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Broken culture: Inside the rash of departures from Nevada women's basketball

Essence Booker
Essence Booker was Nevada's leading scorer last season but decided to transfer to Ball State. (NCAA photos)

When the Nevada women’s basketball team gathered for its team photo a couple of weeks prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, nobody knew just how different the picture would look a few months later.

The first sign came in July when two Nevada assistant coaches quit, the first one (Sybil Dosty) leaving for a job outside of basketball and the second (Shannon Gholar) heading to Cal in a non-coaching role.

Shortly after that team photo was taken, before Nevada had played its first regular-season game, two key players left the team: Emma Torbert, who was coming off a strong freshman season, and Mikayla Christian, a TCU transfer and former four-star recruit. That would not be the end of the exodus.

After Nevada’s up-and-down season, which ended with a 15-16 record and seventh-place Mountain West finish, four Wolf Pack players entered the transfer portal in a six-day period, including the team’s top scorer, Essence Booker. Two weeks later, two more players entered the portal, both of whom started at least half of Nevada’s games, including the team’s second-leading scorer, Imani Lacy. In all, three starters departed as did three players who were fringe top-100 high school recruits via ESPN coming out of high school.

In an eight-month period, the Wolf Pack lost two assistant coaches and eight players, seven of which entered the transfer portal with one quitting. Six of those seven players eventually earned Division I scholarships at other schools while the seventh – LaPraisjah Johnson, who played in seven games last season – came back to Nevada for her senior season after entering the portal. Each of the coaches and players were either hired or recruited by head coach Amanda Levens, so it wasn’t a matter of swapping out a roster after a coaching change. At the heart of the departures was a culture Levens openly admits is poor.

Over the last three weeks, Nevada Sports Net has reached out to 17 players who have been a part of Levens’ program the last three seasons to get a better understanding of the issues below the surface. Of the 14 players who spoke to NSN, including several who requested anonymity as they attempt to get hardship waivers to play immediately at their new schools, eight said they had a generally poor experience playing under Levens; four said their experience was up and down but favorable; and two said they had a great experience. NSN also spoke with three Wolf Pack coaches, including Levens for 70 minutes.

In total, the 17 interviews, which spanned nearly 15 hours, painted a picture of discord that led to the unprecedented exodus over the last year. Players described their experience as “miserable,” “overly dramatic,” “suffocating,” “mentally draining” and “manipulative” while feeling a general lack of trust and communication with the staff. None of the players alleged illegal behavior and most said they believed Levens was well intended. But almost all of them left Nevada because of how they felt they were being treated.

“I love Reno and wish I was still there,” one player said. “But it was better for me as a person and better for me mentally to leave. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’m excited about basketball again, and I was never excited about basketball at Nevada, which is weird because of how much I loved basketball when I went there. I’m a lot happier now. I feel so much better and more positive.”

Added another: “I literally loved everything about Reno except how I was being coached and how I was treated. Being a student-athlete, that’s all you do is play basketball and go to school, play basketball and go to school. Because basketball was the majority of my life in college, I needed to be happy in that area or everything else is going to be miserable. And that’s how I felt. It really took everything in me to go to Amanda and tell her, ‘I really don’t want to be here anymore,’ because I loved everything else about Reno. If somebody asked me about playing at Nevada, I’d tell them I loved everything about Reno except for how the coaches handled things and went about things.”

A poor experience was not uniform as a couple of Levens' former players said they enjoyed their time, the tough coaching and the strict rules in place. Teige Zeller was one of those players. She played one season for Levens, in 2017-18, and said it was her favorite year of college.

Zeller provided NSN a three-page letter of support for Levens that read in part: “I felt nothing but love and respect from Amanda and the rest of the staff at Nevada. I had many reasons to love and respect them back – their unity, professionalism and care to name a few. I loved Amanda’s vision for our team and the women’s basketball program at Nevada.”

