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Murray's Mailbag: How many wins must Nevada post to get NCAA Tournament berth?

Grant Sherfield
Grant Sherfield and the Nevada men's basketball team have high aspirations for this season. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

Let's jump straight into the questions for this week's Monday Mailbag. Thanks, as always, for the inquiries.

Well, I got 62 responses this week, so that's pretty close to the record. And since I'm writing almost all of this Mailbag from the Discount Tires in south Reno as I wait for my flat tire to get fixed (great customer service, by the way), this week's answers might be a little shorter due to the volume of questions and location to research the topics. As for most individual questions, I think one person sent in 10 one week during the pandemic. I'd prefer one or two questions per person, if possible, as this thing takes four to five hours to write and have turned my Mondays into hell. Speaking of hell, Art Briles.

As a refresher, the Nevada men's basketball team plays the following opponents in non-conference play (with KenPom preseason ranking in parenthesis): Eastern Washington (242), San Diego (179), Santa Clara (124), San Francisco (34), South Dakota State (89), George Mason (211), Washington (101), Pepperdine (147), North Texas (134), Texas-Arlington (261), Minnesota Duluth (n/a), Loyola Marymount (68) and Grand Canyon (149). That's only three top-100 teams and an average rank of 144.9. Not good. The equivalent would be like playing Fresno State 12 times in non-conference (the Bulldogs are No. 131 in preseason KenPom).

With that said, it's still possible to earn an at-large berth. There's just minimal margin for error. I'd say Nevada must go something like 11-2 in non-league play 14-4 in Mountain West action. Couple those marks and advance Nevada into the MW Tournament title game with a loss there, and that's a 27-7 record, which could be good enough an at-large berth. Remember, the Wolf Pack's 2016-17 team went 28-6 through the end of the MW Tournament and still got just a 12th seed in the NCAA Tournament (it likely would have been left out if it didn't win the conference tournament). That team had a KenPom strength of schedule mark of 105. I can't see this year's team having a harder strength of schedule than that. In fact, it should be worse unless the MW has an excellent non-conference. So going 27-7 is probably the minimum win total mark for Nevada to hit to get an at-large berth this season. It might take 28 or 29 wins given the non-conference schedule compiled.

Two. I know Mountain West fans and media are talking about, "This is the year the conference gets three or four teams in the NCAA Tournament again," but I've heard that line each of the last few years. Fact is, the MW has zero guarantees for an at-large bid and only Colorado State, San Diego State and Nevada appear good enough to get into the Big Dance without winning the conference tournament. So, while it could get three teams, two seems much more likely. In terms of a dark horse to win the MW, I'd take Utah State, which returns two starters from last year's NCAA Tournament team (Justin Bean, Brock Miller) and added a pair of instant-impact transfers (RJ Eytle-Rock, Brandon Horvath) who played under first-year head coach Ryan Odom at UMBC, so they know his scheme. And Logan is never an easy place to play.

Given Nevada's non-conference schedule, I'd say a scoring margin of plus-10 would be a good sign for the rest of the season. Nevada's 2016-17 team, the closest comp I can find in terms of overall quality to this year's team, was plus-7.3 points per game in non-conference, although that included an 18-point loss to Saint Mary's, which went 29-5 that season. This year's Wolf Pack doesn't have a team like that on its non-league schedule. If you remove that game, 2016-17 Nevada had a plus-9.4 scoring margin in its other non-league games. If Nevada is sitting at plus-10 per game scoring margin coming out of the non-league schedule, it'd be a good sign its an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.

at San Diego State (Jan. 8)

at Colorado State (Jan. 25)

vs. UNLV (Feb. 22)

Sadly, there's no non-conference game on that list, but unless you want to watch Nevada against Washington in Sioux Falls, S.D., there's no marquee non-league game. Maybe Nevada-USF, which would be played a cool venue (the Dons' War Memorial Gym) and isn't a far drive.

As for Grant Sherfield, I'll go 10 percent. To me, he fits more into the "great college player" bin (ala Deonte Burton) than the "for-sure NBA player" bin (ala Jalen Harris). That's not to say Sherfield won't make the NBA, but I do think he'll be back for his senior season.

