Nevada basketball coach Steve Alford doesn't have any issue playing freshmen.
In fact, he likes it. Yes, there are ups and downs with playing rookies who make the jump from high school to college. The first season can be rough. But Alford and his top lieutenant, Craig Neal, run a developmental program, and there's no better teacher than experience.
So as Nevada prepares for its 2020-21 season opener Wednesday against Western Kentucky in Lincoln, Neb., you can expect to see a lot of minutes being doled out to the Wolf Pack's four freshmen, including Tre Coleman, Daniel Foster, DeAndre Henry and Alem Huseinovic. Alford just can't put a finger on which one of those four could make the biggest impact this season.
"If you ask me that today it will change tomorrow and change the next day because they're freshmen," Alford said on Mountain West media day. "But I have been very impressed with them, and I think you're going to see all the freshmen on our roster get a chance to make a difference. We have some depth right now, but it's young depth. We have very little experience.
"We really only have one starter coming back in Robby Robinson, who started most of the games last year. We don't have a lot of scoring coming back. We have a lot of question marks with some really good players who sat out (via transfer) and get to play. But they haven't played in over a year. So those freshmen are going to get a chance to play, and all of them have done a really good job to start the season."
Unlike during his time at UCLA, Alford is not recruiting four- and five-star prospects to Nevada. Of the Wolf Pack's four freshmen, only Coleman was rated a three-star prospect. Foster, Henry and Huseinovic were each unrated prospects by 247Sports, although Alford has pooh-poohed recruiting rankings.
Henry, a 6-foot-8 forward, and Huseinovic, a 6-4 shooting guard, played together on an elite high school team in Phoenix that played a national schedule, so they might be a little more advanced that your typical freshman. The 6-7 Coleman was an Indiana All-Star and plays a position of need for the Wolf Pack on the wing, so he could be in line for the most minutes. And the 6-6 Foster is a versatile option who can play multiple position. Alford has raved about his freshmen's dedication.
"I like how hard they work, and I like how they just want to get better," Alford said. "They watch film, they listen, they want to get better. They just have to go through some experiences. Maybe it helps being in a pandemic being a young player and when you go on the road there aren't going to be a lot of fans. Maybe that's a positive. Trying to find a positive out of the situation. We just have to get some experience out of our young players. But I do like the makeup of our team. It's just going to take a while."
All four of the freshmen have been practicing with the Wolf Pack since the summer, but they won't have the normal ramp-up to a season, which typically includes playing two preseason games (or one exhibition and one private scrimmage against a Division I opponent). Those games have been canceled this year due to COVID-19, so the freshmen will make their debuts Wednesday in the regular-season opener rather than working out the kinks beforehand.
"Coaches usually get an exhibition game, two exhibition games or a scrimmage where you get young players or inexperienced players or guys who had to sit out last year, kind of our team to a T, they get that experience," Alford said. "Some of them, I've had teams before where we tell them to sub and they don't go check in. They just run in like it's an AAU game because they're nervous and haven't experienced that before. We don't get that this year. We're going to tip it off on the 25th, and that's the first time. You're probably going to see some interesting games on TV in late November to start the season just because of inexperience."
Nevada has been practicing more often at Lawlor Events Center than the Ramon Sessions Performance Center leading into the season to get its players used to playing in a large empty gym, which will be the reality at least for the early portion of the season.
"Coaches always try to generate enthusiasm in practice and noise," Alford said. "Now it's almost the flip. You're tying to practice in a 10,000-seat arena and make it as quiet as you possibly can because that looks like what we're going to play in for most of the season. Odd times, different times, but I hope we can still in college basketball as administrators and coaches make this as enjoyable a process as possible for the student-athletes. It's all about them, and hopefully as an organization we can stay as healthy as we can and get as many games in as we can."
While Alford can't predict which one of his freshmen could have the best season given their inconsistencies in practice, you can bet each will be in the Wolf Pack's rotation despite an uneven offseason that has impacted how Nevada has prepared for its season.
"Coach Neal and I have been doing it a long time and we like how our blueprint looks," Alford said. "Your blueprint, no matter how much you like it, gets disrupted this way. It's not just your normal game plan anymore of how you go about day-to-day business. One of the things I think we do well in our program is how we communicate to our players, how much we're around our players and because of the pandemic you have to be sensitive to that."
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.