Joe Santoro: The philosopher leading the Nevada Wolf Pack | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: The philosopher leading the Nevada Wolf Pack

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada head coach Steve Alford walks off the court at halftime against Saint Mary's on Dec. 21 in San Francisco.
D. Ross Cameron/AP | FR39290 AP

Steve Alford played a few mind games with his Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team last week.

“Coach (Bobby) Knight used to say, ‘The mental is to the physical as four is to one,’” Alford said.

Who knew that Knight was the modern-day Confucius? Well, Alford, for one. Alford, after all, played well-publicized mind games with Knight at Indiana from 1983-87, averaging 19.5 points a game and winning a national championship his senior year.

The 55-year-old Alford gave the Wolf Pack some of that good old-fashioned Indiana cornfield Confucius wisdom last week.

“I just want them (the Pack players) confident,” Alford said. “I want them tough. Sometimes they think the toughness is the physical. But, really, there’s much more to the mental side of things than there is the physical side.”

Alford made things perfectly clear to his Wolf Pack basketball team heading into last week.

“We challenged them,” he said. “It was a big week for us.”

The Wolf Pack, challenged mentally by its philosopher coach, went out last week and trounced the UNLV Rebels and New Mexico Lobos at Lawlor Events Center. The 86-72 (UNLV) and 96-74 (New Mexico) victories put the Pack in second place at the midway point of the Mountain West season at 6-3 (13-8 overall).

How’s that for toughness and confidence?

“To beat two teams that were ahead of us in the standings or tied with us by double digits, that means we did a lot of good things,” Alford said.

It was easily the best the Pack has played all year in consecutive games, given the opposition and the importance of the games. Beating Fordham and Bowling Green in the Virgin Islands in November, after all, is not the same as whipping UNLV and New Mexico at home in late January.

The Wolf Pack dominated the Rebels and Lobos, leading the two games for 73 of the 80 minutes combined. The Pack never trailed by more than three and never trailed at all in the last 34 minutes of either game.

The Pack won all four halves in the two games and had four players score in double figures against UNLV and six against New Mexico.

It was efficient, intelligent, methodical, calculated, unselfish and, yes, mentally tough basketball at its best. It was old school Hoosiers round ball. All that was missing were the crew cuts, short shorts and Shooter calling for the picket fence to win the game. The real-life Jimmy Chitwood-turned-Norman Dale loved it.

“I was very proud of our guys,” Alford said.

The Pack’s mental toughness showed up all over the stat sheets last week. The Pack shot 60-of-129 (47 percent) from the floor, 28-of-61 (46 percent) on threes and 34-of-40 (85 percent) from the free throw line and turned the ball over just 17 times over the two games.

“Hopefully this will give us some confidence and some momentum going on the road,” said Alford, whose Wolf Pack plays at Colorado State (Wednesday) and Boise State (Saturday) this week.

Alford treated last week like it just might have been the turning point of the entire season.

“We went through two weeks where we weren’t gaining what we needed to gain,” Alford said. “What we were doing wasn’t working.”

The Pack whipped Boise State at home 83-66 on Jan. 4 and then proceeded to play its worst basketball of the season for the next 14 days. The Pack lost three of four games and was lucky it didn’t lose all four. The only victory in that lifeless stretch was a one-point, hold-your-breath 68-67 flip of the coin at home against the worst team (Wyoming) in the conference.

That lifeless four-game stretch did include somewhat competitive losses on the road at two of the toughest road gyms in the conference, 80-70 at Utah State and 68-55 at San Diego State. But the Pack was never really in jeopardy of winning either game.

And there was the eye-opening, did-that-just-happen, frightening 70-68 loss at San Jose State in arguably the easiest road gym in the conference (just 1,459 fans showed up).

“I didn’t like our energy level, I didn’t like our enthusiasm, our passion, our joy of playing,” Alford said.

When Alford has spoken of his disappointment with his team this year, the subject has always been about passion, energy, toughness and fight. Cornfield Confucius would be proud.

“We have to know that we’re going to get punched,” Alford said earlier in the year. “How we handle that is very important. It’s about energy and toughness.”

The Pack got punched in the nose three times the past two weeks leading into last week. Alford was legitimately worried about how they would handle it.

