Fans of the Nevada women's basketball team might want to check their roster cards a few times before the start of the season.
The Wolf Pack underwent massive changes this offseason, with five rotation players, including the team's top two players, transferring out of the program and being replaced with an eight-player recruiting class. It was an unprecedented year-over-year turnover for the program, but fourth-year coach Amanda Levens believes the team is better off for it.
Levens, who is 46-52 overall and 21-33 in conference in her first three seasons at Nevada, said she likes her roster's versatility and buy-in after the changes.
"The players that we brought in can all play more than one position," Levens said on last week's Wolf Pack All-Access. "Who they are as people off the court. They're extremely grateful to be at Nevada. They're really coachable. They want to get better. And they really buy in. Just our pulse and vibe has been really, really exciting for our coaching staff."
The Wolf Pack had a poor culture last season, which Levens admitted to over the summer, and that led to the massive roster changes. Essence Booker and Imani Lacy, who ranked first and second on the team in scoring in 2019-20, transferred. So did part-time starters Jena Williams and Miki'ala Maio as well as rotation player Jacqulynn Nakai. Toss in Marguerite Effa's graduation (she was third on the team in scoring and first in rebounding), and this would appear to be a rebuilding season, especially with the lack of a traditional offseason.
"Obviously we have a lot to learn," Levens said. "We missed a lot of our summer season, so we know there's going to be some bumps along the way, but if they continue to show up and work hard and want to be coached and want to learn, we're really, really excited. Also, they're competitive and want to help the team win. We talked about this summer the three things we're looking for in players moving forward, and all of these eight new players check our boxes on the things that are important to us with the players that we bring in."
With players on the roster Levens feels fits the program's culture, the Wolf Pack is hoping overachieve this season. Nevada has finished seventh in the MW in each of Levens' first three seasons, each time going 7-11. The program has done well in the MW Tournament, going 5-3 under Levens in that postseason event with each loss coming in close fashion to the field's top seed (each loss has come by four points or fewer). But Nevada has yet to break through as a top-tier team in the conference in the regular season.
Could that ascension come this season? That's too be determined, but the program felt relief when the NCAA recently announced an official start date for the season (Nov. 25).
"I think a little bit of relief, especially certain players like upperclassmen that maybe this is their last year or their careers are winding down wondering what does it look like for them," Levens said. "I think a lot of players were just really relieved to finally know what exactly the plan is going to be. With the Nov. 25 start date, we also got the first day of practice, which is going to be Oct. 24. I've been coaching long enoug, that used to be when everybody had Midnight Madness. It was always right around Oct. 15. That date was always special. So that still kind of has a special place in my heart."
The Wolf Pack players are currently allowed 12 hours of work per week, including eight on the court. On Oct. 14, that will be ramped up to 20 hours of activity per week. With so many new faces, Levens will take whatever court time she's allowed to get her team ready for the season.
"For us, there's so many new players there's a lot to learn with everything we want to do offensively and defensively," Levens said. "Our two international players, one just got cleared last week, so she has not trained with us at all until last week. The other hopefully will be cleared this week. We're just trying to manage everybody being on different timelines and manage people that are in very different points of their fitness."
Despite the departures, the Wolf Pack does return some experience, including Nia Alexander (6.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Da'Ja Hamilton (6.2 ppg, 2.0 apg), Amaya West (4.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Alyssa Jimenez (3.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg) and Dom Phillips (6.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg), who is returning from a serious knee injury. Those five will form the core of the team with the additions being asked to contribute immediately. Among those newcomers are locals Kenna Holt, a true freshman from Bishop Manogue, and former Churchill County star Leta Otuafi, who played for Utah State Eastern last season.
Levens has been happy with her team's approach this offseason.
"Our first few weeks back together, just the energy and the feel of it was unbelievable, not just for the players but for the coaching staff," Levens said. "It makes you really appreciate every single day. With COVID still looming, it's very possible you could get shut down or if somebody is contact traced, they may have to go into quarantine. So I think for us, we're still trying to make the most of every day because it is still a little bit uncertain with it still being around and possible. We're weekly testing, so every time you do the weekly test, you're hoping everybody comes back negative so you can just continue doing what you're doing. For us, we're not taking anything for granted right now."
To avoid a COVID outbreak, the Wolf Pack players have to go through a daily assessment, a temperature check and get weekly tests, which will ramp up to three tests a week once the season begins.
"It's not a very comfortable test, so kudos to everybody who has toughened that out on a weekly basis," Levens said. "And outside of school and the athletic participation, we are really asking them to be very mindful of what they do on their own, who they're hanging out with, even eating at restaurants and different things. Always be in a mask, always be social distant, just be very mindful of their interactions with people who aren't being tested weekly. You can imagine for this social age group of 18 to 23 year olds, this is a big adjustment. I give a lot of props to our players for being disciplined and really sacrificing a lot of things they would normally be doing at their age in order for us to try and help us have a season."
Entering her fourth season at Nevada, the Wolf Pack might not appear primed for a breakthrough given the roster turnover. But after going 15-16 last season, including 7-11 in the MW, the Wolf Pack will try and get back over .500 after back-to-back seasons under the break-even mark. With Levens' record-breaking contract running through the 2022-23 season, she's excited about the future, which includes being led by a new university president in former Nevada governor Brian Sandoval.
"Just complete enthusiasm," Levens said of Sandoval's hiring. "We actually have a head coaches and administrations text string, and it was just blowing up from the news. Everybody is thrilled. Obviously to have his wife as a former student-athlete and somebody who's been here and gone through the process that we're trying to go through, just that insight and knowledge is really exciting. Obviously having an alum, one of your own, come back and strengthen your Wolf Pack family is really, really exciting."
You can watch Levens' full Wolf Pack All Access interview below.