Predicting Nevada Basketball’s Postseason Chances
The new-look Wolf Pack should get back to the postseason
Where will the Wolf Pack play in March?
This year’s Nevada team will look almost nothing like the back-to-back-to-back Mountain West champions that fans in Reno had come to know and love. Remember that Eric Musselman came in to turn around the Wolf Pack program after three losing seasons under former coach David Carter following the school’s jump to the MWC. And though Muss is gone now, Nevada is really in no danger of sliding back into those dark days — but they likely won’t be champions, either.
So, what does this mean for the Wolf Pack’s postseason chances?
It is difficult to look at this year’s team and think about all that Nevada lost from 2018-19. But the time has come to put all of that into the rear view mirror and focus on the new faces.
And there are plenty of them.
The most notable of them, of course, is new head coach Steve Alford. Though his time at UCLA ended in disappointment, he still managed to rack up four NCAA Tournament appearances and a .663 winning percentage in six seasons. Anywhere other than Westwood, and Alford may have been thrown a parade for those kind of numbers. But after a 7-6 start to last season, including losses at home to Belmont and Liberty, UCLA had seen enough and fired Alford.
Now, the former All-American at Indiana comes to Reno for his return to the Mountain West. Remember that Alford guided New Mexico to four MWC titles and three NCAA Tournaments during his six seasons in Albuquerque before heading to UCLA. Wolf Pack fans are hoping for that same success — and they don’t expect to wait very long for it.
But the coach isn’t the only thing that’s new. In fact, most of the current roster has been turned over. According to Bart Torvik’s website, Nevada returns just 15.8% of its minutes from last season, which is the fourth-lowest total in Division I. All of those minutes come from Jazz Johnson and Nisre Zouzoua. Senior point guard Lindsey Drew also returns, having missed last season due to injury. But in his three seasons at Nevada prior to last year, Drew averaged more than 30 minute per game and brings stability to the backcourt.
Past that, though, everything is new for Nevada. Jalen Harris and KJ Hymes are two players to keep an eye on here. Our own Eli Boettger tagged them to win the Mountain West’s Newcomer of the Year and Freshman of the Year awards, respectively. Together with transfers Eric Parrish, Robby Robinson III, and Johncarlos Reyes, this team isn’t headed for the cellar anytime soon.
This team should break the 20-win barrier again and once more contend for a top-four spot in the league — if not higher — but will all of that add up to a Big Dance invitation?
The Mountain West projects to be a one- or two-bid league this season, as it has been for the five of the past six seasons. Utah State is the safest bet to lock down one of those bids. There’s not a clear front-runner after the Aggies, though. Teams like San Diego State, New Mexico, and Boise State will all be in contention with Nevada and these teams should round out the top five in some order.
The worry, of course, is that there’s not enough daylight between these teams. They will likely beat up on each other in conference play and, while it will make for a very exciting Mountain West season, it may end up relegating all four of those schools to the lesser March tournaments.
As far as which tournament, the NIT seems like the best bet for Nevada. The program has name recognition and so does its coach — two things which will certainly look attractive to tournament organizers hoping to boost ratings. The CBI or CIT events feel a little too low for the Wolf Pack. There’s no guarantee that they would even accept an invitation to either of those tournaments, either.
As for the NCAA Tournament? It’s certainly not impossible. Utah State came on strong down the stretch last season and pushed their way into the Big Dance. The programs could easily switch roles this time around, with an upstart Wolf Pack chasing down the preseason favorites. But there are simply too many unknown quantities to feel confident about making a prediction like that at this stage.
Still, after losing so much from one season to the next, a slight down-step to the NIT should be viewed as a testament to Alford’s abilities and the talent on this team. If he can guide Nevada back to the NCAA Tournament, then Alford will have earned himself a Coach of the Year award.
Be patient, Wolf Pack faithful. A trip to the NIT this season should be just a small hiccup before Alford gets the squad back to the Big Dance.
Andrew is a current USBWA member, covering college basketball for multiple outlets, including Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Busting Brackets of the FanSided Network. He also runs the Dieckhoff Power Index, a college basketball analytics system, and provides bracketology predictions throughout the season.