“I asked them, ‘Where is your joy? Where is your passion? If you really love this game, you’ve got to put much more into it. You work just a little harder every day and see where that goes,’” Alford said. “There were a lot of challenges put out to them. And they met those challenges.”

It was simple. Alford merely challenged his team to fight for each other and for their love of the game, just like a young man from the cornfields of Indiana playing for a no-nonsense Indiana legend back in the 1980s.

“We’ve said it before,” Alford said. “If your effort and your discipline are at a high level you give yourself a good chance to win. If your effort and discipline drop, you give yourself more chances to lose. Notice I didn’t say anything about shots made or how we dribble. It’s more about effort and discipline.”

Think Norman Dale forcing his players to practice without the ball.

“We needed to get confidence and energy going into the second half of the season,” Alford said.

Yes, of course, it’s not difficult to exhibit effort, energy and discipline at home when 10,000 fans are cheering you. The Pack, after all, is 9-2 at home this year and 67-7 over the past five years.

“The energy at Lawlor is amazing,” freshman K.J. Hymes said last week. “We feel the crowd. It’s hard not to have energy.”

We will find out this week at Colorado State and Boise State if the energy we saw last week was real. Did the Pack rediscover its love and passion for the game or simply rekindled its love of adoring fans and familiar rims and backboards?

“We played pretty hard and we played pretty disciplined,” Alford said. “Those are the things we wanted (last) week.”

Alford, like Norman Dale at Hickory High, we must not forget, is building a program this year from the ground up. He had almost nothing to work with when he took over the program last spring. All of his players were either in the transfer portal or already headed out of town.

Yes, he took over a program that had won three Mountain West regular-season titles in a row and had been to three NCAA tournaments, including one Sweet 16. But those things were merely lines in a media guide. Media guides don’t beat UNLV and New Mexico. The Pack program that Alford was handed was waving aimlessly in the wind, a program in name only. No players. No direction. No leadership.

Alford changed all that the instant he stepped on campus. He provided instant leadership and direction and then he worked on keeping and getting players. He signed an important I’m-not-going-anywhere-anytime-soon 10-year contract and gave veteran players like Jazz Johnson, Jalen Harris, Nisre Zouzoua and Lindsey Drew and redshirt freshman K.J. Hymes a reason to stay. He brought in two talented freshmen (Zane Meeks, Kane Milling) and two hard-working veterans (Robby Robinson, Johncarlos Reyes) in the summer.

And now they are in second place in the Mountain West with half a season yet to play.

“We’re trying to build a culture we believe in,” Alford said. “It’s going to take time. But this group of guys is doing everything it can to build that culture on and off the court.”

He earned his 600th career victory Saturday night against New Mexico but that had little to do with Nevada. All of the heavy lifting (587 wins) toward No. 600, after all, had been accomplished at Manchester, Missouri State, Iowa, New Mexico and UCLA.

But it did accomplish one important thing. It reminded Wolf Pack fans to dream. A coach with 600 career victories, a guy that Iowa and UCLA trusted with its program? A young man Bobby Knight trusted with his legacy? A guy who won a national title in college and was one of the best players in college basketball history? That guy is our coach now?

That 600th win allowed Wolf Pack fans the chance to dream about the celebrations that will take place when Alford wins No. 700 and 800 and maybe even 900 and 1,000 at Nevada.

Alford, Pack fans have found out, fits here. He looks comfortable here. He looks like he belongs here. He looks like he actually cares about Nevada basketball and not just Steve Alford basketball. He looks like he might want to stay.

Maybe it’s small-town Indiana meeting small-town Nevada where hard work, passion, energy, toughness, unselfishness and a love for the game mean something. Maybe it was just the perfect marriage. A program and a community needing Alford and Alford needing a program and a community that needed and appreciated him.

Whatever it is, it seems to be working.

“I wouldn’t have gone into an agreement for 10 years,” Alford said last week, referring to his commitment to Nevada. “I was in a situation because of my contract at UCLA that I could have easily sat out and been playing golf all winter (he had a year and a half left on his seven-year, $18.2 million contract). I’d be at Torrey Pines right now.

“But I had that energy and passion after being out of it for three months. I was going to be extremely selective, no question. But when this (Nevada) became available, I saw the potential of being in a community that would appreciate how we do things on and off the court.”

We saw last week that good things happen when the Pack players match Alford’s energy, passion and joy for playing the game he loves.