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Murray's Mailbag: First impressions of the Nevada basketball team

Nisré Zouzoua
Nisré Zouzoua looked good in Nevada's exhibition game. If he can channel the form he showed at Bryant, that'd be a boon for Nevada. (Nevada athletics)

Lots of questions this week, so let's go. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

(Note: If you're not seeing the tweets, it's probably because you're not using Google Chrome. Use Google Chrome).

Well, it was an exhibition game, so it basically means nothing. Nevada lost an exhibition game when it went to the Sweet 16 in 2004. You can only read so much into a game against a lower-level foe. But the Wolf Pack played well after a bit of a rough start, so that was encouraging. Three players in particular stood out in a good way, those being Zane Meeks, Johncarlos Reyes and Nisré Zouzoua, all three being role players who could be important glue guys this season.

* Meeks, a freshman, had 10 points and 14 rebounds in 24 minutes. He hit 3-of-7 3-pointers. Shooting is his specialty.

* Reyes, a Division I transfer, had nine points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes, starting at center. He also had three turnovers.

* Zouzoua, a returner from last season, had 16 points, five rebounds and two assists in 24 minutes.

There are question marks about Nevada's front court, so the quality minutes delivered by Meeks and Reyes were positive. If Reyes can give Nevada 20 quality minutes a night, that'd be a huge plus. He has four years of ACC experience during his time at Boston College, but he didn't deliver a lot of production in his time there. If he can give Nevada six points and five rebounds a night with quality defense, he'd be a key player. If Meeks can rebound and hit threes like he did in the exhibition, that'd be a big lift. Jalen Harris also was excellent (21 points, eight rebounds), but that was not a shock. Harris has the best chance of becoming the next star of the Wolf Pack, as I mentioned last week.

The only downside was Nevada having more turnovers (16) than assists (15) as a team, but, again, it was an exhibition. I wouldn't read too much into it at this stage.

Zouzoua's play was the biggest positive surprise. This is a guy who has averaged more than 20 points per game at the Division I level, but he was completely lost and buried on the bench last season, so his confidence could have been ruined after he went from scoring 20.3 points per game as a sophomore to 1.3 points per game as a junior. Zouzoua shot 22 percent from the field, including 10.3 percent from three, last season, so it will be interesting to see how much he can rebound and recapture his form from his time at Bryant. If Zouzoua gets anywhere near the level he played at on Saturday, that's a great development for Nevada. He probably had the best game of any Wolf Pack player against Cal State East Bay. He made 5-of-7 shots, including 2-of-3 from three. He had 16 points, five rebounds, two assists and zero turnovers. I like that he was attacking and not settling for three likes he did last season when 58 percent of his shots were from beyond the arc. Nevada is already deep in the backcourt with Lindsey Drew, Jazz Johnson and Jalen Harris. If Zouzoua plays like this, the Wolf Pack's guard rotation will be elite.

Steve Alford believes this squad will be a good shooting team. If you look at the 3-point percentages for the returning players with Division I experience, they line up as follows:

* Jazz Johnson: 45.2 percent last year, 42.2 percent career

* Nisre Zouzoua: 10.3 percent last year, 35.1 percent career

* Lindsey Drew: 39 percent last year, 36.2 percent career

* Jalen Harris: 44.4 percent last year, 35.4 percent career

* Eric Parrish: 32.4 percent last year, 32.4 percent career

There are five players capable of making threes, and newcomers Zane Meeks, Kane Milling and Robby Robinson III can shoot. So it should be a solid shooting team. Not as good as 2017-18 but not as poor as 2018-19. One thing we must mention is the college 3-point line was moved back to the international line this season, so percentages across college will probably fall.

As for Meeks, while I like him as a prospect, he's not averaging 15 points and 8-10 rebounds per game. Luke Babbitt averaged 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a freshman All-American, and that was with him logging 32.6 minutes per game (Meeks isn't getting those many minutes). Expecting Meeks to match Babbitt's freshman production is unfair. I think Nevada would take seven points and five rebounds per game from Meeks, and that might even be pushing it.

Absolutely. I would lock Lindsey Drew, Jazz Johnson and Jalen Harris in for starting gigs, but the frontline has a lot more flexibility. I would not be shocked to see Meeks, K.J. Hymes, Johncarlos Reyes, Eric Parrish and Robby Robinson III all earn starts in the frontcourt. Whoever produces will start. Whoever defends and rebounds will start.