I've pointed this out before, but Nevada's second-to-last home game under Colin Kaepernick drew 10,906 fans (which is probably what the actual attendance was for the SJSU game, announced at 17,770). People focus on Kaepernick's final home game when 30,712 fans packed Mackay Stadium against Boise State. But Wolf Pack fans have shown before they won't pack the stadium on a game-by-game basis to see a "once-in-a-generation" kind of quarterback on a potentially special team like it has this year with Carson Strong. Given the night kickoffs, Reno's cold winter weather and the fact every game is on television, drawing fans to the stadium isn't easy business. Nevada's attendance is way up this year, so that's positive news for the Wolf Pack. But the student attendance, in particular, had to be disappointing against SJSU. Bottom line is UNLV and Boise State games juice the attendance, but other opponents don't. It's been that way for 15 years.

How many Group of 5 schools can keep the stands full? Maybe two or three? Selling college attendance is a tough deal in the current market.

Nevada gets roughly $3.5 million annually from the Mountain West's television deal, so the short answer is "yes." The Wolf Pack isn't closing a $3.5 million revenue gap in ticket sales if it had exclusive afternoon kickoffs. But it does suck to have such late kickoffs when the games are so lowly rated (like 100,000 to 200,000 viewers on TV).

Yes. I wrote more in depth about it here. But I've not seen Nevada's offense that discombobulated the last two seasons. Huge save by the Wolf Pack defense with those two touchdowns.

Well, I think the entire team is provided free breakfast on Sunday morning thanks to Nevada's "Eat to Win" program, but the offense could certainly take it a step further and take the defense to Peg's Glorified Ham n Eggs. The Nevada defense has some issues, but if it continues to make big plays, it's going to be a big plus for the team. As I wrote in my Three Keys and Prediction, "Look, it’s college football, and defenses – outside of Georgia – are going to give up yards and points. But if you make big plays in response, you’re going to be an above-average unit, and Nevada has done that with its 33 sacks and 16 takeaways in eight games." That was entering the San Jose State game, and now you can give Nevada six touchdowns from its defense this year, a remarkable number.

I can only go back to 1992 (the Wolf Pack first year in the FBS) for those numbers, and the six defensive scores is a Nevada record during that time frame. The Wolf Pack scored four defensive touchdowns in 1996, 2003, 2005 and 2006, but this is its first season with more than that (post-1992).

I would nominate Georgia for that title, but I have noticed over the years Nevada tends to injure a lot of offensive stars. Not in a bad way. Not with cheap shots. But the number of star players who leave a game against Nevada and don't return seems higher than normal, so I'd say the Wolf Pack is above average in terms of its defensive violence.

A lot, especially for the Spartans' center, Kyle Hoppe, who played his god damn heart out. Honestly, when I see injuries in college, I just feel sad because I know these guys are playing for free and their medical bills won't be covered post-career, and trust me, a lot of these players have chronic issues once they're done playing, even in their 20s. Football is a crazy-man's sport.

No. There are ways for Nevada to win the West Division via a three-way tie, but that'd require Nevada to win at San Diego State this weekend. The Wolf Pack won't win a three-way tie at 6-2 with San Diego State and Fresno State unless it beats the Aztecs. Nevada's other loss in this 6-2 scenario would have to come to a Mountain Division school (the Wolf Pack ends the year with Air Force and Colorado State, both from the Mountain) due to the tiebreaker rules, which includes three-way head-to-head (Nevada would be 0-2 if it lost to SDSU) as would take a hit in "winning percentage in games played against division opponents," which is the next tiebreaker after three-way head-to-head. Basically, Nevada can win the West Division at 6-2, but one of those losses must come to Air Force or Colorado State. Saturday's SDSU game is basically a must win.

Nevada is averaging 2.8 yards per carry. SDSU is allowing 2.9 yards per carry. The Wolf Pack isn't finding its run game against the Aztecs. But I do think there is money to be made on this game with the Wolf Pack a 2-point underdog (also, I was 0-6 on my college bets last week). I think this will be a physical, low-scoring game, but I'll take Carson Strong over Lucas Johnson at quarterback all day, as long as Strong doesn't get hurt by SDSU's pass rush. The Aztecs' run game has deteriorated in recent weeks. SDSU rushed for 200-plus yards in its first five games and hasn't hit 200 yards in its last four (average of 130.1 rushing yards per game). SDSU needs to rush for at least 200 yards to beat Nevada.

