Joe Santoro: Unknowns dominate Nevada Wolf Pack basketball outlook
Get ready for a Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season like no other.
“It’s not going to be a perfect world this year,” Wolf Pack coach Steve Alford said recently.
Perfect world? Nobody expects a perfect world anymore, on or off a basketball court. This Wolf Pack season will likely be downright weird, strange and a bit mysterious.
The gyms, thanks to COVID-19, will be void of fans, noise, atmosphere and excitement. We might see the first technical foul given to a coach for simply grinding his teeth. If someone slams on their brakes on the street outside the arena, your point guard might get startled and throw the ball into the first row of seats.
“It doesn’t matter where we’re going to be playing,” Alford said. “It’s empty.”
Alford, of course, is just thrilled to be coaching and preparing for games. His first Wolf Pack season ended abruptly with a 19-12 record last March because of the COVID-19 shutdown without a chance to play in a postseason tournament. The pandemic is as strong as ever as we approach Thanksgiving but the Mountain West is pushing forward with a 20-game league schedule starting in December just the same.
“It may not be equitable and what we all want,” Alford said. “But we’re not going to get that in this kind of year. This is not a normal year.”
The Wolf Pack, which will open its seven-game non-league schedule against Western Kentucky in Lincoln, Neb., on Nov. 25, will begin Mountain West play in the middle of December. The Pack will host Air Force on Dec. 18 and 20 at Lawlor Events Center to open its league schedule. Each Mountain West team, in an effort to limit travel costs and COVID-19 exposure, will play 10 two-game conference series (against the same team in the same arena).
The Pack will also play at New Mexico (Dec. 31, Jan. 2), San Diego State (Jan. 7, 9), Wyoming (Jan. 22, 24), San Jose State (Feb. 13, 15) and Utah State (Feb. 25, 27) and will host Fresno State (Jan. 14, 16), UNLV (Jan. 31, Feb. 2), Boise State (Feb. 5, 7) and Colorado State (Feb. 19, 21) at Lawlor.
The non-league schedule includes two games against San Francisco and one against Pacific, Grand Canyon, San Diego and one additional game at Lincoln, Neb., in the Golden Window Classic on Nov. 26. The 27-game regular season will be the Pack’s shortest since it also played 27 in the regular season in 2000-01.
And, as of right now, you can only watch on your favorite device or peeking through a window at Lawlor.
“Odd times, different times,” Alford said. “At my age (56 on Nov. 23) you get to this point of your career and you think you’ve seen it all. Now there’s another curveball in life, having a pandemic to deal with, trying to help young people understand that. This has been as much of a challenging time for young people and young student athletes as anytime I can ever remember.”
“We’re all trying to figure it out as we go,” Wolf Pack junior guard Desmond Cambridge said.
Cambridge, who sat out last season after transferring to Nevada from Brown, should feel right at home in an empty Lawlor this season. A Lawlor sans fans and noise, after all, is the only environment he knows at Nevada. The same goes for sophomore transfers Grant Sherfield, Warren Washington and Khristian Courseault as well as freshmen Alem Huseinovic, Tre Coleman, Daniel Foster and DeAndre Henry.
“Not having fans there to support you, that can be hard,” said Cambridge, who knows all too well what it is like to play in near-empty gyms. His Brown Bears in 2018-19, after all, averaged just 1,224 fans for each home game.
Alford, whose second Wolf Pack team returns just one starter (Robby Robinson) this season, thinks quiet gyms, especially on the road, can be an advantage for his inexperienced team.
“Maybe it helps to be in a pandemic where you have young players and they go on the road and there’s not going to be a lot of fans,” Alford said. “Maybe that’s a positive.”
The Eric Musselman era, Pack fans, is now absolutely a thing of the past. Alford’s first Pack team was led by four Musselman recruits. Those four — Jalen Harris, Jazz Johnson, Lindsey Drew and Nisre Zouzoua — were the Pack’s top four in minutes played, field goals, free throws and 3-pointers made and attempted, assists and steals.