Obviously a joke question, but I doubt Nevada retires another number for anybody. It might hang a jersey in the future, but not retire the actual number as it did with Nick Fazekas and Edgar Jones. As for Meeks, I think he'll start some games unless Nevada wants his 3-point shooting off the bench as a kind of spark plug ala Jazz Johnson last season.

Here's the thing I like about Meeks: He's used to playing with other good players. He played for an elite national prep team with lots of high-level Division I talent, so he's used to finding a niche and fulfilling a role. He can play off the ball and be productive. Of all of the players Nevada has brought in under Alford, only the two Division I transfers (Desmond Cambridge and Warren Washington) have higher ceilings as well. Will Meeks ever be an All-MW player? I'm not sure about that, but I think he'll be a quality rotation player this season and be important all four years at Nevada. I think he'll be the player David Carter thought Kevin Panzer was going to be.

I imagine Alford and Co. will wear suits this season except for the Paradise Jam. I also imagine Wolf Pack fans shouldn't be too upset with Eric Musselman's attire given the fact he inherited a 9-22 team and won 110 games, four Mountain West titles, made three NCAA Tournament berths, reached one Sweet 16 and peaked at a program-best No. 6 in the nation. Also, I imagine most people would wear a polo over a suit if given the chance to chose between the two.

There's always a chance given the nature of conference tournaments. If Nevada finishes in the top five in the Mountain West's regular season, all it has to do is win three games in three nights to get into the Big Dance. I don't see the Wolf Pack being good enough to get an at-large berth, although it will have some quality non-conference games (USC, Davidson, BYU, Utah, maybe Cincinnati in the Paradise Jam) to bolster its stock. For Nevada, this season is all about peaking in March, something it failed to do last season.

I don't think Nevada will be elite defensively. That's my biggest question mark with this team. I think it will score enough to win games. I'm not sure how good the defense and rebounding will be. The two "big men" Cal State East Bay started Saturday were 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6. That doesn't tell us much. If you believe in KenPom's preseason numbers, the site has Nevada ranked 87th in offense and 123rd in defense. I think that's right. I'd be shocked if Nevada finishes as a top-50 defensive team. Who are the elite perimeter defenders? Lindsey Drew was, but he's coming off some major surgeries. Jalen Harris could be, but he's going to be asked to do a lot on offense. The interior defense is the biggest question mark for me. There isn't a lot of bulk in there. Also worth noting all six of Steve Alford's teams at UCLA ranked high in KenPom offense than KenPom defense. It was a good effort against Cal State East Bay -- Nevada held them to 32.2 percent shooting, 22.2 percent from three and was plus-18 on the glass -- but let's not get carried away.

Not sure how to measure all of those categories, but my Nevada point guard rankings would probably go:

Tier one

Ramon Sessions

Tier two

Deonte Burton

Johnny High

Armon Johnson

Tier three

Lindsey Drew

Darryl Owens

Billy Allen

Kevin Soares

Eathan O'Bryant

Curtis High

Drew doesn't have the pure numbers of many players on this list, but he's not a stats-driven guy. He's a top-10 point guard in school history, but it'd be hard to get him into the top five.

DNP-Coach's Decision. (That's Did Not Play-Coach's Decision). Coach Alford addressed the situation on his postgame presser, which you can watch here.

Too early to tell after one exhibition game, but I think you'll see a deeper rotation of players used and better shot selection (aka less of a green light to take bad shots). Those will probably be the two biggest differences. And while Alford is not big on a zone defense, you'll see more of that than Musselman played, which was maybe a couple of minutes during his four seasons.

Nevada was picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll, so that's basically forecasting a 19-13 overall record, a 11-7 mark in the MW and a postseason berth of some sort.

Jay Norvell said he has not made a decision on who will start Saturday at Wyoming but should have a decision made before Tuesday's practice. Nevada didn't practice Monday as it typically does because it got home Sunday morning and wants to give its players a little extra rest.

Here's the thing: The Wolf Pack has been competitive against bad teams this season. You're talking about wins over an FCS team (Weber State), a team that won one game the previous two years (UTEP ) and a team that won three games the previous two years (San Jose State). The other win was over Purdue, which is 2-5, and was fueled by an unsustainable plus-five turnover margin. When Nevada has faced good teams this season (Oregon, Utah State, Hawaii) is has been beaten by a combined 148 points. What do you call a team that is competitive against bad teams and gets blown out by good teams? You can that a bad team. That's what Nevada has been so far. The good news for the Wolf Pack is it is 4-3, so it can still finish with seven or eight wins if it drastically improves its level of play or has another one of those plus-four or plus-five turnover margin games.