Levens admits culture issues

Since Levens was hired in March 2017, the Wolf Pack has had 16 players not finish their eligibility. Some have quit. Some have been dismissed. Some have entered the transfer portal. Some, including two starters, were told their scholarships were not being renewed. Some were walk-ons who didn’t earn playing time and transferred down. Parsing through a roster when taking over a program is not abnormal, especially when inheriting a program like the Nevada women’s basketball team, which has rarely won.

What is less rare is what has happened over the last year as Levens’ hand-picked recruits have fled. Of the 14 scholarship players on last year’s team, eight either quit or entered the transfer portal, and they were not all bottom-of-the-roster players. Booker and Lacy were the team’s top two scorers; Torbert and Jená Williams were two of the top-ranked recruits in program history. Some of them could have developed into all-time program greats. The players being counted on to turn the program around were the same ones who left. Why? The players and coaches agree culture was an issue, although they disagree on who has been at the room of the problems.

Levens admits she could not get full buy-in from last year’s roster and said it’s her job to do so.

“I feel like it’s 100 percent my responsibility,” Levens said of fixing the culture. “That’s how I feel. If I was sitting here talking to another head coach, I’d feel like it was their responsibility. I think you have to have great leaders in the locker room. We found out after the season we had big-time key players not saying the right things in the locker room and saying they were going to transfer and how much they hated it. Anytime they had a hard practice, it was things like that. If those are some of your best players saying that, we had three freshmen who were going to be really good and that’s what they’re learning.”

While Levens has taken some of the blame for the departures and spent this spring and summer surveying her players so she can make changes to help cure Nevada’s issues, the former Wolf Pack players almost uniformly said the reason they left had nothing to do with each other. They pointed at Levens.

“The team culture there was really negative, and it wasn’t player driven,” said one player who entered the portal this offseason. “Our team got along really well. I’ve talked to three or four of my former teammates today alone. We still keep in touch and love each other. It was a lot of coaching things that made everything negative. We were asked to do a lot. When I first decided to transfer, my parents said, ‘Maybe Division I just isn’t for you if you think it’s too much.’ I talked to other Division I coaches after being in the portal and was telling them the things we did and they would say, ‘No. You don’t need to do all that stuff. We don’t do all that stuff.’ That gave me reassurance it was that program and not every program.

“Trust me: Nobody wanted to leave because of the players. It was that they didn’t want to play under that coaching staff. As people, I love them. The coaching staff is the reason I went there. But once I got there, they had an atmosphere created by the coaches that made many of us feel miserable.”

Another player who spent multiple seasons under Levens said she was excited when a coaching change was made because the new staff brought a higher intensity and loftier expectations, which led to great success in Levens' first season, including 19 wins (the second most in program history), a run to the Mountain West Tournament title game and an appearance in the WBI semifinal. But the same intensity off the court drove a wedge between the players and staff, several players said.

“I would say Amanda definitely crossed the line outside of coaching,” said a player who played for multiple Division I programs. “In ways that had nothing to do with basketball, she crossed the line 100 percent. Me and multiple other players dreaded going to practice because it was 3 hours of tears with things that didn’t add to basketball or make us better as a team, especially the year all of her players joined the team (2018-19). That was easily the worst season of basketball I’ve ever had. I absolutely hated it. It was mentally and emotionally draining.”

Players could often tell the emotional impact the culture had on their teammates. One player recalled one of their best friends on the team becoming self-destructive while immersed in Nevada’s culture.

“I do think players were mentally affected,” she said. “I watched my friend go from being a very happy person to being very depressed a lot throughout her time at Nevada. When she left the program, she was one of the happiest people I’ve ever seen. She was so happy with where she was in life. She lost a lot of weight after because she used to stress eat. Her leaving Nevada mentally helped her so much, and I do feel like Amanda plays a lot of mental games, and that affected a lot of people in a lot of ways.”

High demands

The most common issues discussed by the players were the litany of off-the-court requirements, which included daily mandatory journals; the writing of sentences, some lasting multiple hours, per players, for things like fouling a jump shooter or forgetting a team core value; having to give up cell phones and computers for extended periods on road trips; having social media feeds monitored (the coaches must follow all accounts) and being asked to change or “unlike” posts; writing essays for punishments (the NCAA recently disallowed physical punishments); 8 to 12 hours of study hall a week; writing pre-practice and pre-game goals and doing individual evaluations after games; and strong suggestions players should go to counseling. While each item individually might not have been a big deal, the accumulation of them, which included structured activities on “off days,” wore players out.

