During his official introduction as Nevada’s newest head coach in 2019, Steve Alford said someone made a joke about him not being able to get away from wolves.
“There’s a lot of truth to that,” he said referring to his time leading New Mexico from 2007-13, and his new job leading the Wolf Pack.
In six seasons with the Lobos, Alford picked up six Mountain West titles (four regular season, two tournament) and three MWC Coach of the Year honors. The first year of his 10-year deal with Nevada just ended, and the task of recreating success in a new school — at least right away — has already proven a difficult one.
The 2019-20 season was a big transition with Nevada losing all five starters, and Alford is saddled with a similar challenge heading into next season with the loss of four starters. That second wave of exits includes star player Jalen Harris, as the all-MWC first team guard elected to keep his name in the 2020 NBA Draft.
Eric Musselman, the coach Alford replaced, gave the Wolf Pack a 110-34 record, three consecutive conference regular-season titles and three NCAA appearances. The 58 wins from 2017-19 made school history.
But this was not the program — at least from a personnel standpoint— that Alford inherited. The 2019-20 roster had lost seven of its top eight scorers and the top six rebounders. The new Nevada coaching staff had to spend their first couple weeks on the job during the 2019 offseason re-recruiting players who had entered the transfer portal.
Nevada didn’t have anyone on the 2019-20 Preseason All-Mountain West Team. The only recognition was freshman K.J Hymes as Preseason MW Freshman of the Year. Understandably, this Wolf Pack didn’t have the same buzz around them as when the program boasted Jordan Caroline, the Martin twins and others. However, the new group still had enough talent to convince voters to peg them fourth in preseason predictions.
In addition to a coaching staff that knew the conference well, Nevada had a handful of returning players expected to make an impact. Among them were Lindsey Drew, who missed the 2018-19 season recovering from a ruptured Achilles and hip surgery, and Jazz Johnson, who was named MW Sixth Man of the Year during his junior campaign. There were also high expectations surrounding Harris, a transfer from Louisiana Tech.
Through the ups and downs of the 2019-20 season, Alford decided to focus on instilling mental toughness into his players.
“Sometimes they think the toughness is the physical. But, really, there’s much more to the mental side of things than there is the physical side,” he said during a press conference in January.
The next month, the team had a six-game winning streak and could’ve gone into the Mountain West Tournament with seven straight victories. What stopped this from happening was having to face the No. 5 San Diego State Aztecs on its senior night. An 83-76 loss was not how Nevada wanted to enter March, but the team was ready to redeem itself in Las Vegas.
Unfortunately for the Wolf Pack, this didn’t happen either. Nevada entered the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed but was stunned by No. 11 seed Wyoming in the quarterfinals.
Alford’s first year in Reno ended with a decent 19-12 (12-6) overall record. The way the season wrapped up wasn’t ideal but there were still a lot of positives, like a Nevada offense that was strong enough to sit at the top of the conference by averaging 77.1 points per game. The team could also brag about the league’s best three-point accuracy at 38.3 percent. The Wolf Pack also had three dependable players in the defensive stalwart Drew (11.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 4.0 APG), sharp-shooting Johnson (15.9 PPG, 41.7 3P%) and breakout star in Harris (21.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 3.9 APG).
But like it was heading into last season, Alford won’t be able to rely on much production from the previous year.
Forward Robby Robinson, who averaged 2.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, will be the lone returning starter. Alford will be coaching a very young Wolf Pack next season. The team won’t have any seniors on scholarships and the only two juniors will be Robinson and Desmond Cambridge, who sat out last season after transferring from Brown. The guard could be a good contributor for the team, as he averaged 16.5 points over the 57 games he played for the Bears.
In the returning sophomore group, Zane Meeks could be one to watch. The 6’9 forward saw action in 31 games as a freshman and although he averaged just 6.4 points per game, he managed to score in double digits in eight games. He averaged 3.7 rebounds per game, which was fifth-best on the team and is now second best in returners to Robinson averaged 5.1 rebounds per game.
The Wolf Pack also landed Wichita State transfer Grant Sherfield in March. The 6’2 guard is expected to be a key part of the Nevada roster, but he will most likely have to sit out during the 2020-21 season unless the NCAA approves a waiver. With Harris’ departure, Nevada does have an open scholarship that could be used for another experienced player who could make an impact right away, assuming he is eligible immediately.
During a recent Zoom press conference, Alford talked about the importance of using the summer months to develop players because that’s the time when coaches can more easily help individuals work on specific skills and goals. This is especially important for a young group of players, which could make the unpredictability of workout schedules caused by the pandemic a little more impactful.
Despite the strange circumstances, Alford is still feeling confident about what the coaching staff can achieve in the upcoming season with the pieces they have at the moment.
“We like the make up, we like how the puzzle is being put together. It’s just for the most part it’s a very young puzzle,” Alford said. “It’s a relatively young, inexperienced group but a group that we like and we think we can grow with.”