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Murray's Mailbag: Will 2021 bring ranked Nevada football and basketball teams?

Toa Taua
Toa Taua and the Nevada football team should start the 2021 season with a lot of buzz. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

Welcome to 2021. Let's make it a good year. In this week's Mailbag, we'll discuss the potential of Nevada football and basketball both reaching the Top 25 next season. But first, we start with some Dodgers talk after the boys in blue won the 2020 World Series. Let's get to your Monday Mailbag questions now. 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.)

Either a Giants fan or Angels fans here. I'm guessing Angels.

It's real and it's spectacular.

Yes. It is much easier to hit a 98 mile-per-hour fastball on the black without fans in attendance. Add in fans and it becomes 100 percent harder. Good thing there weren't any fans at the National League Championship Series or World Series. Oh, wait. There were fans? Yes there were. We must come up without another excuse to try and invalidate the Dodgers' World Series title then.

Definitely. And then people will say it doesn't count because it came in the year after a pandemic, so it deserves an asterisk.

You're right in saying it's been rare for Nevada football and men's basketball to be championship caliber in the same season. Both teams have won conference championships in the same season only twice: 1983-84 and 2005-06. But it could happen in 2021-22 given the roster of both teams. In 1983-84, Wolf Pack football won the Big Sky, went 10-4 overall and was No. 11 in the nation. That same season, Nevada basketball went 17-14 but won the Big Sky Tournament to reach its first NCAA Tournament. In 2005-06, Nevada football went 9-3 and won a share of the WAC title. The basketball team went 27-6 and won the WAC regular-season and tournament crowns before a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament. That 2005-06 season is the best in Nevada history in a football/basketball combo. Both were top-five teams in program history.

The programs have never been nationally ranked in the same season, so that could be an achievable goal for the 2021-22 season, although the first goal would be the double-championship sweep, which obviously won't be easy. Honestly, it might be easier for both teams to be ranked. But Nevada football's offense is loaded and the defense should be improved in the second season under coordinator Brian Ward. If the Wolf Pack isn't the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West, it's close. In basketball, Nevada doesn't lose anybody and adds two former top-75 prospects via transfer in Oregon's Addison Patterson and Texas' Will Baker. That team could push for 25 wins and a MW title, especially with San Diego State's top two scorers and three of its top four being seniors this season.

While Nevada athletics has a lot of improvement to make in the non-revenue sports, it has been pretty good in the marque sports the last 15 seasons, and the best should be yet to come for those programs, at least in terms of them peaking in the same seasons, which has been rare. There's great potential for a double championship outcome.

I'll give Nevada football a 50 percent chance of being ranked. It will get some votes to start the season and has winnable Power 5 foes in Cal and Kansas State in non-conference play. Win both of those games and Nevada will be ranked before the Mountain West schedule begins. In basketball, I'll put it at 20 percent. The Wolf Pack won't start next season with as much buzz, and as Boise State (8-1 but barely receiving votes) has shown us this season, it's hard to go from zero votes in the preseason poll into the Top 25 in basketball. It will take longer for Nevada basketball to get there with limited margin for error. Add them together and you're looking at a 10 percent chance of both teams being ranked next season, given or take a couple percent.

Steve Alford got his New Mexico team ranked in his third season there, so I could see it. The roster is starting to come together for Nevada to be legitimate Mountain West contenders, which means they'd be NCAA Tournament contenders, which means they'd be a Top 25 contender. Coach Alford has rebuilt the roster nicely while maintaining a solid club in his first two seasons at Nevada. But next year should bring the Wolf Pack to the next level. There will be a lot more proven depth in 2020-21 as Nevada doesn't lose a single player from this year's roster, at least not one it doesn't want to lose (more on that later).

Honestly, there haven't been any major surprises. This is basically what I thought Nevada would be, the fifth- or sixth-best team in the Mountain West. San Diego State and Boise State are a clear tier I. Colorado State and Utah State are tier II. And Nevada is either at the bottom of tier II or the top of tier III with Wyoming and UNLV, a team we still don't know a ton about given its three-week pause. I voted Nevada sixth in my preseason MW poll, and I'd put the Wolf Pack fifth now given UNLV's uncertainty. We'll get a better feel for where the Wolf Pack stands after this week's series with San Diego State. A split on the road would make me more bullish on the Wolf Pack. But so far, Nevada has played two of the three worst teams in the MW, so it's hard to tell. Grant Sherfield has been fantastic, so he's been the biggest positive surprise. I figured he'd be good, but not this good. He's averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game on 43.4 percent shooting, including 43.2 percent from three. That's pretty darn close to Jalen Harris' productivity last season. Imagine those two in the same backcourt.