“You feel like you’re getting treated like a child,” said one player, a thought echoed by several others.

The extensive rules, which include no alcohol 48 hours before a game, are not dissimilar from what Levens used as the head coach at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville from 2008-12. Current Nevada assistant coach Jazmin Pitts played for Levens for two seasons at SIUE. Pitts said Levens built a positive culture there with the same formula she’s tried to use at Nevada, and it showed as the team went from five wins to eight to 11 to 18 during Levens’ four season before she left for an assistant job at Arizona State. While some SIUE players had issues with the rules, too, they largely abided by them and gained a greater appreciation for them post-college.

“That culture directly came from Coach Levens,” Pitts said. “There was a lot asked of us and we had to do a lot. Off the court, our schedules were pretty tight. It was a strict environment, but I greatly appreciated it after Coach Levens left, and when I was done playing basketball I realized it made me a more mature adult. When some of our players complain, some of those things you don’t see as an 18, 19, 20 year old. You won’t get it. But when you’re trying to get a job in the work force, you go back to those tools they made us build at 18, 19, 20 years old. I was very appreciative of my experience.”

Halie Bergman played for Levens during the coach’s first year at Nevada and was a grad assistant on last year’s team. She labeled her experience under Levens as “great,” adding her age – she was a 22-year-old senior in her one year playing for Levens – likely played a factor in being able to adapt to stricter rules.

“I played for three different coaches in college and have a pretty good understanding of what college basketball is about,” Bergman said. “She came in and we were held to really, really high standards on the court, off the court, in the classroom, and I liked the structure and felt like those things have shaped who I am today. I think about core values and I still know them, and those things impacted my life.”

Not everybody adapted so well, with a few of the departed players and equally as many players who finished their careers in the program pointing to the requirements as a main reason they didn’t enjoy their time at Nevada. Almost all of the players didn’t like the daily journal entries, although Levens said that rule was put in place so the coaches could learn more about their players.

“For me, the journals were another way to communicate when we don’t talk face to face,” Levens said. “I learned a lot of things about players from those, and I know they’re tedious and many hate them. For me, they’re valuable because we learn information during the season when we’re running around like crazy and don’t have time to sit down and talk to people every day.”

Another point of contention for the players was the counseling, which is offered for free to students at UNR and includes a sports psychologist. About three-quarters of the players who spoke to NSN said they were told to go to counseling, most of whom didn’t want to, although three players said it was helpful.

“We’ve had some severe instances where counseling probably needed to be required, and we are not allowed to require that,” Levens said. “I just think people need to utilize the services. A big part of my responsibility as a head coach is to provide the resources and opportunities for all of our players to be healthy and successful. In counseling services, we had a sports psychologist. If we had a player who had performance anxiety, there are resources for that. We’ve had players who struggled with other mental health issues. I’m not a doctor and don’t want to pretend to be and don’t want to treat and help people in areas I’m not qualified. If there are things I know I can’t help with, I tell them, ‘Please go try this.’”

Camariah King, who played for Levens for two seasons, said she was required to go to counseling for her bad body language in order to return to the team for her junior season. During Levens’ second season, one of the team’s best players wasn’t allowed to practice for a week and missed a game because she refused counseling. Many players felt the counseling was being requested any time a player had a team issue it wanted to bring up with the coaching staff.

“It was requested of me, but I never did it,” said one player. “I felt like it was a personal choice that needed to be made. It was something that was pressured for sure. ‘Have you made your appointment yet? Have you made your appointment yet?’ I didn’t feel like it was her jurisdiction to decide whether I needed to go to counseling. The biggest reason I would have needed counseling would have been because I was having a hard time with the leadership of the team and how I was being treated.”

