Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Alford climbing career wins list | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Alford climbing career wins list

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

Steve Alford could not have picked a better opponent for his 600th career coaching victory. The Nevada Wolf Pack’s first-year coach is sitting at 599 career victories heading into Saturday’s game (5 p.m.) at Lawlor Events Center against the New Mexico Lobos. The 55-year-old Alford coached the Lobos for six seasons, from 2007-13. “Obviously, that’s big,” Wolf Pack point guard Lindsey Drew said of Alford going for No. 600 against New Mexico. “It puts even more pressure on that game.” Alford would become the 16th active coach with 600 or more career victories, though just 521 have come at the Division I level (he won 78 games for Division III Manchester in the early 1990s). A total of 37 coaches all-time have won 600 or more games at the Division I level. Alford is now also third in Mountain West history with 179 career victories (all games) in the conference behind San Diego State’s Steve Fisher (386) and Boise State’s Leon Rice (192) and fourth in league wins (72) behind Fisher (168), Rice (92) and BYU’s Dave Rose (78). The Pack’s 86-72 win over UNLV on Wednesday allowed Alford to break a tie with former UNLV coach Lon Kruger (72 wins in league play) for fourth place.

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Alford getting to 600 victories, obviously, has very little to do with the Wolf Pack. He is, after all, now just tied with Charles Schuhardt (1939-42) for 15th in Wolf Pack history with 12 coaching victories. Alford now has his sites set on No. 14 Raymond Courtwright (25 wins from 1919-23). Jake Lawlor (209 wins from 1942-59) is the Pack’s all-time leader. The recently departed (to Arkansas) Eric Musselman is sixth all-time in Pack history with 110 wins. Musselman’s .764 winning percentage is the Pack’s all-time best. Alford’s .600 winning percentage (12-8) puts him fifth in Pack history.

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The Wolf Pack, like the rest of the Mountain West right now, seems to have all but conceded first place in the Mountain West to the San Diego State Aztecs this season. The Aztecs are ranked No. 4 in the nation (in both major polls) and 20-0 overall and 9-0 in the Mountain West and are the only team in the conference with fewer than two league losses. The Pack, which lost at San Diego State 68-55 on Jan. 18, is now 5-3 in league play with 10 games left. The Wolf Pack would need to beat San Diego State in Reno on Feb. 29 and need two other Mountain West teams to knock off the Aztecs to have even a shot at a regular season title. “(A win on Saturday over New Mexico) would put us in a good spot to fight for that second place spot,” Drew said. “That is big.” The Pack has won outright or shared the past three regular season Mountain West championships.

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The Aztecs are obviously a bit overrated right now. Does anybody really believe they are the fourth best team in the nation? Of course not. But the Aztecs are the only remaining unbeaten team in the nation so No. 4 is how it shakes out because, well, Top 25 voters spend about three minutes a week filling out their rankings. Playing in a mediocre-to-horrible mid-major conference has its benefits, as the Pack found out last year. The Pack, which was ranked in the Top Ten for much of last season benefited from the same situation and was also vastly overrated (as we found out in March). Put San Diego State in the Pac-12, Big East, SEC, Big Ten or any other major conference and, well, they would be lucky to crack the Top 15, maybe not even the Top 20. The Aztecs’ best wins this year have come over Iowa, Utah, Creighton and BYU. BYU and Utah have lost six (BYU) and seven (Utah) games. The wins over five-loss Iowa and Creighton came in Las Vegas in December, which was basically a home game for the Aztecs. Pay absolutely no attention to the rankings.

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The Aztecs, without question, are clearly the class of the Mountain West. They play outstanding defense as usual and this year, with Washington State transfer Malachi Flynn, can even score a little bit. Getting 6-foot-10 Vanderbilt transfer Yanni Wetzel has also been a key to the 20-0 record. But it is not 1965 anymore and, eventually, you have to score to beat good teams away from home, especially in the NCAA tournament. The Aztecs have scored more than 80 points just six times this year and all six have come either at home or in two games in Las Vegas against teams from the Midwest (Iowa, Creighton) that were homesick around the holidays.

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The key to the entire Wolf Pack season just might be the offense of Drew. The fifth-year senior point guard scored 15 points against UNLV on 4-of-7 shooting (two threes). Drew had scored just 14 points in the Pack’s last three games combined on 4-of-28 shooting (1-of-10 on threes). “My teammates kept encouraging me,” Drew said. “They just told me to keep my head up and just to stay aggressive. It was good to see a couple shots go in.” Alford was also happy to see Drew contribute to the scoring. “Lindsey busted out of his mini slump,” Alford said. “He needed that.” So did the Pack.

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The Pack knows it will get offense from Jalen Harris (18.9 points a game) and Jazz Johnson (17.0) – the two combined for 47 against UNLV – but finding a consistent third scorer on some nights has been difficult. Drew scored 54 points in the Pack’s first two games this season when Harris played a total of eight minutes because of an ankle injury but has not gone over 18 in a game since. “If we have a third or fourth scorer, we’re a much better team,” Alford said. “UNLV and other teams are the same way. They had two guys that got away from us (Bryce Hamilton had 26 and Amauri Hardy had 23) but nobody else had more than six. That’s hard. We’re just like that.”

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The intensity of the UNLV rivalry brought out the best in the Pack. The Wolf Pack led over the final 38 minutes and never seemed in jeopardy of losing the game. It was arguably the Pack’s best all-around effort of the season, holding the Rebels to 36 percent shooting from the floor and 28 percent on threes. Four Pack players scored in double figures. The Pack also turned the ball over just six times while forcing UNLV into a dozen mistakes. The only concern was the Rebels’ 44-33 advantage on the boards, mainly because of 18 offensive rebounds that led to a 21-6 edge in second chance points. But the Wolf Pack always responded to keep the Rebels fighting an uphill battle all game. “We were really focused for this game,” Drew said. “It shouldn’t be just UNLV where we are maxed focused but that’s kind of what it looked like. But we were really focused on this game.” “We were locked in,” Harris said. “We did a good job with the young guys, keeping our heads right getting ready for this game.”