Jeez. That's a lot of stuff.

Final MW standings: 1. SDSU, 2. Boise State, 3. Colorado State, 4. Utah State, 5. Nevada, 6. Wyoming, 7. UNLV, 8. Fresno State, 9. New Mexico, 10. Air Force, 11. SJSU

MW coach/player of the year: Leon Rice, Boise State; Matt Mitchell, SDSU

All-MW team: Matt Mitchell, SDSU; Derrick Alston, Boise State; Grant Sherfield, Nevada; Isaiah Stevens, Colorado State; Bryce Hamilton, UNLV

MW Tournament winner: Boise State

MW's NCAA Tournament teams: San Diego State (seventh seed); Boise State (11th seed)

How far they go: SDSU goes to the Round of 32; Boise State loses in the first round

Desmond Cambridge is a volume scorer, so he needs lots of shot attempts to be effective offensively. I'd keep feeding him and hope he catches fire during the game. He made threes on back-to-back possessions in Saturday's game against New Mexico that lifted Nevada from down one to up five with 3 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the game. He was 1-of-7 from three leading up to those shots. So I think you have to live with the streakiness and let him fire away, ala Malik Story back in the day. And Cambridge adds enough defensively you're going to give him a lot of minutes. I'd prefer Cambridge taking those shots over Kane Milling and Tre Coleman, although Zane Meeks could stand to take more threes. He's averaging just 2.9 3-point attempts per game despite ranking second on the team in 3-point accuracy (37.5 percent). I'd like to see Cambridge attack the hoop more (his free throw rate of 16.1 percent is second worst on the team ahead of only Robby Robinson), but that does not appear to be something that's going to happen. Worth mentioning Cambridge has made 40 percent of his threes over the last six games after a slow start, so he's going to have the green lights to fire away.

Coach Alford is struggling to get quality backup point guard minutes (Kane Milling is more of a shooting guard than a point guard), which is why he's been enthusiastic about Daniel Foster, a 6-foot-6 point guard who was practicing well in training camp before he suffered a shoulder injury. The addition of Foster will take some of the pressure off Grant Sherfield, who is being asked to do a lot right now. I'm always a little leery of overseas players in their freshmen year given how big the jump is, but Coach Alford clearly likes Foster and his toughness, and since I haven't been able to go to practice due to COVID reasons, I'll take his word for it. Once he's cleared to play, Foster is going to be given the chance to get 15-20 minutes a night as the team's backup point guard if he plays well.

Either this year's team or last year's team, which went 19-12. Last year's Wolf Pack was better, and the advanced metrics will show that, although this year's team could have a better winning percentage (Nevada would need to go 9-7 in its final 16 regular-season games for a better record, barring postseason play). But Coach Alford's crew should rip off 20-win seasons for the foreseeable future, so when Wolf Pack fans look back at Alford's tenures, these first two seasons will likely be the "worst."

The NCAA has granted an additional year of eligibility to 2020-21 fall and winter sport athletes, ostensibly giving players six years to play five seasons rather than the typical five years to play four seasons. In fall sports, seniors who return for an additional year during for the 2021-22 season will not count toward the team’s scholarship limit. If the NCAA uses the same plan for winter sport athletes, and I imagine they will, that doesn't impact the Wolf Pack's max scholarship count in 2021-22 because Nevada doesn't have any scholarship seniors on its roster. Thus, Nevada currently has 15 scholarship players next season for the maximum 13 scholarship spots. That means two scholarship players on this year's roster with remaining eligibility will be sent packing after the additions of Addison Patterson (Oregon transfer) and Will Baker (Texas transfer). It's the cruddy part of the business and a big reason why players should be able to transfer without having to sit out a season. Most teams over-recruit these days, but I do feel badly for the players who will have to go, especially since they were all recruited by the current staff rather than being holdovers from a previous staff that just didn't fit.

