Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack basketball good, not great | NevadaAppeal.com
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Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack basketball good, not great

Joe Santoro

What happened to the Nevada Wolf Pack’s once-promising men’s basketball season last week in Las Vegas? Well, the Pack’s two best players (Jalen Harris, Lindsey Drew) got into foul trouble, nobody played great, the second half was a mess and the Pack lost to Wyoming, an eight-win team, in the Mountain West tournament. It happens, especially to a team as fragile as the Pack was all season long. It’s disappointing but this team peaked in early February when Harris was on fire and simply ran out of gas the last three weeks or so. The Pack squeezed as much out of this season as it had a right to: 19 wins overall, a couple wins over UNLV and a tie for second in the Mountain West (at 12-6 with Utah State, UNLV). Good year. Not great. Good.

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How fragile was this Wolf Pack team this year? Well, it was basically a 3-point shooting team with three solid starters (Harris, Lindsey Drew, Jazz Johnson) and one good bench player (Nisre Zouzoua). Everyone else was a role player whose performance went up and down like the stock market. Harris, Drew, Johnson and Zouzoua were left over from the Eric Musselman era and just Harris, among those four, will be back next year. The long-term success of this program will now rely on Steve Alford’s ability to recruit to Northern Nevada. Musselman was arguably the best recruiter in the history of Wolf Pack sports. It won’t be an easy act to follow.

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Alford, to be sure, did a solid job this season. Not great. Solid. At times very good. The Pack won 19 games but it was accomplished mostly against bad and mediocre programs and mainly at home. The program with the best record the Pack beat this year is Bowling Green at 21-10. They had some possible signature moments (Utah, BYU, USC, Utah State, San Diego State twice, Saint Mary’s) and lost them all. Lawlor Events Center, which pushed the Pack to 12 wins in 15 games, inflated the Pack’s record this year. But that’s OK. That’s what your home court is supposed to do. So, yes, good year. Not great. No storm-the-court moments. No real signature wins. A couple cover-your-eyes losses (San Jose State, Wyoming). And a couple of near misses (Saint Mary’s, San Diego State). No reason to throw a parade just yet.

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How will history judge Jalen Harris’ season? A month or so ago Harris appeared on his way to one of the greatest seasons in Pack history. He was at least going to be in the conversation. He had four consecutive 30-point performances and was doing a little of everything. He had six games in a row of 26 or more points. But it didn’t last. Harris was just 26-of-69 from the floor (38 percent) overall and 10-of-38 on threes (26 percent) over the final four games, averaging 21 points a game. And three of those games (Wyoming twice and Fresno State) were against awful teams. The final verdict on Harris’ season? Good to very good. Not great. The Pack needed great from Harris to do special things this year. By the middle of February opponents figured that out. Harris led the Mountain West in scoring (21.6) and finished with 648 points. Both figures fall just short of the Top 10 in Wolf Pack history.

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Harris is a big-time talent and will likely produce one of the best two-year careers in Pack history by the end of next season. But the one area where the Pack struggled all year long was in the paint, on offense and defense. The Pack’s three main big men (K.J. Hymes, Robby Robinson and Johncarlos Reyes) combined this season to play 1,600-plus minutes and average collectively just 11.4 points and 12.3 rebounds. The three also combined for 89 turnovers and 61 assists. And opponents basically enjoyed an open highway to the basket all season long. Hymes, a freshman, and Robinson, a sophomore, will be back next year. There is also help on the way. Warren Washington, a 7-foot transfer from Oregon State, practiced with the Pack this year and will have three years of eligibility left. Washington, from the San Diego area, averaged 1.3 points and 1.4 rebounds in just under eight minutes a game for Oregon State last year. Seven feet will get you a lot of blocks, dunks and fear in the eyes of opponents.

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The best thing to come out of this Pack season is the continuation of the incredible homecourt support and success. Those two things have always been the backbone to any Wolf Pack success down through the years, through the Trent Johnson, Mark Fox, David Carter and Eric Musselman eras. Alford, who flourished at New Mexico because of tremendous home support, has kept that going this year. Northern Nevada bought into the Alford era right from the start. The Pack averaged 8,721 fans for each home game this year, good for third best in the Mountain West behind just New Mexico (10,992) and San Diego State (11,668) and slightly more than Utah State (8,671) and UNLV (8,218). Wyoming, San Jose State, Air Force and Colorado State all drew under 3,600 a game while Fresno State and Boise State, two football schools, averaged under 6,000. Continuing the home support that Musselman reestablished at Lawlor was the best thing Alford did his first year.

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The number of questions surrounding the Wolf Pack this offseason won’t be as overwhelming as it was last year when Musselman left. There was a week or so last April when the Pack had no players and no coaches. It’s not that bad this offseason. Harris, Hymes, Robinson, Zane Meeks and Kane Milling will be back. Washington and fellow redshirt players, Desmond Cambridge (6-foot-4) and Khristion Courseault (6-2), who have spent a year practicing under Alford, will also debut next year. But the loss of seniors Johnson, Drew and Zouzoua leaves three huge holes.