Harris, who hopes to be drafted by a NBA team on Nov. 18, Johnson, Zouzoua and Drew were the team’s heart and soul and made Alford’s first year in Nevada a success.
“We don’t have a lot of scoring coming back,” said Alford, who scored 2,438 points in four seasons (1983-87) at Indiana despite having the 3-point shot only in his senior year.
This Wolf Pack team might be new to you but it isn’t void of college basketball experience. Cambridge averaged 16.5 points a game over 57 games at Brown and was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year as a freshman. Sherfield averaged 8.1 points a game last year in 30 games at Wichita State. Washington, a 7-footer, played 27 games (just eight minutes a game) for Oregon State and averaged 1.3 points and 1.4 rebounds. Courseault, who already has had surgery on both his knees, averaged 11 points over 22 games for Pasadena City College.
Alford’s Pack also returns four players who saw substantial playing time a year ago at Nevada, playing in all 31 games. Robinson averaged 2.7 points and 5.1 rebounds, Kane Milling averaged 2.3 points and 1.4 rebounds, Zane Meeks had 40 threes and averaged 6.4 points and 3.7 boards and K.J. Hymes had a team-best 31 blocks and 101 personal fouls and averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds.
The Pack was picked to finish sixth in the Mountain West this season by the league’s media mainly because the team is one giant question mark. But this entire season is a gigantic question mark for every team. And Alford, don’t forget, squeezed 19 victories out of last year’s team that returned zero starters from Musselman’s 29-5 team in 2018-19.
Drew had missed more than a year with multiple surgeries, Harris had played just 11 games over the previous two seasons (none in Nevada), Zouzoua was in Musselman’s doghouse the year before and Johnson was merely a spark plug off Muss’ bench. Alford molded them together into a team that finished second in the Mountain West, tied with UNLV and Utah State and behind just San Diego State.
So anything can happen this season. We should all know that now more than ever before.
“You should expect a very energized, a very sound team,” Cambridge said. “We’ve been working all summer. The team is just ready to learn, everybody is all together, we’re a family and we’re going to be fun to watch.”
If you can’t trust a former Ivy Leaguer, who can you trust? Cambridge reminds us that Drew, Harris, Zouzoua and Johnson might not be on the roster anymore but their influence remains.
“Those guards, Lindsey, Jalen, Jazz and Niz, they taught me so much,” Cambridge said. “They were here when Coach Musselman was here and they were just so experienced. The biggest thing they told me was, ‘Slow down. Slow down your game.’ That helped me so much with my decision making, my shot selection, everything. You just see the game more slowly and that made it much more easy.”
Nothing, of course, will be easy this season. In addition to a strange schedule that might prompt Alford to consult baseball coach T.J. Bruce about how to prepare for a two-game series, the Wolf Pack will likely look a whole lot different that it looked a year ago. With the 7-foot Washington and the 6-10 Hymes, the Pack will be one of the biggest teams in the conference. Last year, and during the Musselman years, it wasn’t strange to see five guards on the floor at the same time.
“With our bigs, Warren and K.J., we’ll be able to throw it back in (the post) more,” Cambridge said. “We’ll be a more all-around offense. Even though we’re not guard oriented like we were last year we’ll still put up a lot of points.”
Cambridge and Sherfield might turn out to be the Pack’s top two players this year. The 6-foot-2 Sherfield, after all, was an Alford recruit at UCLA a few years back. The Bruins let Sherfield out of his letter of intent after they fired Alford in December 2018 and he went back home to Wichita to play for the Shockers and coach Gregg Marshall. And then there’s the four freshmen, who likely all will contribute this year.
“We just have to get experience with these young players,” Alford said. “I think you’ll see all the freshmen on our roster get a chance to make a difference this year. I do like the makeup of our team. It’s just going to take a while.”
“If we do what we’re supposed to be, by the end of the season we’ll be where we need to be,“ Cambridge said. “Time will tell.”