As for worst Thanksgiving food, I'll go green bean casserole. Every other Thanksgiving Day food is great.

Utah State (Mountain Division) and San Diego State (West Division), although there are three weeks left in the season to decide that. SDSU currently has the edge over Nevada thanks to its College Football Playoff ranking.

The tiebreakers for hosting the MW title game goes as follow:

1) Best conference record

2) Head-to-head result

3) CFP ranking

4) Composite average of select computer rankings

With Utah State being the favorite to win the Mountain, Nevada would almost certainly have the computer edge if they had the same record, so it'd must at least be tied with the Aggies in conference record (Utah State is 6-1 and faces SJSU and Wyoming to end the regular season, which should both be wins).

Almost certainly Nevada. It would go down to the computers at that stage, and Nevada has the edge over Utah State today and plays a more difficult schedule for the rest of the season.

Full explainer here.

I'll stick with my preseason prediction, which has Nevada in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl. In fact, if you look back at my preseason game-by-game picks, I'm 9-0 so far.

On a neutral field, Nevada would probably be favored by 0.5 points. Honestly, it might be a pick'em. It's a coin-toss game, and if Nevada were to make it to the MW title game, I'd prefer to see it play Boise State rather than Utah State, which I think would get beaten relatively easily by the top three teams in the West. The Aggies got to play the West's bottom-three teams this year while Boise State had to play the top three. That doesn't seem all that fair considering Boise State lambasted Utah State in their head-to-head matchup.

The MW bowl affiliations this year are the LA Bowl, Arizona Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Hawaii Bowl and New Mexico Bowl, so those are the most likely bowls, but I wouldn't be surprised if Nevada was pushed into a more high-profile non-MW bowl because (a) the MW will have more bowl-eligible teams than bowl spots (it's already at five bowl-eligible teams with three more teams one win away from bowl eligibility); and (b) having Carson Strong makes Nevada a more attractive team in the bowl selection process. The MW has backup bowl tie-ins with the Frisco Bowl, Cure Bowl and Boca Raton Bowl, so those could be in play.

Winning a championship and/or beating a top-10 team and/or winning a bowl game and/or hitting a major milestone (largely applied to when coaches get Gatorade baths).

Nevada only has quarterly scores available for the 2019-21 seasons, and the Wolf Pack's point margin during those three seasons is as follows:

First quarter: -38

Second quarter: +24

Third quarter: +16

Fourth quarter: +36

Overtime: 0

So, yes, it's fair to say Nevada tends to get off to slow starts, at least in the last three years under Jay Norvell. In 2021, Nevada is plus-140 in the second and third quarters and minus-31 in the first and fourth quarters. It takes a little while to hits its stride.

Nevada has a "rhinos" package with three tight ends on the field, but it hasn't used it much this season. In terms of your first question, it's become abundantly clear Nevada's offensive line has taken a major step back this season. Carson Strong's lack of mobility coming off two knee surgeries this offseason makes him a sitting duck at some points during games. And the rushing attack simply hasn't developed (70.4 yards per game, 2.8 yards per carry) even against light boxes as teams drop deep safeties to stop the pass. I don't think it's a running backs issue.

Unfortunately, I didn't see this until after Jay Norvell's noon press conference Monday, but we did talk to Wolf Pack offensive line coach Bill Best on NSN Daily last week. You might have some interest in watching his 10-minute segment, which is available at the bottom of this story.

Pass protection, although they're tied together. If you can't run the ball and have to throw it 50 times a game, opposing defenses are going to get great jumps off the line in pass rush. Nevada is going to face three excellent offensive lines down the stretch in San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State, so the Wolf Pack offensive line has its work cut out for itself. The formula has been set on how to defend Nevada, and it's basically the same as what teams are doing to the Kansas City Chiefs this season: get a pass rush with four linemen and play two deep safeties to take away the deep throw. If you can get that pass rush with four (like SJSU), you can slow down Nevada's offense. If you can't get that pass rush (like UNLV), you're going to be in trouble. SDSU, this week's opponent, can get a pass rush with four. Aztecs defensive lineman Cameron Thomas is going to be a high draft pick.