Nevada has two more games against bad teams left on its schedule (UNLV and New Mexico). It has two more games against good teams left on its schedule (Wyoming, San Diego State, Fresno State). Most likely, Nevada will beat the bad teams, lose to the good teams and finish 6-6, which would be better than this team's true level. At least when Nevada lost last season, it was competitive. The Boise State and Fresno State games stick out. The Wolf Pack hung with Top 25-caliber teams. This season, it has been blown out by Hawaii and Utah State, which are not even close to Top 25-caliber teams. This season has been rough, but Nevada can salvage it by playing above the level we've seen so far. Will that happen? Doubtful.

As for Doritos, Nacho Cheese (aka the red bag). I do like Cool Ranch, though.

I didn't get the stretch run play call when you're on your own 1-yard line (that ended up being a safety). I also didn't get running a draw play on fourth-and-16 from the Utah State 32-yard line (that ended up being a turnover on downs). Nevada sitting at 4-3 is certainly the best-case scenario given the team's level of play this season.

Clearly. As I wrote after last season (when everybody was crowning the new tenure as clearly better than the Brian Polian era), year three would be the big proving point as Polian's top players graduated out and the roster was full of players recruited by Coach Norvell's staff. When everybody was saying Norvell should get an extension last year, I argued against it. I also would like to wait until this season is over to draw bigger conclusions. It's too easy to overreact after every game. Wait until the big picture fills in. But last year's team was better than this year's team. That's hard to argue, so, yes, it is a step back.

No. His seat is not warm at all. Nevada could lose out for the rest of the season and Coach Norvell would be back in 2020.

If Boise State doesn't get to a New Year's Six bowl, then you're looking at Boise State, Utah State, Air Force, Wyoming and San Diego State all locks for bowl eligibility. Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State should all become bowl eligible, too. That's eight teams for five bowl tie-ins. So, yes, there's a very good chance a six-win MW team doesn't make a bowl, which happened last season with Wyoming. I'm guessing Nevada will need to win seven games to make a bowl this year.

It depends on how healthy he is. The line this season has been he has dealt with an "accumulation of injuries," but I get the feeling his injuries are a little more than "banged up." If and when he's fully healthy, I would turn the season over to Strong if he is indeed the "future of the program" as Norvell has said.

I think this quarterback battle is down to Strong and Henry, and I think that's fair. Solano's legs are definitely a plus, but Nevada's pass game has way more potential with Strong and/or Henry behind center. And, as you mentioned, he's a senior, so you're not developing a long term quarterback if you're playing Solano. His broken hand in fall camp really sabotaged his chances of winning the job on a long-term basis.

My thoughts are this: Nevada needs to pick one quarterback and let him play the rest of the season. Pick the guy you believe in, the guy who has the best chance to lead Nevada to a great season in 2020 and develop him. It's not good when the head coach has to be asked every Monday who will start at quarterback that weekend.

I've been saying this for the last two years, much to the chagrin of some Wolf Pack personnel, but I just don't think the merging of a power run game and the Air Raid passing attack is the best way to optimize a Group of 5 offense. I think you have to go one route or the other. Without doing so, you're going to lack an identity. It's hard to recruit to two very different schemes at this level, which is what Nevada is trying to do with its "Air Pistol." This isn't a knee-jerk reaction to this season's losses, either. Per ESPN's Football Power Index, Nevada has ranked 80th (in 2017), 100th (in 2018) and 117th (in 2019) in the nation in offensive efficiency since Norvell took over. This is a multi-year issue. So does Nevada regroup after the season and make systemic changes to its scheme or does it pin the blame for the offensive issues on personnel (namely quarterback and offensive line) and try and do the same thing next season? That's only a question Norvell can answer. I would make bigger changes and pick an offensive path.

I asked Coach Norvell about that after the Hawaii game and he said he wasn't going to do it and added he's already pretty involved in play-calling.

I can't verify the "leading the MW in three-and-out threes years in a row" thing, but Coach Norvell has said on a couple of occasions Nevada has the personnel to be a good team, so he would agree its not a quality of player issue. I don't think a change in play-callers (or quarterbacks) will matter much if Nevada's offensive line continues to play at this level. There's only so much you can do when the line can't open holes, can't pass protect in obvious passing downs and repeatedly puts the offense behind the chains because of penalties. Of course, it's not all on the offensive line, but that's been the biggest issue. The Union has not played at the Union's standard.

