Nevada Basketball: 2020-2021 Season Preview-Fresh Faces and Fresh expectations
Year two will look a bit different on the court in Reno with multiple key players departing, with so many new faces, can another transfer lead the pack?
Gone is last year’s quartet of scorers, but this Wolf Pack roster has the potential to make another run in the Mountain West.
There is a lot of hype surrounding Steve Alford‘s second year back in the Mountain West, this time establishing a formidable program in Reno, NV, reminiscent of his days in Albuquerque, NM. A team that regularly punches tickets to the big dance, focuses on player development rather than one-and-done prospects and features in the top-25 from time to time has to be the goal of one of the conferences most tenured and respected coaches.
Coach Alford returned to the conference after a six-year break in the Pac-12 at blue blood program UCLA. He signed a 10-year contract last year with Nevada, and it’s easy to see why. He is a proven winner with decades of experience coaching at the division-I level. Last spring Alford was a home run hire by the Wolf Pack, and in 2019-2020 he exceeded expectations and put folks on edge to do it annually with the right squad in place.
Transition years in college basketball are usually hard for all involved, but the Wolf Pack made it look a little easy. In Alford’s homecoming season, Nevada finished 19-12 overall and 12-6 in an uber competitive top-half of the conference, good enough for a three-way tie for 2nd place with Utah State and in-state rivals UNLV.
Alford was able to compete in year one as heand his staff were able to keep a lot of guys from transferring out of the program early on. Guys like Lindsey Drew, Nisre Zouzoua, Jalen Harris and Jazz Johnson all opted to return to Nevada after entering the transfer portal following the coaching change. All of these players mentioned above were vital to the Wolf Pack’s top-five finish.
The program still experienced some roster turnover, but retaining key players like Johnson and Drew from past Musselman Wolf Pack teams and brought out the best of others like Harris and Zouzoua to make a potent offense that led the conference in scoring at 77.1 PPG.
Most of the heavy lifting was done by Jalen Harris, who turned into an absolute offensive juggernaut down the stretch. Averaging 21.7 PPG including six separate occasions reaching 30+ points.
Harris stepped in and anchored a talented multi-option attack most nights, while facilitating the offense and grabbing boards to start fast break opportunities aplenty. But a decision to remain in the NBA draft back in May changed the outlook of this year’s Wolf Pack squad, but that early decision has at least given fans and the Nevada coaching staff ample time to adjust and plan ahead.
Year one should be considered a success, following what maybe the golden era for Nevada basketball under Eric Musselman. But done in a transition year with plenty of talented players recruited by the previous coaching staff. This season Alford and his staff will be working with a roster they primarily assembled, and thus maybe begin a more conventional “year one” in 2020-2021.
Key Losses: Jalen Harris (Pro.), Lindsey Drew (Grad.), Jazz Johnson (Grad.), Nisre Zouzoua (Grad.), JohnCarlos Reyes (Grad.)
Bench: Tre Coleman (6-7, Fr.), Alem Huseinovic (6-4, Fr.), Kane Milling (6-4, So.), DeAndre Henry (6-7, Fr.), Warren Washington (7-0, R-So.), Daniel Foster (6-6, Fr.), Khristion Courseault (6-2, R-So.), Zachary Williams (6-7, Sr.), Gabe Gonsuelo (6-1, So.)
The Wolf Pack’s biggest strength revolves around the team’s depth at every position. There is plenty of new faces and inexperience (4 freshmen and only two regularly used upperclassmen) but plenty of options at each position. At Mountain West media day on Wednesday, coach Alford spoke about the opportunities all four freshmen will have to make an impact at some point in the season.
Like the rest of the conference there is a lot of unproven talent on this Wolf Pack roster, but production will always come from somewhere, it’s just a little difficult to pinpoint where given the lack of an offseason and coach Alford’s silence regarding his newbies during media day.
Still, coach Alford welcomes back promising sophomores, K.J. Hymes and Zane Meeks, who both split front court duties with lone returning starter Robby Robinson and the now departed Johncarlos Reyes last season. Hymes is crawling with potential as a two-way post player with length and athleticism while Meeks is a skilled 6-9 big who can stretch the defense with his 3-point shooting ability (40 made 3’s on 36.4% in 19-20).
This returning trio should provide a solid base to build on in the frontcourt but the additions of seven-footer Warren Washington from Oregon State and incoming freshman DeAndre Henry, gives the squad multiple options in the paint.
Another strength of this Nevada roster is in the backcourt, with transfers Desmond Cambridge Jr. (15.7 PPG in 18/19 w/Brown) and Grant Sherfield (8.1 PPG in 19/20 w/Wichita state), both eligible to take on a good share of the scoring duties. Sherfield was a former recruit of coach Alford at UCLA before opting to play for the Shockers instead, the 6-2 combo guard made 12 starts for Wichita State last season. Cambridge Jr. is an extremely athletic scoring guard who may fill the roll Harris left open for the Wolf Pack this season, though he doesn’t appear to be the distributor Harris was at first glance.
But aside from their strongest scorers making up their starting backcourt, there are not many other proven options on the roster as far as ball handlers goes. Aside from returning sophomore Kane Milling, who saw action in 31 games last season but only for around 11.8 MPG to give guys a rest, there isn’t much else.
No one is knocking the potential of several young players on the roster, or Steve Alford’s coaching ability and reputation for developing young players, but if there was a weakness to point out this season it has to be the amount of unknowns at multiple points of the roster.
Many programs around the conference are in the same boat but the Wolf Pack lose 4 out of 5 starters from last season’s 2nd place team and return only 20% of their scoring.
This squad is projected as a middle-tier team going into the year, with the potential to crack the conference’s top-five, but limited by their unknowns. Mainly who is going to help Cambridge Jr. put up points and who takes big steps in production across the roster. I am sure this will get figured out, but for now on the outside of the program looking in, there are a lot of questions.
Fans everywhere have mentioned the phrases “rebuilding” or “transition” year. But many of the players taking the court have been in the program for at least a year (Cambridge Jr., Washington, and others ), so there won’t be a ton of issues regarding team chemistry on this roster. Though like everyone across the country affected by covid-19 restrictions this offseason, coach Alford eluded to his team’s lack of time spent together so far this season.
Many are in the same boat with schools in New Mexico forced to relocate to other states given local government restrictions preventing them from practicing at home let a lone play a season.
Where ever this Nevada team ends up in March will have a lot to do with how their transfers acclimate to leadership roles and how quickly their freshmen get acclimated to division-I basketball without much time with their coaching staff this summer. But if anyone can figure that out, it is a veteran coach like Steve Alford.