1. It's the knee surgery, which had an expected recovery time of around a year when he got the surgery in February. If you look back to the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Strong could get you a first down with his legs on 5- to 8-yard runs. He's not capable of doing that right now given the state of his knee. If he gets a full offseason of rest like he will in the pre-draft process entering the 2022 draft, he should regain some of that mobility, although that's never going to be a huge strength of his game.

2) Attendance is addressed above, but it was legitimately cold and windy Saturday night and the game lasted 4 hours, 10 minutes (waaaaaaay too long for a non-overtime game). I don't blame the fans who didn't want to sit in the cold that long. I commend those who did sit in the cold that long. I know baseball games get a bad rap for being too long, but it's also an issue in college football.

Fun Fact: An average football game has roughly 11 minutes of game action from snap to whistle. And that's stretched out over 4 hours in some cases. And people still find it exciting! That's why I'm a basketball guy. A solid 2 hours, 10 minutes with 40-45 minutes of game action.

Carson Strong has been under center before at Nevada, although admittedly it's rare. I don't think that would improve the team's pass protection. Playing under center might give a little jolt to the run game, but not enough to re-work the offense, in my opinion. If anything, the Pistol formation gives Strong a little cushion to combat the pass rush. If he had to drop back every time, defenders would be in his lap when he hit the final step.

The only issue I had with Nevada's fourth-down strategy was going for it on fourth-and-3 from the SJSU 49-yard line while leading 17-14 early in the fourth quarter. And normally I'd be fine with that. The only reason I would have punted there was because of how poorly Nevada's offense was playing and how well Nevada's defense was playing. As it turned out, the Wolf Pack didn't get that fourth-down conversion and gave up the game-tying field goal on the short field. But generally speaking, I like being aggressive on fourth down, especially when your quarterback is Carson Strong.

The 2-point conversion in the third quarter against Fresno State was a bad decision, and credit Coach Norvell for admitting that after the game. In terms of the SJSU contest, I don't believe any unnecessary risks were taken even if I disagree with the one listed above. The final fourth-down call came with 30 seconds left, and SJSU didn't have a timeout. Could it have backfired? Could SJSU have gotten the ball on the Spartans' 41-yard line with 25 seconds remaining with a chance to get into position to kick the game-winning field goal? Yes. But it was worth the risk at that stage. The alternative was to punt the game into overtime, which is a coin-flip situation.

And I'd take spicy Italian sausage. I like that extra kick from my sausage.

In case of a bad snap, the Wolf Pack could spike the ball and get another shot at the game-winning field-goal attempt. I like leaving 7-10 seconds on the clock in case of situations like that.

Yeah, he's top three for me behind only Tony and Marty Zendejas.

3-of-3 on potential game-winning kicks. Can't do better than 100 percent. I hereby designated him with the title of "Most Clutch Pack Kicker Ever."

I assume this is a reference to the Nevada men's basketball team. If so, I'm going with:

Grant Sherfield, 33 minutes per game

Desmond Cambridge Jr., 31 minutes per game

AJ Bramah, 28 minutes per game

Tre Coleman, 25 minutes per game

Warren Washington, 23 minutes per game

That leaves about 60 minutes per game for everybody else, most notably Will Baker, K.J. Hymes, Daniel Foster and Kenan Blackshear.

I'd guess Nevada rolls out the same starting five it used in its exhibition game (Sherfield-Cambridge-Coleman-Baker-Washington). Bramah probably becomes a starter at some stage, but having a pop off the bench is never a bad thing.

Cheater AJ Hinch or cheater Alex Cora. Pays to cheat.

I can't really answer this because I've covered games from a press box, so I don't have a ton of fan interaction. But if I was advising a Wolf Pack fan on which MW road venues to visit based solely on stadium and game-day experience, I'd go: (1) Colorado State, (2) Boise State, (3) UNLV, (4) Air Force, (5) Utah State, (6) Fresno State, (7) San Diego State, (8) New Mexico, (9) Hawaii, (10) San Jose State, (11) Wyoming.

In terms of enjoyment of the sport, I'd go volleyball, baseball and then swimming and diving. While some might consider baseball a "revenue sport," it loses about $1 million a year. For me, volleyball is the most underrated college sport to watch.

During a practice this season, Cole Turner caught a back-shoulder fade route in the end zone, walked by me and said, "There are three guarantees in life: Death, taxes and Cole Turner catching the back shoulder." I worked that into The Carson Strong Show last week, but I don't think I've written about that line. It made me chuckle because of its accuracy.

