Joe Santoro: Is Nevada Wolf Pack’s Jalen Harris best in the (Mountain) West? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Is Nevada Wolf Pack’s Jalen Harris best in the (Mountain) West?

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

Jalen Harris will likely have to keep pouring on the points to win the Mountain West Player of the Year award this season. And even then it might not be enough. The Wolf Pack junior guard’s biggest competition for the award heading into the final 10 days of the regular season is Malachi Flynn of San Diego State and last year’s winner, Sam Merrill of Utah State. Flynn is likely the favorite to win the award simply because he has gotten the most national attention as point guard for the No. 4-ranked and undefeated (26-0) Aztecs. Flynn is also on the final watch lists for the John Wooden Award (national player of the year) and the Bob Cousy Award (national point guard of the year). Harris, who has averaged 31.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and a steal over his last six games, is certainly worthy of becoming the second Pack player in history (Caleb Martin in 2018) to win the conference’s top individual award. Harris leads the Mountain West in scoring (21.8), is ninth in rebounding (6.5), fourth in field goal percentage (.457), third in total threes (59), fourth in free throw percentage (.828), fifth in assists (4.0) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.75). Flynn is fifth in scoring (16.7), sixth in field goal percentage (.445), seventh in total threes (58), third in free throw shooting (.832) and leads the conference in steals (1.9), assists (5.1) and assist-to-turnover ratio (.3.33). Merrill is second in scoring (18.9), fifth in field goal percentage (.452), sixth in assists (4.0), first in free throw percentage (.897), second in 3-point percentage (.414), third in total threes (70) and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.45). Right now it looks like Flynn will win Player of the Year while Harris, a Louisiana Tech transfer, could win Newcomer of the Year. The awards, though, might be reversed since Flynn is a Washington State transfer. Merrill played his entire four years at Utah State.

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Flynn might be the best player on the best team in the conference. But there is no player in the conference more valuable to his team than Harris. Harris has led the Pack in scoring 17 times this year and in 11 of the last 12 games. He’s also led the team in rebounding 11 times and in assists 14 times. The only other player who has led his team at least 10 times in all three categories in Wyoming’s Hunter Maldonado, who has led the Cowboys in scoring 17 times, in rebounding 10 times and in assists 22 times. Maldonado’s Cowboys, though, are 6-21 so he does not have a shot at Player of the Year. Flynn has led the Aztecs in scoring 14 times and in assists 17 times but just twice in rebounding. Merrill has led the Aggies in scoring 12 times, in rebounding 12 times but just twice in rebounding.

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If the Wolf Pack wants to win the Mountain West tournament (and go to the NCAA tournament) then it might be better if Flynn wins Player of the Year. The Player of the Year’s team has only won the conference tournament six times in 20 seasons. The last time it happened was Merrill and the Aggies last year. The other five times were BYU’s Mekeli Wesley in 2001, San Diego State’s Brandon Heath in 2006, Utah’s Luke Nevill in 2009, New Mexico’s Kendall Williams in 2013 (with head coach Steve Alford) and Fresno State’s Marvelle Harris in 2016. When Caleb Martin won the award in 2018 the Pack won just one game in the conference tournament.

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It appears that the Wolf Pack’s top competition for second place in the Mountain West is Utah State. The Pack is 10-5, with three games to play, while the Aggies are 11-5. The Aggies also beat the Pack 80-70 on Jan. 11 in the teams’ only meeting this year. It’s difficult to imagine the Aggies losing either of its last two games against 7-20 San Jose State or 17-11 New Mexico. San Jose State has lost nine of its last 10 games while New Mexico has lost eight of its last 10. The Pack, while it gets to play 6-21 Wyoming (on the road Feb. 25) and 10-17 Fresno State (home on Saturday), also has to face San Diego State (home on Feb. 29).

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Wolf Pack senior point guard Lindsey Drew has already established himself as one of the Wolf Pack’s most productive players in history. The 6-foot-4 point guard needs just 105 points to reach 1,000 for his career. He also needs just two more rebounds to reach 600 and just 18 assists to reach 500. His 482 assists are already third most in Pack history behind just Kevin Soares (716) and Deonte Burton (515). He also is just two blocks away from becoming the 10th Pack player with 100 or more. His 153 steals are already seventh in Pack history. Drew also needs just two more 3-pointers to reach 100 and his 3,701 minutes played are already fifth in Pack history. Drew’s Pack teams (he missed all of last year because of Achilles and hip injuries) also have a record of 98-36 with a CBI championship and two NCAA tournament appearances. Given his ability to fill the stat sheet every game, despite taking less than six shots a game in his career, Drew is clearly one of the best all-around players in school history.

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This Wolf Pack basketball team, at 17-10, has already lost twice as many games as last year’s team (29-5). But a look at the statistics reveals that the drop off from last year to this year is not as steep as you might think. This year’s Wolf Pack is a better 3-point shooting team (.381 to .347) than last year’s team. The Pack is also averaging 10 successful threes a game this year compared to 8.7 a year ago. This year’s team is also a much better free-throw shooting team (.745 to .708) than a year ago, though they don’t go to the line as much (17.3 times a game compared to 24 a game last year). The Wolf Pack is also a better rebounding team (38.9 to 37.4) this year despite the fact that last year’s team had Jordan Caroline, Jordan Brown, Trey Porter and Tre’Shawn Thurman. This year’s team also averages more assists (15.1 to 14.6) than last year. Last year’s team scored slightly better (80.1 to 77.5), shot the ball better (.462 to .447) and turned the ball over slightly less (10.4 to 11.9). There is another area where this year’s team might outdo last year’s team. The 2018-19 Pack won just one game after the regular season.