I don't want to publicly kick a player off the team during the middle of the season, so I'm not going to go there other than to say: (a) there are a couple obvious options and (b) Khristion Courseault is a walk-on, so being two over the scholarship limit next season does not include him. I also wonder if Nevada signee Nick Davidson could reconsider his commitment considering how loaded the Wolf Pack frontcourt is in the future with Warren Washington, Will Baker, K.J. Hymes, Zane Meeks and DeAndre Henry all having at least two more years of eligibility at Nevada after this season, not to mention Robby Robinson. Not a lot of projected playing time up front for a freshman big man unless Davidson plans on playing the three, which seems unlikely.

Nevada entered the 2021 recruiting class with one available scholarship and has added four players, so I would not completely rule out the Wolf Pack adding more players. But I would guess that doesn't happen. Coach Alford had a previous relationship with Will Baker that made his recruitment a no-brainer. The roster is pretty well set for the future with the following depth chart.

* Point guard: Grant Sherfield/Daniel Foster/Jalen Weaver

* Shooting guard: Desmond Cambridge Jr./Kane Milling/Alem Huseinovic

* Small forward: Addison Patterson/Tre Coleman

* Power forward: Zane Meeks/DeAndre Henry/Nick Davidson/Robby Robinson

* Center: Warren Washington/Will Baker/K.J. Hymes

I could see an all-transfer starting lineup with Sherfield, Cambridge, Patterson, Washington and Baker. The Eric Musselman model is alive and well in Reno!

I posted my projected starting lineup above, but you're looking at a solid 10-player rotation, with nine of those guys having at least two years remaining at Nevada starting with the 2021-22 season. So the rebuilding of the roster is going well. If Nevada isn't a MW championship and NCAA Tournament contender in 2020-21, it will be by 2021-22.

The stats from his one season at Texas aren't eye-popping considering he scored more than three points in only two of 23 games and shot 27.5 percent from the field, including 6-of-39 from three (15.4 percent). But he was getting limited playing time and bigs tend to take longer to develop, so I wouldn't read too much into the stats. Given how Nevada's recent transfers have gone, I'd rather take top-100 recruits from Power 5 schools who weren't producing great numbers over guys from low-major schools who were statistically great. I'd bet on the prep pedigree and my developmental program to get the most of those guys. Nevada is deep enough in the frontcourt it can afford to take a miss on Baker if that's the end result. But the ceiling is really high if it's a hit. And Coach Alford has shown he wants to play two bigs, so there's room for Warren Washington, Will Baker and K.J. Hymes on the same roster. Nevada will probably try and turn Baker into its version of Thomas Welsh, who Alford coached at UCLA.

Robby Robinson is still on the Wolf Pack roster and has appeared in 10 of the team's 11 games, averaging 13.4 minutes per contest. The issue has been the offense. Robinson is averaging one point per game on 4-of-19 shooting (21.1 percent), and Nevada is much deeper in the frontcourt this season than last year when Robinson started every game. The Wolf Pack has a four-man frontcourt rotation that includes Warren Washington and K.J. Hymes at center and Zane Meeks and DeAndre Henry at power forward. Henry has basically leapfrogged Robinson for the backup power forward minutes. The freshman is averaging 2.6 points in 6.7 minutes per game while making 10-of-15 shots (66.7 percent). Nevada is opting for Henry's offense over Robinson's defense. Henry has Nevada's best offensive rating (Robinson the worst) while Robinson has Nevada's best defensive rating (Henry the second worst).

Nevada is 4-3 but the four wins are over NAIA William Jessup (by one point), Division II school Fresno Pacific (by four points) and twice over Sac State, which is 0-5 with the Hornets' average loss in non-Nevada games coming by 20.3 points. The Wolf Pack's three games against non-Sac State D-I teams have been losses of 15, 19 and 11 points. This is to say the 4-3 record is deceiving. The Mountain West isn't very strong in women's basketball, so Nevada could finish a little below .500 in league play, which has been its average finish in its first three seasons under coach Amanda Levens. Nevada has finished seventh in the MW in each season with a 7-11 conference record. My guess is the Wolf Pack ends a little worse this season. The team's chemistry seems better and Coach Levens is good at developing players, so the Wolf Pack should improve, but this feels like a true rebuilding season. Nevada is currently ninth out of 11 MW teams in the NET rankings. The team's next series is home against San Diego State, although the Aztecs had to cancel their last series due to COVID-19 contact tracing, so keep an eye on whether that series, scheduled to start Thursday, gets canceled. SDSU (2-6) is one of the poorer teams in the conference, so that's a chance for Nevada to at least get a home split, if not a sweep. Getting swept would be a bad sign.

