This season will mark Steve Alford's 30th as a college basketball coach, but it's fair to say he's never entered a year under these circumstances.
As the world grapples with the impact of a pandemic, Alford's Nevada Wolf Pack, as well as the rest of the college programs across the country, are preparing for a season of uncertainty. That uncertainty starts with summer workouts. Sans the pandemic, the Wolf Pack would have begun summer school and full team workouts last Monday.
Instead, the Wolf Pack will try and start summer workouts with a phased approach. The majority of Nevada's returning players, including Zane Meeks, Robby Robinson, Desmond Cambridge, Warren Washington and K.J. Hymes, all returned to Reno earlier this month (most arrived June 6) and are in the process of a 14-day quarantine period before they get the approval to start voluntary workouts, which basically consist of strength training and individual drills in the gym.
Joining the returning vets is Wichita State transfer Grant Sherfield, giving Nevada six players who are nearing a full return to campus. Kane Milling, a returning point guard who is currently in his native France with his family, will return to Reno on June 21 before going through the 14-day quarantine. Four of Nevada's five incoming freshmen also are expected to arrive in Reno on June 21. The fifth freshman, Je'Lani Clark, is staying in the Bay Area for graduation and is expected to make his way to Reno on June 27.
"The first wave came in on the seventh, and they have to quarantine for 14 days," Alford told Nevada Sports Net on Friday. "In those 14 days, they get tested (for COVID-19) plus physicals. If everything goes well, they can start their voluntary stuff on the 21st. Warren and Desmond were already here in Reno, so they’re starting a little bit earlier, so there’s a chance Desmond and Warren can start early next week with their voluntary stuff.
"The thing I’m waiting on is the NCAA. I keep hearing different things, and we’re hoping we get access to our guys once the Fourth of July is over. If that gets pushed back to August, we’re basically going to have no contact with our guys all summer.”
Alford said it's unlikely the NCAA will allow full practices in July, which are standard fare in a normal summer. He's hopeful the NCAA will at least allow coaches to work with smaller groups of players rather than limiting access to just voluntary training, which cannot be overseen by coaches.
“My big thing is what the NCAA is going to do, whether they allow coaches to have contact on the court with players," Alford said. "I could see it going back to the old rule where it’s just four (players) at a time. The last several years we’ve been able to have our whole team out there and it’s been like a practice. I don’t see that happening at all this summer, and even a group of four (players) is a stretch. I hope it happens, but I just don’t know what they’re going to do with that.”
Alford is hopeful the NCAA will make a ruling on July contact at some point next week, which is necessary "to give schools and coaches something one way or another in the next two weeks. We need to know if we’re going to be able to have contact on the court with them in July.”
The Wolf Pack using taking a phased approach to returning athletes to campus. In addition to Alford's six players, the Nevada football team is in the process of bringing 20 players back for voluntary workouts and women's basketball has five players returning to campus. Alford opted to bring his veterans back to campus first because of their familiarity with the area and campus.
“We have apartments we’re moving people into, and that would be easier for them," Alford said. "I didn’t want to bring freshmen here with them not even knowing what quarantine was and not knowing the area. It allows us to figure out how we’re going to do the food. There’s a lot of things that normally get taken care of because we see them every day. Now that they’re in quarantine, it’s a little different how they’re fed and what they’re doing. The vets have already been in their apartments. We just felt it would be best if the experienced players came back first. And some of the freshmen are still finishing up because their schools go a little bit later.”
During voluntary workouts, Wolf Pack players are able to work with strength and condition coach Matt Eck and athletic trainer Chastity Chov while having limitations with on-court workouts.
“They’ll be able to be in the weight room with Coach Eck and get medical treatment from Chasity, but no on-court stuff with coaches," Alford said. "Strictly player only. Through the quarantine, it’s your own ball and your own basket. You can have them in the same gym, but they’re really discouraging players using the same basket. Your own ball, no rebounder, own basket until we get through the voluntary part of the process.”
The lack of access to his players wouldn't be as big a deal, Alford said, if he had a veteran team. But the Wolf Pack will be one of the nation's youngest and least experienced teams in 2020-21. Nevada doesn't have a scholarship senior on its roster and has just two scholarship juniors. Only four of Nevada's scholarship players have played for the Wolf Pack, and each of those have logged only one season for Nevada. Alford said getting access to his players this summer will be key as he coaches a Wolf Pack team that's historically green.
“It’s huge because we’re so young," Alford said. "If we were an old team, it’d be different. With 10 freshmen and sophomores and two juniors and no seniors, it’s a very young team. They more we can touch them and show them our stuff, that’s going to be pretty crucial for a young team. But if not, other people have to deal with it, too. We were fortunate we signed five (player) in the fall because it would have been very difficult trying to sign three or four people in the spring not being able to go out.”
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.