When the Nevada women’s basketball team suited up for a practice last weekend, head coach Amanda Levens told her players to put on their uniforms. Not their practice uniforms. Their real ones.
The Wolf Pack is wearing new Adidas jerseys after the switch from Nike last season, but the rationale behind wearing the real uniforms for a practice was bigger than that. Levens’ team, her second at Nevada, is young. Really young. Five-freshmen-in-the-rotation young. Levens wanted her newcomers to get a game-day feel, a desire hastened because the Wolf Pack did not play an exhibition game this preseason.
“People have asked me, ‘What do you think for this season? How many games are you going to win?’” Levens said. “Honestly, I have no idea.”
The Wolf Pack, picked to finish seventh out of 11 teams in the preseason Mountain West poll, opens the season Wednesday when it hosts the Pac-12’s Utah, one of four home games this season against a Power 5 opponent (the game, which tips at 6:30 p.m., will air on Nevada Sports Net). After a hugely successful season in Levens’ first campaign – the Wolf Pack went from 11 to 19 wins and to the brink of the NCAA Tournament – how good Nevada will be this season is anybody’s guess, even among those in the program.
“We have super old and super young,” said junior guard Camariah King, one of the upperclassmen leading the Wolf Pack. “The older players are trying to win a championship before we get out of here and the younger players just have to grow up and meet us at our standards.”
Nevada’s roster has an interesting split. The group includes six true freshmen and seven juniors/seniors. That nearly even split has the elder statesman shooting for lofty goals while the younger players climb the learning curve. If Nevada is going to approach the accomplishments the team neared last season, the freshmen must play a big role.
“They definitely need to be a big piece to the puzzle,” said Levens, who admitted she must be patient with the group. “We definitely need them to do a little bit of everything. They’re athletic, very talented and skilled. They’re learning how to do things hard every single time on every single possession. I think learning how to be consistent is their biggest obstacle right now. When they’re good, they're very good and we’ll need them to do a lot this season.
“I have to sit back and catch myself and say, ‘You know what? They’re freshmen. They’re learning.' But at the same time it’s a thin line of making excuses and holding them to high standards and understanding today they just don’t have it and need a little more love today than accountability. As coaches, you have to take a step back and figure out, ‘What do they really need from me today.’”
The Wolf Pack roster underwent some unexpected changes this offseason. Two key players – AJ Cephas and Janelle Sumilong – were dismissed following DUI arrests. And one of the team’s most lauded freshmen, Kailee Oliverson, returned home to Montana after suffering two concussions in a five-day period while practicing with Nevada this summer. She doesn’t expect to return to Reno.
That doesn’t mean Nevada is without talent, although much of that talent is unproven. The Wolf Pack’s miracle run at last season's MW Tournament fell one basket short as Nevada lost to Boise State, 62-60, on a buzzer-beater in the championship game. Only three of the eight Wolf Pack players who appeared in that title game remain on the roster and they’ll be counted on to lead this young squad.
Guards Jade Redmon (8.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and King (9.6 ppg, 2.6 apg) and forward Terae Briggs (8.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg) are those three players and Kristin Dearth (1.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg) adds a fourth experienced player. But the season could hinge on how much the six freshmen (one is a walk-on) are ready to contribute.
“It’s been a long summer and a long preseason, but I feel like they’re ready to play and they’ve just been putting in the extra work outside of practice,” Briggs said. “I’m excited to see how they do on the court.”
Those freshmen include guards Da'Ja Hamilton, Essence Booker and Amaya West and forwards Emma Torbert, Imani Lacy and Kaelei Koenig, who combined are the best recruiting class, on paper, in school history. Part of Levens’ recruiting pitch to them was the ability to play a lot of minutes as freshman, although she didn’t anticipate them getting quite as many minutes as they’re going to soak up this year.
“It’s just the way things have shaken out, but when we recruited them we told them we recruited them to come here and play and make an impact,” Levens said. “I think that was a big reason they chose Nevada was the opportunity to come in and make a difference and have an opportunity to play right away.”
The Wolf Pack’s departed senior class of Teige Zeller, T Moe, Halie Bergman and Ashlee Jones set the standard for the team last season, which was one of the most memorable in school history, and won’t be easy to replace.
“We had a great senior class that was so tough,” Levens said. “Those guys just got the most out of everything they had.”
While they’re gone, the goal hasn’t changed. Nevada is still looking for the first conference title and NCAA Tournament in program history, with Levens believing the freshman corps she brought in, her first recruiting class, can accomplish that in due time. The question is whether those players can develop quickly enough to help the upperclassmen who are running out of time to win a championship.
Instead of playing an exhibition game, Levens opted for playing two private scrimmages against Division I opponents on the road to prep for the season. The newcomers get their first major spotlight Wednesday but the veterans are still being pushed by last March's near miss at the Big Dance.
“It’s definitely motivation,” King said of the defeat to Boise State. “We’ve used it in preseason, in the spring time. For me, I definitely lost a lot of sleep over that. A lot of motivation.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.