The counterargument is high-major schools would have more financial might to bring back more of its seniors and go above the scholarship limit whereas mid-major schools would not be able to afford that. I don't think the additional year of eligibility will benefit one side more than the other.

It appears as if Kellen Moore turned down the job to stay on the NFL head-coaching path, so my guess is the Broncos hire former Boise State linebacker and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, who is in his second season as Oregon's defensive coordinator. I said last year I would have hired Avalos if I was UNLV's athletic director, so I'm high on him. Boise State just hired an athletic director, Baylor's Jeramiah Dickey, on Saturday, so the coaching search has been delayed a little and should wrap up in the next week. The Broncos were in the odd position of not having a full-time athletic director while having a vacancy at head football coach. But Avalos is the favorite.

As for my 2021 MW football predictions, I took a stab at that to start my last Mailbag, although that was before Boise State's Bryan Harsin left for Auburn. And we still don't know which MW seniors will return for their additional year of eligibility. Until we get that information, it's an incomplete picture. But Nevada should be one of the league's top three teams, at worst, given what it has returning.

Wolf Pack athletics owed $5.9 million to the university before the pandemic and was expected to add $10 million-plus in debt due to COVID-19. And that's after the president's office took over $8.25 million of historic debt/deferral last fiscal year. That's a ton of red. So, I don't expect many facility builds in the near future unless a major donor steps up with a $5 million-plus offering, which is what would be required to kickstart the indoor practice facility project. I could see minor improvements with the school's baseball and softball facilities in the next couple of years, but I don't see major initiatives on the horizon unless an angel investor steps up.

Padgett hasn't coached since 2017-18 when he was Louisville's interim head coach as he's gotten into financial advising with some broadcasting, so I don't think that's a fit.

Here's a recap of the Martin twins' situation, which was clearly instigated by James Johnson, who you don't want to mess with given his background in karate. I could see fining the twins in this situation given both made contact with a ref (although the official appears to make first contact to hold them back). Caleb also sprinted across the court, which could have led to some fist-a-cuffs if an opponent thought he was coming with a vengeance. Caleb extended the fracas with some verbal sparring. While Johnson instigated it, the Martins prolonged it, so I see why they were fined even if it was harmless. While a combined $45,000 is relative chump change for NBA players (it was about 1.4 percent of their salary), that's a ton of money for people who grew up in a mobile home with almost nothing. Imagine telling teenage Martin twins they'd one day be fined $45,000. That'd be mind-blowing for them. They just bought their mom a car, probably for less money than that fine. Could have gotten another car with that money!

As for your second question, Christmas movies are mostly awful and I enjoy pineapple on a pizza, so I do not think pineapple on pizza is a Christmas movie since it's a good thing in my book and Christmas movies are typically bad things. If pineapple on pizza was a Christmas movie, it'd be 1994's The Santa Clause, which is to say it'd be solid but not spectacular.

Will any pitcher stay healthy for a full season? A pitcher's health can be a crapshoot, Darvish more so than others because of his injury history. But he did pitch full seasons in 2012, 2013, 2017 and 2019, so he has some history of going 180-plus innings. I liked the deal for the Padres as long as they see it through and let this core play together for three or four years rather than pulling the plug financially if 2021 doesn't go well. San Diego didn't give up any top prospects in the Cubs deal. It was a bunch of guys three to five years away from a potential major-league debut. I like seeing organizations trying to improve their teams, which is a rarity these days. The Cubs are good example. Maybe the Ricketts spent all their money on the election, but that team, and the entire NL Central, is a joke with their cost-cutting ways this offseason. Kudos to the Padres for trying to improve to catch the Dodgers, although I doubt that happens. Even with these recent moves, I'd rather have the Dodgers' rotation of Walker Buehler, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin over the Padres' rotation Darvish, Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack and Adrian Morejon. The Dodgers have the edge in position players, too. But the gap has certainly closed with these Padres deals.

I was surprised by the double-dip simply because the Padres have not hit this level with its payroll before. Adding Snell and Darvish puts the Padres' projected payroll around $157 million, the fourth largest in baseball behind the Dodgers, Yankees and Angels (Ha! Ha! So much money, so few wins). After losing Mike Clevinger to Tommy John surgery, I figured the Padres would add one frontline starter, either via trade or by signing Trevor Bauer. I didn't expect the Padres to pony up for two frontline starters. The move make them the second-best team in baseball, behind only the Dodgers. Too bad the teams are more likely to face off in the NLDS than the NLCS given MLB's playoff format.