Added another player: “She pushed us the way you should be pushed physically. Mentally, it was a different story. You need some time to relax and decompress and we never had that. We were babied a lot, and I think it got worse over time being treated like a child. I also think she wanted the best for us. She didn’t want the worst. She was trying to protect us as young adults. She just went about it wrong.”

One area the players thought was excessive was being forced to write sentences, sometimes by showing up to campus at 6 a.m., if they violated a team rule, fouled a jump shooter, didn’t turn in a journal on time or forgot one of the team’s many core values. Several players recalled writing sentences for multiple hours, which soaked up time they had allotted to completing school work.

“We would have these team quizzes and we’d have to write our mantra or certain words and what they meant,” one player said. “If you spelled them wrong, you had to re-write them so many times. That was tough for me because there were 15 lines in this mantra and we had to write it a bunch of times and it took me several hours. We practiced at 6 a.m. and I was writing until 2 a.m. I put off all of my homework to get it done. My hand was killing me. That was one of the times where I was, like, ‘This is not OK.’”

Added another player: “It felt like grade school.”

Levens said the players were exaggerating the amount of time the sentences took to write.

“If you foul a jump shooter in a game, you have to write, ‘I will never ever ever ever ever ever foul a jump shooter again,’” she said. “It starts at 25 and anytime somebody does it again it goes up by five. We got up to 75 this year at the highest. My son can write 25 sentences in 30 minutes, and he’s in third grade.”

Lack of trust and communication

A common theme that irked Nevada’s players was a general lack of trust and communication, both with the coaching staff and Wolf Pack administration when they brought up issues the were struggling with.

One example came in Levens’ first season when Dosty, the assistant coach, took a player to an Alcohol Anonymous meeting. Dosty had struggled with similar issues in her past and thought the meeting would help the player.

“We went to the meeting, it was great, we enjoyed it,” Dosty said. “Afterward, she told me she had drank the night before, which was within 48 hours of the game, which broke a team rule. Amanda called me after the meeting and asked me how it went, and I didn’t want to betray the trust of the player, so I was put in a tough position. But I was honest with everything, and I told her and said, ‘We don’t need to punish her for this. It would be better if we let that go because she told me in confidence and trust.’”

The player was suspended for the first half of the next game, and Dosty said that was a painful situation that broke her trust with the player. Levens said she could not discuss that incident but said if her players tell her assistant coaches one of three things it is the head coach’s responsibility to know.

“One of them is self-harm or harm to another person,” Levens said. “The second thing is something that can be damaging to our culture internally. And the third thing is something that is harmful to us being competitive. Those are my three things because they protect our program.”

Pitts, who has been a graduate assistant and full-time assistant at Nevada under Levens, said she never felt pressured to tell Levens things she learned from players in private. Dosty, however, often felt like she was in a tough position keeping a player’s trust while balancing her job as Levens’ assistant.

“It kind of felt like it was safer for me as an assistant to not have a great relationship with the players because the other coaches didn’t want us to have great relationships with the players,” Dosty said. “It was almost as if by having close relationships with the players we were doing something wrong. Quite often, the conversations I was having with players I had to report back to Amanda what they said and what we talked about. It felt very invasive. It felt icky. It didn’t feel safe. It didn’t feel good.”

Several players said Dosty and Gholar, who left Nevada for Cal’s director of operations job and didn't return a message from NSN, were their most trusted confidants on the staff, so their departure last summer was tough to handle. A general lack of an off-court relationship with Levens was an issue for a number of players who left the program as was the fact players felt like there was nobody they could talk to about issues that would remain private.

“You couldn’t talk to anybody without it being brought back to Amanda unless it was another player,” one player said. “If you went to her with a frustration, she would bring it up in front of the team in practice. People would go to her out of confidence and she would turn around and expose it in front of the whole team. Even when I got there, the girls made it clear not to go to the coaching staff with stuff unless I was comfortable with everybody knowing about it. I learned early not to talk to other coaches.”

T Moe, who led Nevada within a basket of making the NCAA Tournament in Levens’ first season, said she never felt cared for as a person. She said her senior season, despite it being the most on-court success she had at Nevada, was the least favorite of her six college seasons due to the lack of player-coach connection.