Per usual, it depends on what the rest of the teams in the Top 25 do. But Nevada currently has zero AP Top 25 votes out of 64 voters. So I would guess, "No." But if a rash of back-end Top 25 teams lose, it could happen. Nevada is currently in my 26-35 range, so I could put them into the Top 25 with a win over SDSU, which I have ranked 20th (the Aztecs are third among "others receiving votes" in the most recent AP Top 25).

I wrote a full column about him here!

We are a six-person staff, with only four of those being reporters. As a result, we have to prioritize our coverage of Nevada athletics, high school sports, the Reno Aces and community stories. We do the best we can to cover all of those, and we do have a weekly High School Athlete of the Week that runs on NSN Daily and our website. We also do weekly prep football power rankings. And we did cover in person the regional championships in soccer, volleyball and football last week. So, we do not ignore high school athletics, but it's far to say we don't cover them as in-depth as Nevada athletics, which draws the majority of our page views and interest. We routinely talk about high school sports on NSN Daily and have a weekly 15-minute Friday Night Lights recap show that runs on KRNV, but if we were able to hire more reporters, part of their duties would be to bulk up our prep coverage. Trust me when I saw the six of us on staff work hard. It's not easy running a channel/website with only six people, but we are in the process of hiring two people (bot non-reporters), which should give us more time to cover more things.

Maybe give the toddle some Play-Doh? And if the toddler throws the Play-Doh at another churchgoer, don't blame it on me.

Don't blame me. I told the Wolf Pack's seamstress to use Comic Sans on the jerseys and was overruled.

My tire was non-functional. At least Nevada's offense functioned at the end, so my tire was flatter. And I also have a car that uses run flat tires, but I didn't buy run flats the last time I got new tires because they're so expensive. So I had a flat tire and no spare donut. Not a good position to put myself in. But like the Nevada offense, I got out of the situation with a win.

Generally speaking, not well.

Yeah, he lied. And then he made it worse by throwing out Internet conspiracy theories to explain why he wasn't vaccinated. He's as talented a quarterback as I've seen play the game, but he's definitely a different kind of guy off the field, which is fine. He wasn't following the NFL's COVID-19 rules and should be fined at minimum. I'm not such a big fan of his anymore. But at least we peed together that one time.

Everybody entering the arena will need to show proof of vaccination, even media, as far as I know. Here is how you can do that.

Canada's Thanksgiving — the second Monday of October — is six to seven weeks earlier than the American Thanksgiving because Canada's harvest season begins earlier than it does does in the U.S. because the country is further north. Additionally, the Canadian holiday is based more on a religious plea after being founded when Protestant ministers asked the government to declare Thanksgiving a holiday to remind citizens to thank God for the annual fall harvest (American Thanksgiving is an event-based holiday based on the landing of the Mayflower and ensuing meal). Canadian Thanksgiving has the typical same food items as the American version, and the CFL plays a doubleheader known as Thanksgiving Day Classic. So there are a lot of similarities between the two, just in different months with different origin stories.

You could screen mirror the game from Stadium onto your television. I've done that many times before.

And he celebrated the win by saying "cancel culture" was out to get his team, which makes no sense. There's a difference between being criticized for poor play/bad coaching, which Arroyo was getting for starting his tenure 0-14, and being "canceled," which would have happened if he was fired (he was not). Fun Fact since you mentioned a UNLV "winning streak:" The last time the Rebels won more than two straight games was in fall 2013 when the team won four straight games in September/October (wins over Central Michigan, Western Illinois, Hawaii and New Mexico).

Nah. Nevada made some great plays on defense and some timely plays on offense. No need to apologize for that win.

My friend worked at the Eldorado at the time and came to the game from a work function that offered free drinks. He is a Giants fan and was excited to see Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner play in Reno. Then Bumgarner got destroyed (13 base runners allowed in three innings), and he began to drink even more. And it resulted in him puking profusely in a helmet trashcan, so I had to drove him home in the middle of the game. That friend is now a successful deputy prosecutor in Washington. Life comes as you fast. And with that, see y'all next week! (And avoid puking in Greater Nevada Field helmet trash cans if you can.)

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to write. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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