I don't think they've given up on Lux, although there's clearly some issues since he didn't make the opening day roster and barely played last season. Lots of great players struggle in their first 125 big-league at-bats. Mike Trout hit .220 with a .672 OPS in his first 135 plate appearances. He ended up all right. I'm not saying Lux is going to be Trout, but he's still a top-level prospect who I don't see the Dodgers getting rid of any time soon. If they do add DJ LeMahieu, it will most likely be at the expense of Justin Turner returning for another season. I still see Lux as the successor to Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor as a multi-position player who gets 120 starts a season, albeit with more offense and less defense than Hernandez (a free agent) or Taylor (one more season with the Dodgers).

Missouri is 7-1, including two wins over Top 25 teams, and is ranked 13th in the nation. There's no shame in losing to a team of that caliber by 13 points, especially since Arkansas just lost its best post player, Justin Smith. The Razorbacks also missed 22 layups, which is uncharacteristic. Arkansas is 9-1. I don't believe Eric Musselman, who was ejected from the Missouri game, will get fired any time soon. I do miss those Musselman press conferences, though.

As for Boise State-San Jose State, that one makes no sense. The Broncos won the first game in that series by 52 points before needing a putback while down one with 14 seconds remaining to win the second game. And that was a couple days after Seneca Knight, SJSU's best returning player, opting out of the season and entering the transfer portal. But the Spartans hit 14 threes, including seven from Richard Washington, and any team that gets that hot from three can be dangerous.

I haven't spoken to Coach Norvell since minutes after the bowl game but plan on calling him this week and will put that on my list of questions. Hopefully it was nothing serious. It's going to be the Toa Taua and Devonte Lee show at running back next season (and both have an additional year of eligibility in 2022 if they want it), but Avery Morrow does seem like the future at the position.

Good question, and I'd put my money on the South running the 5A table in the 2020s. If a Northern team is going to break through, it's almost certainly going to be Bishop Manogue, which has some of the same advantages in Reno as Bishop Gorman has in Las Vegas, albeit on a smaller scale. Miners coach Ernie Howren deserves to win a state title at some point in his career, so I hope I'm wrong but I see the South remaining dominant.

North Valleys? The Panthers last made the playoffs in 2010 when they went 2-8 overall and 2-6 in league and lost to McQueen, 42-20, in the playoffs' first round. Also looks like Dayton hasn't been to the playoffs since 2010, so we might have a tie.

I addressed that in a story here, but it doesn't look like a great sign Nevada high schools will play basketball or wrestling this year. I would also put football, which is scheduled to start practice Feb. 13 and games March 5, in the endangered category.

I'll go 25 percent for basketball and 50 percent of football. We need to get that vaccine train moving a lot quicker than it has so far.

The MAC played two non-conference games this season, both bowls. Buffalo beat Marshall, 17-10, and Ball State beat San Jose State, 34-13. That's cool but not some massive achievement.

The Mighty Lizards started with a men's and women's soccer program last season and plays in the Scenic West Conference, which offers men's and women's basketball. Included in TMCC's project was the construction of a gym within the fitness center, and athletic director Tina Ruff said there might be an opportunity for a gym sport like wrestling or volleyball down the road when I spoke to her when the soccer teams were launched in September 2018. Basketball fits that mold of a "gym sport." I'd like to see basketball. We have a good amount of basketball talent come through Northern Nevada, although few are Division I caliber. So a local landing spot at the junior-college level would be great. I wouldn't say TMCC basketball is in the plans, especially given the financial impact of COVID-19, but I wouldn't rule it out long term. For me, it'd be the most logical next sport to add. While football would be awesome, that's just too expensive.

Quarterbacks who played in NFL games yesterday: John Wolford, Chris Streveler, Matt Barkley, Mason Rudolph, P.J. Walker, Stanley Clark, Mike Glennon, Chad Henne, C.J. Beathard and Brandon Allen, who went 6-of-21 for 48 yards and two interceptions. And I only made one of those names up. If you look at that list and still think Colin Kaepernick hasn't been blackballed, you're not very smart.

That's a "no" for me, although it does give me the chance to post this video. Check out the 16-second mark.

All right. I've drunk too much water while writing this Mailbag up and need to go pee in my UroClub, so I'll see y'all next week!

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to write. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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