“It was a hard year because Amanda didn’t really care for us as actual people,” Moe said. “I will never knock Amanda for her player development or skill training. She’s a great basketball coach in that way. But as far as being there for her players, no. Ninety percent of us are out of state, we don’t have family here. We rely on the team, and I don’t think she did a good job of creating that family atmosphere.”

Zeller had a different perspective, saying the daily journals were an example of how the coaches wanted to learn about their players. She recalled a journal entry she wrote during her senior season.

“I am also so so thankful for all of you,” she wrote. “In all seriousness, I genuinely love coming to talk to y’all in the office and really really appreciate your honest and effective communication. I can’t tell you enough how happy I am to be coached by you. I am so so blessed. Thanks for being awesome. Seriously.”

Returning player Nia Alexander said her time at Nevada has had its ups and down and she honestly didn’t enjoy last season because of the atmosphere inside the program. A transfer, Alexander said Levens showed more interest in her than she received at her previous school.

“She would always ask people how they feel,” Alexander said. “She had us do journals. I didn’t like the journals. They were forced. But she was trying to get inside our head. Whether it was executed or well received is debatable. But I think Amanda really tried. She really tried. She was trying to consider everybody’s feelings. Compared to my last school, Amanda cared a lot more about people’s emotions.”

One of last year’s top players who transferred said the biggest reason she left is because of the lack of a relationship she believed was promised during the recruiting period that simply never developed.

“I know what a tough coach looks like, but I also know what a tough coach who also cares about you genuinely looks like,” the player said. “It was pretty obvious what we had. And I know a lot of people on the team had problems with that. Not the basketball part. But the mental and emotion part.”

Another player who transferred this offseason retold the story of being wooed to remain at Nevada by Levens, who told her she would have an expanded role on the team if she returned. That player eventually entered the transfer portal.

“When I told her I was going to leave, the very first thing she told me was, ‘Who’s even going to recruit you?’ which upset me,” the player said. “It was sad because Amanda and I always had a good relationship, but that made me mad. I know she was going through a lot, but I told her I wanted to thank her for taking a chance on me and helping improve me this year, and she said, ‘Who’s going to recruit you? Who’s going to want you?’ Within 30 minutes of being in the portal, I had two Division I offers.”

Janelle Sumilong played under Levens for one season in 2017-18 and was kicked off the team for having a second Instagram account the staff was not following. Sumilong got a DUI earlier that summer and was on final-strike notice when she broke the dishonesty policy with the second account, according to Levens. Sumilong wrote a note to the Wolf Pack coaches shortly after being dismissed and was disappointed by the result.

“The thing that hurt the most is after I got kicked off the team, I went home and I wrote them all letters,” Sumilong said. “She really is an amazing coach in terms of teaching basketball. I learned so many things. So I wrote them all letters, and Amanda’s was the longest, and I thanked her for kicking me off the team because being held accountable and being forced to be responsible is a big thing I learned. I thanked her and told her I’d always be a fan of the program and none of them even replied.”

Levens said she is trying to listen to players this offseason to make sure they understand she cares.

“If they don’t feel like I care about them, I’m not doing it right,” said Levens, who has agreed to change some team rules after player suggestions. “I’m missing the mark here. For me, this spring and this quarantine has helped because we all have a lot of time to really self-reflect about things we can do better. Obviously I don’t want seven players transferring in a year. I don’t think anybody does.”

A lack of inclusion?

On June 10, Dosty posted a nearly six-minute Instagram video in which she said Nevada lacked an inclusive atmosphere under Levens. Dosty, who played at Tennessee and Arizona State, said Levens told her “people shouldn’t know you’re gay.” Dosty, who had previously coached at three schools, said she had never been told that before by a head coach and didn’t feel like she could be herself at Nevada.

“In the conversation I had, it was presented as if it could be a detriment to me if people knew I was gay, especially for recruiting and if I wanted to get another coaching job or get a ‘step up job,' which are the exact words I remember,” Dosty said. “That I might not be able to get that a ‘step up job' if people knew I was gay. During that conversation, I actually cried. It was extremely hurtful to me because I hadn’t even been aware that was an issue. Amanda was aware of my sexuality when I was hired for the job.”

