAA ruling this year due to COVID-19. And, given the rising COVID cases most every community in the country is experiencing right now, the current seniors and those that become seniors in subsequent years might be able to play another decade. Also, this might not be the last game at Mackay this season. It might not even be the last regular season game. Nobody is saying right now where next week’s San Jose State-Pack game will be played. And don’t be surprised if the Mountain West title game is here on Dec. 19. Also, would it shock anyone if a bowl game is moved to another city, say a Northern Nevada city with plenty of hotel space and hollow COVID-19 guidelines?

Senior Night could turn into Senior Month. And by the time these seniors leave Nevada they could be accompanied out on the field on Senior Night by two or three of their children and an ex-wife or two. It’s hard to get excited about anything this year because you don’t know what anything means anymore.