Angus McClure (the Wolf Pack's offensive line coach) will for sure return unless he takes a better-paying job. I anticipate Matt Mumme (quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator) will return, too. I wouldn't blame the offensive woes on him. And Norvell has only moved on from one coach, that being safeties coach Matt Kirk after season one.

I would change the identity before changing the coaches. That's just scapegoating at this point. If Nevada is going to go full Air Raid, Mumme is your answer. If you want to go to a power run scheme, then it makes sense to make a change to somebody who has coached that their entire life.

I am a little surprised we haven't seen more read-option with Malik Henry, but the Wolf Pack has tried to scale back its offense to make it simpler, so I imagine some of that stuff has been sacrificed to make Henry as comfortable as possible.

I've been covering Wolf Pack football on a full-time basis since the 2010 season (I like to believe I was the good luck charm behind that historic campaign) and this is the worst offensive line I've seen at Nevada since then. The 2013 offensive line also was not good, but it had Joel Bitonio, who will likely end up being the best offensive lineman in school history, so that group trumps this group. I guess the good sign for Nevada is the line doesn't have any seniors, so it should be improved next year. The Wolf Pack landed four starters on the offensive line in the 2016 recruiting class (Brian Polian's last class), but the last three classes haven't yielded much instant impact on the line.

Berdale Robins played well at Utah State. I named him my MVP of the game for Nevada. Robins got his chance because starter Daniel Brown was sidelined with a head injury, and Robins did the most with it. Robins said Monday it was Nevada's best game out of the secondary. I'd agree, although the Wolf Pack was helped by copious drops by Utah State's receivers. But Aggies quarterback Jordan Love didn't look like a future high-round NFL draft pick, and he's being touted as a potential first-round guy. The defensive play was the only encouraging thing from Saturday's loss.

The college rules and the NFL rules are different. In college, you can literally stand in the end zone as long as the ball is stopped before it crosses the goal line. In the NFL, you can't step on the goal line to save the ball. So as long as you stop the ball before it crosses the goal line (no matter what you're located) the ball is placed at the 1-yard line. That being said, that was still a dicey call.

Yes. That is bad.

It's nice to have the highest overall ranking among the Group of 5 conferences in the BCS formula, as the Mountain West had last season, but it's probably more important for the conference to get the Group of 5's New Years Six bowl slot. The MW has done that only once since the College Football Playoff began in 2014. That was the first year when Boise State won the Fiesta Bowl. Since then, it's been Houston (AAC), Western Michigan (MAC), UCF (AAC) and UCF (AAC). It's hard to argue you're the best Group of 5 conference when you don't have the best team in the Group of 5. As far as bowl payouts go, I'm not sure on the exact numbers, but this story indicates the AAC got $4 million for UCF's New Year's Six bowl appearance while the Group of 5 split $81.32 million in revenue via an undisclosed formula with a small portion set aside to be distributed based on performance.

Looking at realistic options (for example, I can't add USC to the MW because they would never happen), it would look like this.

West Division

Boise State

Fresno State

Nevada

UNLV

San Diego State

Hawaii

Mountain Division

BYU

North Dakota State

Wyoming

Colorado State

Air Force

Utah State

So I'm kicking out San Jose State and New Mexico, adding BYU and North Dakota State and shifting Boise State to the West Division so the Broncos play rivals Fresno State and Nevada every season. I'm curious to see what North Dakota State can do in the FBS. The Bison are 118-8 with seven national titles since 2011. They need a new challenge. The above moves would strengthen the MW's football product. If we were looking at all sports, I'd kick out Hawaii, keep New Mexico and move Utah State from the Mountain to the West. And add Gonzaga for basketball while keeping North Dakota State in as a football-only member of the MW.

So you're talking about the surrounding view around the stadium?

1. Boise State

2. Utah State

3. Air Force

4. Nevada

5. Hawaii

6. Colorado State

7. Wyoming

8. New Mexico

9. San Jose State

10. San Diego State

11. UNLV

12. Fresno State

While BYU is no longer in the league, the Cougars' stadium has a great view, too. One of the best in the nation.

Inexperience and accountability, per Coach Norvell.

O'Leary-Orange has played in each of the last two games but hasn't recorded a catch (he was called for a pass interference in the end zone in the Utah State loss). O'Leary-Orange has been plagued by injuries this season, which has limited his reps. I thought he'd have a more productive career after his 39-catch, 618-yard, four-touchdown sophomore season in 2017, but that was the peak.