Levens said that’s not how she remembers the conversation. She denied telling Dosty she couldn’t be openly gay while at Nevada, but she did say they discussed the fact some people are homophobic.

“We’ve had conversations about people who are homophobic,” said Levens, adding she allowed Dosty to dress however she liked during games, too. “When I started coaching, it was, ‘You can’t tell people you’re gay because people will use it against you in recruiting.’ That’s how it started, and we’ve come a long way. We have a long way to go, but it’s really evolved. We did talk about that and how much it’s progressed, but I never told her not to be who she was.”

None of the 14 players who spoke to NSN said they felt pressured to hide their sexual orientation, although Sumilong, who is openly gay, said she had several meetings with the staff about her sexuality.

“I didn’t think it was weird until one of my teammates asked me why I had to keep having those meetings, and I was, like, ‘To be honest, I don’t know,’” Sumilong said. “But I had a lot of meetings about being open about everything and being openly proud. They were always asking me about it and if I was proud about it and happy. It wasn’t negative, but it was odd I had to keep having those meetings when nobody else did.”

Dosty said she also felt a lack of inclusivity on racial issues given the majority of Nevada’s players have been African-American. Levens had one team meeting, multiple players said, in which the team talked about white privilege, and the coach’s overall message was that at Nevada everybody was equal. A number of the black players on the team thought that was a short-sighted view of things given their backgrounds. Dosty was upset the coaches didn't get a chance to talk about the issues as a staff before the team meeting so the black coaches could lend their insight.

“Overall, I believe her heart is in the right place,” Dosty said. “But early on she said she was color blind. I remember telling her, ‘Nobody is color blind unless they’re actually color blind.’ As black people, we celebrate our race. We celebrate our black beauty, and we want people to know we’re black. The thought of, ‘We’re all the same’ is not true. Our experiences are different as black people and that needs to be recognized. People in the world are seeing that, and she’s starting to see it.”

Added a player: “I know a lot of my teammates were upset about it because it did feel like she was saying, ‘All of our races are the exact same, we’re all treated the same. Your background isn’t as important as where you’re at right now,’ and that bothered a lot of teammates because trying to take away their background or trying to minimize what they had gone through hurt a lot of people.”

Levens said her thinking has evolved over the last couple of years and she would approach those conversations differently given her personal growth. According to multiple players, Nevada's administration suggested athletes not kneel during the national anthem after Colin Kaepernick started that movement in 2016. If players wanted to do so, they needed approval from the administration and Levens. But Levens said she would now be OK with athletes kneeling for social causes prior to games.

“I feel like I understand so much more than I did two years ago, understanding somebody else’s perspective,” said Levens, who adopted two black sons several years ago. “Right now, knowing what I know now, that was a very insensitive way to approach it because I can completely see how they took that as I didn’t understand their struggles. At the time, I wasn’t as knowledgeable as I am now. In the moment, I was trying to get them to understand we’re humans and we’re not that different and there shouldn’t be a divide. But I do have white privilege, and I can see how they’d take it that way absolutely."

Moving forward

While the recent transfers have drained the Wolf Pack of some major talent, Levens is hopeful Nevada can still take a step forward on the court if it improves its culture, which everybody acknowledges was bad even if they disagree who shoulders the majority of the blame.

“It just didn’t feel good last year,” said Alexander, who started 28 of 31 games and averaged 6.5 points per contest. “It wasn’t that anyone player-wise or coach-wise was a bad person or was trying to have the culture that way, but it was just how the formula worked out.”

With a new set of players – the Wolf Pack added eight players this offseason, including seven in the late signing period to fill the gaps after the deluge of transfers – Levens is hopeful the culture will improve. She has agreed to make some changes, including doing away with the daily journals and some social media rules. In addition to the usual exit meetings, she gave players anonymous surveys.

