Nevada Basketball: What Has Gone So Right?
The Wolf Pack are tied for second with one more regular season game this weekend, how will it end?
Nevada is poised for a top 3 finish on senior night 2020, how did they get there?
We are nearing the end of February and come Saturday you get an extra day this year to watch basketball, sit and reflect. The end of the regular season in the Mountain West will end with the Utah State Aggies visiting the Lobos in Albuquerque at 8:00 PM MST. But right before that is the game everyone might be tuning in to.
That game tips off at 6:00 PM MST, and features the first place San Diego State Aztecs as they visit the Nevada Wolf Pack in Reno in the marquee match up of the night.
This game will be well watched for two reasons, one the possibility of the senior night upset of a top-25 ranked opponent and two the conference’s Player of the Year race may be decided in this game. The game features two really good teams, the Aztecs who have sole possession of first place in the conference and have already won the regular season title. And the Wolf Pack who were a little hard to predict coming into the season with so many unknowns and new personnel. But Nevada has proven some folks wrong and in doing so has lived up to that preseason top-5 finish that they were given in October, maybe even exceeding it.
In case you didn’t click the link up above or haven’t been following my coverage of the Wolf Pack all season, I wrote that article. I chose Nevada as one of my two teams who may not live up to expectations this season back in October. For no reason other than, I wasn’t completely sold. I mean the coaching staff change, inexperienced bigs and the little division I experience on the roster had me worried, but I was wrong.
The Wolf Pack have pulled it all together and excelled, enough for a current second place tie with the preseason favorite in Utah State. The Aggies didn’t end up winning the conference because of…well you know who. And aside from a slight surprise season from UNLV sitting at third place (picked 7th) and a disappointing second half performance by New Mexico currently tied for sixth (picked 3rd), things have shaped up as most predicted.
For Nevada who was predicted to finish fourth and has surpassed that with an amazing batch of performances in the month of February, This has resulted in a current six game winning streak and a smooth transition between coaching staffs. But what has gone so right for Steve Alford in his first season back in the Mountain West? Well let’s take a look.
A slight slow start,
Something noticeable early on was the apparent talent on the Wolf Pack’s roster. But the lack of chemistry in a group that as a whole, had only been playing together since the arrival of all nine newcomers presumably in the summer.
The team only brought back five players this season that had been on last year’s NCAA tournament roster and only senior guards Jazz Johnson (28.6 MPG in 18-19) and Nisre Zouzoua (6.0 MPG in 18-19) saw playing time. The other three being Lindsey Drew (out entire 18-19 season with injury), Jalen Harris (sitting out 18-19 due to transfer rules) and K.J. Hymes (red shirted 18-19 season as a freshman) sat out for different reasons.
By all means this was a new team that was going to play only three returning letter winners and eight newcomers. The talent was there early on as the Wolf Pack split their first six games 3-3, winning games they may have been expected to in Loyola Marymount, UT-Arlington and Fordham. While losing tougher ones to the likes of Utah, USC and Davidson.
Chemistry takes time to build but for the Wolf Pack maybe the right amount of time had come around the start of conference play where their 12-5 record (0.706 CPCT.) shines bright over a 7-5 non-conference record (0.583 PCT.) where they were still figuring things out. Some of that’s on the players but that doesn’t happen easily without a good coaching staff developing them.
In season development of freshmen bigs,
Another point of concern as the season began was the team’s lack of experienced big men. The last Wolf Pack team under Musselman relied on incoming division-one transfers to fill out the frontcourt every year. And as the season tipped off in November there were four big men to distribute minutes to but no clear starters out of the gate.
Alford inherited and was able to keep highly touted freshman K.J. Hymes in Reno and brought in Zane Meeks out of the Brewster Academy by way for Prairie Village, KS to complement Hymes in a future Wolf Pack frontcourt. Both players had high major offers in high school and Hymes was even predicted as the preseason freshman of the year, but neither had logged a single minute of game time at the college level and were unknowns going into the first game.
Frontcourt depth was added later on in the form of junior college freshman Robby Robinson (San Diego City College) and graduate transfer Johncarlos Reyes (Boston College-ACC). With these additions the coaching staff was able to have at least two actual bigs on the court at all times and didn’t have to play small ball like a lot of teams have been forced to do around the conference, but still both players came with unknowns. Robinson though productive at the junior college level (15.3 PPG & 10.0 RPG in 28 GMS) could have gone either way in year one at the division-one level, we see it all the time, players sometimes need time to get acclimated to greater size, athleticism and speed of the game. While Reyes was transferring in from a team in a bigger and more competitive conference, but one where he only saw 6.1 MPG on a team that finished 11th in the ACC.
Well even though no one is making the all-conference first team from the Nevada frontcourt at the end of this season. All four players have had an impact on the court at one point or another. K.J. Hymes has displayed an elite bounce and length when left open in the post, and like Zane Meeks can stretch the defense with the ability to knock down the occasional long range shot. And even though the freshmen have gotten a fair share of the playing time (almost half), it is Robinson and Reyes who have started 57 of the total 58 games played together.