We will learn a lot about Wolf Pack basketball on Saturday, says Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com
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We will learn a lot about Wolf Pack basketball on Saturday, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
Nevada head coach Steve Alford approaches his team during a timeout in Wednesday night's game against Texas Southern.
Thomas Ranson / LVN

Sports fodder … Steve Alford is earning every penny of his 10-year, $11.6 million contract. OK, yes, it’s early. We are just a dozen games into what could be a 350-game Alford career at Nevada. But if those first 12 games are any indication, it’s already clear the Pack made the right choice by hiring the former Indiana Mr. Basketball. And, no, we’re not surprised. The guy won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. He beat Michael Jordan and North Carolina in the 1984 NCAA tournament. He played in the NBA. He coached at UCLA and Iowa. He survived and flourished for four years under Bobby Knight. He even had the courage to write a book about playing for Bobby Knight. So fashioning eight Wolf Pack wins in 12 games against the likes of Texas-Arlington, Fordham, Valparaiso, Bowling Green, Air Force and Texas Southern, isn’t exactly on Alford’s list of Top 10 accomplishments. But it was exactly what Nevada Nation needed to see, coming off a deflating off-season last spring that saw the program gutted by the departure of head coach Eric Musselman and the best senior class in school history.

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Alford is getting everything possible out of this eclectic mixture of Wolf Pack talent that he threw together in about 10 minutes last spring. His first stroke of good fortune was that Lindsey Drew, Jalen Harris and Jazz Johnson all decided to stay at Nevada. Those three are the heart and soul of this team and will be the driving force behind any success its enjoys this season. Harris, Johnson and Drew combined can do everything a winning team needs on the court. They can shoot, rebound, play defense, distribute the ball and lead. None of them are selfish and all three of them have done whatever needs to be done to win a game. And Alford has them playing the type of hard-nosed, tough, team-first basketball that would make Bobby Knight proud.

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The Pack whipped Texas Southern 91-73 at Lawlor Events Center on Wednesday night, scoring 50 points in the second half on 56 percent shooting. But, for the most part, it was an ugly basketball game, marred by 51 fouls and 61 free throw attempts. Texas Southern had 74 shot attempts, the most by a Pack opponent since Colorado State had 77 on Feb. 25, 2018. The Tigers also had 16 offensive rebounds. But Alford and the Pack found a way to extract some beauty out of the ugly evening by draining 29-of-31 free throws, forcing the Tigers to miss 52 of those 74 shots (and 21-of-25 threes) and getting seven or more points on offense out of seven different players. That (defense and sharing the ball) is the strength of this team. While last year was often reduced to a Martin Twins NBA tryout camp and a Musselman job interview, this year’s team has no stars, no egos, no selfishness and, so far, no inner drama.

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We will learn an awful lot about this Pack team late Saturday night (9:30 p.m. tip-off) at San Francisco’s Chase Center against the Saint Mary’s Gaels. The Gaels are 11-2 and have already beaten Arizona State, Cal, Wisconsin, Utah State and Fresno State this year. It is an experienced group led by 6-foot-1 senior Jordan Ford (21.5 points a game), 6-8 junior Malik Fitts (15.9) and 6-6 senior Tanner Krebs (11.8). Alford called Saint Mary’s the toughest team on the Pack’s schedule so far this year. That is saying a lot, considering the Pack has already lost to its four toughest opponents so far (Utah, USC, Davidson and BYU) this season. A loss won’t ruin anything. The Pack has already been blown out twice (Davidson, BYU) and recovered nicely. A victory over Saint Mary’s, though, will do wonders for the Pack’s confidence heading into the meat of the Mountain West schedule starting Jan.1.

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The Wolf Pack football team is about a touchdown underdog against the Ohio Bobcats in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise on Jan. 3. The Pack is 7-5. Ohio is 6-6. The Pack could walk to Boise, if it left this morning. Ohio will have to go on a planes, trains and automobiles journey during the holidays to get to Boise by Jan. 3. There should be five times as many Pack fans in Boise compared to Ohio fans. The Pack has won its last two bowl games (2015, 2018). This might be the Pack’s best shot to actually win a game at Boise since 1997. They won’t want to waste it. And, still, the Pack is an underdog. Take the points.

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The only drama in the Potato Bowl will be the matchup of head coaches. Ohio’s Frank Solich and the Pack’s Jay Norvell are former Nebraska coaches. Norvell was Huskers’ offensive coordinator from 2004-06. Solich, a former Nebraska player in the 1960s, coached at Nebraska from 1979-2003, the last six as head coach when he went 58-19. How does a couple of former Power Five coaches find themselves in the Potato Bowl in Boise on a Friday afternoon in early January, coaching a couple of six and seven-win teams from the Mountain West and MAC? Well, the money at mid-major schools, thanks to easy television dollars, is pretty good now. You can make more than a million dollars every two years winning six and seven games every year and going to meaningless bowls at no-pressure schools. Solich got fired at Nebraska for winning 75 percent of his games. He’s been at Ohio since 2005, hasn’t won anything of note, and is now working on his eighth contract extension. Norvell is 18-19 at Nevada, is 1-2 against his biggest rival, and will likely get his first extension sometime in the next 12-15 months. Coaching under the radar at no-pressure schools in no-pressure conferences is not such a bad life.

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The beauty of college football these days is that every game is treated like it has meaning, especially if you win. If you lose an important game, say, to your hated rival at home with the sport’s greatest trophy on the line, it was merely a “stuff happens” sort of event and is quickly forgotten and not talked about anymore. You then quickly move on to the next amazing opportunity and act like getting chosen to play in a bowl game is a tremendous accomplishment. The Pack, for example, is telling everyone now how historic and momentous it would be to become the first team in school history to win bowls in consecutive years. As a fan, it is difficult to figure out just what is important anymore in college football. Going into this Wolf Pack season, we thought it would be important to win the West Division and go to the Mountain West title game. We thought it would be important to beat UNLV and win back the cannon. We thought it would be important to at least show up at Oregon, Utah State and Wyoming and against Hawaii at home. We thought it would be important to walk off the field with class and dignity and not punch anyone in the head even if UNLV somehow won the cannon again. We were wrong. Winning meaningless bowls in consecutive years against mighty Arkansas State and Ohio is now what is important.