National champion: Michigan State

Wooden Award: Markus Howard, Marquette

Freshman of the Year: Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Coach of the Year: Penny Hardaway, Memphis

Presumably well, but he didn't commit following the visit. He's playing at a prep school this season looking to boost his offers, so it makes sense he'd wait to take multiple visits. But Nevada was his first offer and his first official visit, and oftentimes that means a lot to a prospect. I would not be shocked if he skipped the November signing period and played this thing out to April in an effort to get more exposure before locking into a school. He's definitely full of potential, so I could see some Power 5s offering.

Manager Ian Russell believes he has the best team in the USL, so anything short of the USL title game would be a disappointment. That being said, it's hard to project Reno 1868 FC beating Phoenix Rising on the road, which is a potential Western Conference final. My guess is Reno wins its first two playoff matches but loses to Phoenix for the Western title. Phoenix is 24-6-4 this season and has beaten Reno 3-0 and 4-2 this year.

Patriots over Packers because the Patriots always win. I'll take the Patriots over the Chiefs in the AFC title game because Kansas City's defense is bad and New England will have home field. And I'll take Green Bay over San Francisco in the NFC title game because Aaron Rodgers is better than Jimmy Garoppolo, who does not actually appear to be good (19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions with the 49ers). San Francisco might actually be better with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback. That defense is legit, though.

The last time that happened was 2007 when Miami lost to Pittsburgh, 3-0, as a 16-point underdog. That game was marred by heavy rains, which made it tough to score. Here are highlights from that game.

Three favorites.

* Denver: So big and so nice (but far away from the city, which sucks)

* Phoenix Sky Harbor: Similar to Denver but close to the city

* Las Vegas McCarran: Great location and size if you're cool with seeing hungover people laying on the floor

Three least favorites.

* San Diego: Way too small and sometimes you have to go through security on a layover

* LAX: Old and crappy (but you'll usually see a celebrity)

* LaGuardia Airport: Also old and crappy

No, I am not happy the Dodgers have already been ousted from the playoffs. I would not have been scared of Houston. Houston won 108 games this season; Los Angeles won 107. Houston had a plus-280 scoring margin; Los Angeles was plus-273. Houston had 64.5 WAR; Los Angeles 58.8. Houston was second in the Sagarin ratings; Los Angeles was first. They were equivalent teams. Houston went five games in its divisional series; Los Angeles also went five. The only difference is Houston got to go against Tyler Glasnow in game five while the Dodgers had to go against Stephen Strasburg, one of the top-10 pitchers in the game. Even still, the Dodgers were up 3-0 on Strasburg before some horrible bullpen management.

I don't like people who always need to be the center of attention, so that should tell you how I feel about Marlins Man.

You've found a weakness in my knowledge base: I have no idea about firefighter rules, although this was pretty tragic when it comes to local firefighters.

The AP likes at least one voter in every state and I was given the Silver State's vote in 2012 and apparently haven't messed up since then because I've been an AP voter in college basketball and college football each of the last eight years. I think I'm one of only three people in the country to vote in both polls every year since 2012.

And our final Monday Mailbag question comes this week via my wife's co-worker who does not have Twitter but texted in asking the following question:

"Whose idea was it to attempt a 51-yard FG in the 3rd quarter. They destroyed our 1 bright spot in a team that Chris describes as below mediocre (they are proving him correct). The FG was meaningless at that point in the game. At least a fake FG may have changed the entire game ( if 1st down made). Now they destroyed the 1 reason that keeps people going to the games (Talton). I'm texting this in church, so I better start paying attention as service is about to begin ????"

My answer: I also was a little disappointed to see Nevada opt for a 51-yard field goal down 22-3 facing a fourth-and-8 from the Utah State 34-yard line with 4 minutes, 23 seconds remaining in the third quarter. Nevada was actually going to go for it on fourth down before offensive guard Aaron Frost was whistled for a false start, bumping the ball back five yards. A field goal, even if made, wouldn't have done a ton for Nevada. It would have pulled the Wolf Pack within 16, so Nevada still would have needed two touchdowns and two 2-point conversions just to tie the game. I would have gone for it there because Nevada needed touchdowns at that stage. But Coach Norvell opted for the long field-goal attempt, which Talton pulled left. Sadly, his perfect season is over. Hopefully it doesn't ding his Lou Groza and All-America candidacies too much. See y'all next week.

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