Steve Alford had taken over five college basketball programs before landing the Nevada job in April, but none had the same feel as becoming the head coach of the Wolf Pack.
“It’s been interesting for sure,” Alford said with a smile when reflecting on his first 100 days as Nevada's head coach.
That 100-day marker comes Friday, and Alford is pleased with what he’s been able to accomplish so far, a list of achievements that includes luring his childhood friend and long-time assistant Craig Neal onto the staff; putting together a non-conference schedule that includes two home games against Pac-12 opponents; and, most importantly, piecing together a roster that at one point included zero players.
That lack of a roster is what made this takeover different for Alford. The Wolf Pack lost its entire starting five to graduation and the eight players eligible to return to the team this season each put their name in the transfer portal.
“It’s gone by extremely fast, trying to find a home while my wife is trying to sell a home in Calabasas,” Alford told Nevada Sports Net. “We’re separated right now just trying to make the transition, so that’s been a little hard because we’re such a close family, but the people here have been incredible, the people at the university have been incredible to make the transition as smooth as it’s been because we had to hire a completely new staff and when you take over a program – and really about 90 percent of the team is in the portal or had graduated – you spend a lot of time recruiting your own team first, so we kind of missed out – Coach Neal and me and the staff – we kind of missed out on the April recruiting period for the most part because of what needed to take place here with the current team. In June and July, we’ve been able to get momentum and get caught back up for the 2020 class.”
Alford said Nevada has been “very fortunate” with the roster it has put together for the 2019-20 season, which kicks off Nov. 5 against Utah. The group includes only three players who have logged a minute for Nevada in senior guards Lindsey Drew, Jazz Johnson and Nisré Zouzoua. Drew (Achilles/hip) and Johnson (shoulder) are both returning from surgeries and were just recently fully cleared for practice. Alford is confident in the Wolf Pack’s backcourt, which also includes Louisiana Tech transfer Jalen Harris.
“Just a lot of new guys,” Alford said of the roster. “Obviously Lindsey has had some experience playing, Jazz has had some experience playing and that’s really where the experience ends. Jalen was sitting out. He’s an extremely talented guard. There’s that unknown of not having experience here yet, although he’s had two years of college basketball under his belt. He’s still a transfer who sat out. Lindsey is coming off an injury. Jazz is coming off a late-season injury. So you have a lot of question marks. Nis’ role has to expand.
"The thing I’ve been most impressed with is how hard they compete and a lot of guys haven’t had a chance to play yet and you see that hunger. That’s exciting for our staff. I think the talent is there. The experience is not. So we have to do a really good job in the non-league with a really demanding schedule when we tip off with a Pac-12 opponent. It’s a very demanding schedule. Usually the exhibition season doesn’t take on as much importance as it will this year and we have to solidify that schedule. Those two games will really help us a lot. We just have to get guys game experience because we don’t have a roster with a lot of guys who have college basketball experience.”
Alford has added six scholarship players since being hired in April, with four of them being frontcourt players, which was the biggest need when he got the job. Two of those six additions are Division I transfers who must sit out this season under NCAA rules. Nevada has one remaining scholarship open, which Alford said the team can be more judicious with after filling so many spots early just to field a full roster.
“Two months ago, we had about six of those available, so we had a lot of concerns building the roster,” Alford said. “We weren’t building from an area of strength. In recruiting, you try and operate from a strength side from a coaching standpoint where you become very selective. It’s more than filling a roster. Everything we do in recruiting is about building our culture and making sure the culture is right. You’re concerned about the academic side, you’re concerned about who you are as a person, you’re concerned about who you are as a teammate. Our culture is first and foremost. But two months ago, we had to make sure we could find guys who could fit that culture. Now we just have one and we can sit back and see what’s going to be the best scenario. We’re not going to rush. We’re not in a hurry.”
Unlike some previous stops, Alford doesn’t have to build a winning culture at Nevada. The Wolf Pack has won 28, 29 and 29 games in the last three seasons, capturing four Mountain West titles in the process. Nevada also is coming off three straight NCAA Tournament berths, but those accomplishments were largely won by players no longer on the roster. With those players gone, there’s new opportunity for Nevada's returning cast.
“It’s like, ‘It’s my turn now,’” Alford said of his players' mindset. “There’s a lot of good to that, but we have to put it all together and harness that and put it into a system that both offensively and defensively make a lot of sense. You have to give your players the best chance to be successful. We’ve got the numbers now. We’re finally playing five-on-five, which is positive, but I like where we’re progressing. We have a great group of guys who are really working. Just a lot of newsness. New trainer. New academic advisor. Just a lot of newsness to the program that everybody is going through this adjustment period this summer.”
Alford credited coach Eric Musselman, who left for Arkansas to open the job at Nevada, for creating a buzz he is being tasked with maintaining. Alford isn't new to the MW. In six seasons at New Mexico, Alford won six MW titles and reached three NCAA Tournaments. His teams finished in the final AP Top 25 three times, and at Nevada he’ll try and recapture that magic for a program looking to stay at the national level.
“Now it’s about continuing to put a product on the court that from an entertainment standpoint your fans appreciate,” Alford said. “That’s the style of play, that’s obviously winning and it’s also how the players conduct themselves, how they represent themselves, how they represent Nevada and the community of Reno. We want to be that front porch type of deal where we look the part. It’s not about promising number of wins or promising number of championships. Those things happen when the product matches that.
“Yes, this is a transitional year, a lot of question marks, a lot of high expectations, but truth be told there are a lot of question marks. And we know we’re going to put our best foot forward. When it’s the long haul, you’re building towards the future and that future starts right now. I don’t know where that projects, but I know things are in a really good spot right now and now we’re trying to maintain that.”
Alford, who signed a fully guaranteed 10-year, $11.6 million contract, also inherits a hungry fan base. The Wolf Pack has set per-game record attendance marks in each of the last three seasons, peaking at 10,852 fans per game last season. With an inexperience team, Alford said it’s not ideal to start with a Pac-12 opponent like Nevada will this season when it faces Utah, but he’s looking forward to his first game as the head coach at Lawlor Events Center.
“That’s not your most typical opener, especially with a new team,” Alford said of facing Utah. “We really rolled the dice on that and that’s about the only time Utah could return the home-and-home. It’s not ideal, but we’ve turned it into ideal. Our players are jacked about it, our coaches are jacked about it. I’m obviously coming from the Pac-12. Two of our first four games are against Pac-12 teams, and I told them we want the fire marshal there. We want him standing there counting heads. With all that’s happened over the last three years and the momentum the program has, now there’s a head coaching change, a staff change, players have changed, let’s see if we can take 10,800 fans to 11,800 and get the largest crowd Lawlor has ever seen.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.