“I do feel like we did everything we could to try and support those players,” Levens said. “At the end of the day, I transferred in college, too. Sometimes it’s not the right fit. Maybe it was a personal thing with me and they didn’t like playing for me and the extra stuff we try and do beyond basketball, and we are listening to them at the end of the season. We had a big meeting and told them we knew they weren’t happy. Honestly as coaches we weren’t happy. It was a hard year. We asked them what they need to feel happier and have a better experience. We gave them a survey and told them to be brutally honest.”

The returning players seem to be optimistic that some of the changes will make Nevada a more enjoyable place to play basketball, which largely wasn’t the case over the last three seasons.

“I think considering what happened with all of the transfers, the coaches are trying to take a hard look at themselves so they do better, just like every coach would,” Alexander said. “They’re making efforts to make sure they’re doing what they need to do to best serve us and vice versa. How can we be the best teammates we can be and trust in our program? I’m really hopeful this year will be better.”

Pitts recalled a period last season when some of her former SIUE teammates came to a practice and a game. She said those players didn’t recognize the team as one being coached by Levens and were “baffled by some of the attitudes, the lack of talk, things they knew were a bare minimum for Amanda after playing for her.” Pitts is hopeful the roster turnover helps the culture.

“I can’t say all of the kids who left were bad for culture, but honestly some of them were not great for culture,” Pitts said. “I do think as a coaching staff we went through individually after they left and said, ‘Can we be OK with this one? Yes, we’re losing talent here, but can we build a better culture with less negativity in the locker room, less negativity and fight back in practice,’ and that’s huge because if you have two people who are key players that are causing negativity, the young players take that to heart.”

The pandemic has led to more open dialogue between the players and coaches this offseason, which could help the team.

“We’re not really talking a lot about basketball,” Levens said. “It’s about how we make all of this other stuff better because we have really good basketball players, and if they’re in a good place and thinking about the right things and being good teammates, basketball is going to take care of itself.”

Levens had her team watch Boise State’s press conference after the Broncos won their fourth straight conference tournament championship last March. The Boise State players talked about holding each other accountable and being led by quality seniors who set the right example. Levens said that culture didn’t happen overnight, and she is doing what she can to get Nevada’s culture to a better place.

At the best programs, your alums can be some of your best recruiters because they can share their great experiences at the university. With Nevada women’s basketball, that’s not been the case. A few players said they’ve had recruits reach out to them about their experience, and they’ve been honest and emphasized the need for prospects to get a complete understanding of the team rules and coaches’ expectations. But some have simply told recruits the cons of playing for Nevada outweigh the pros.

“I’ve had people ask me if they should go to Nevada and I tell them, ‘No, unless you want to deal with drama every day all day,’” one former player said. “If you’re OK with dealing with drama, she taught me a lot of things about basketball and probably developed my skills, but I just don’t think everything that goes on with that program should be a part of college basketball. It’s not worth the trade-off.”

Levens said Nevada will continue to look for recruits that have three main characteristics: (1) excellence in every area of life; (2) competitive people who care about winning; and (3) great teammates regardless of what they get out of it as an individual. Levens feels like some of her original recruits didn’t hit those marks.

“Some of the situations we’ve gotten ourselves in, the players don’t hit the standard in those three areas and that was frustrating,” Levens said. “They don’t like playing for us because we’re on them about that. And we don’t like coaching them because they aren’t doing those things that are important for us. We are going to be clear in communicating those three things when recruiting.”

With Levens entering her fourth season at Nevada, this summer has been a reset for the program given the player departures. The Wolf Pack is 46-52 under Levens with three straight seventh-place finishes (each at 7-11 in conference) in the MW, not horrible results given the typical state of the program and the drama behind the scenes. But Levens, whose contract runs through 2023, expects more from her program, and said the deep evaluation into the team’s culture this offseason was necessary.

“Whatever the reason is, it’s on us to adapt and figure out how to get better results,” Levens said. “That’s what the players want. That’s what the coaches want. I’m not too prideful to think I need to change. That’s why we asked for honest feedback. I want to create an environment that is an amazing place for these young women.”

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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