It might not be NCAA Tournament or bust for the Nevada basketball team this season, but reaching the Big Dance this year is a much more realistic goal for Wolf Pack head coach Steve Alford, who is in his third season running the program.
Alford's bunch has been practicing in limited fashion in recent months — a maximum of four hours per week, per NCAA rules — and will begin full practices Oct. 1 (next Friday). It will do so with Alford's most talented and deepest roster at Nevada. As such, Alford is setting his expectations for the season high, and he thinks the Wolf Pack can reach those if it makes defensive strides.
"We're always about pursuit of greatness and pursuing excellence," Alford said in Wednesday's NSN Daily. "And this is a team that if we stay healthy and we really develop defensively, (we can be really good). I think it's going to be a team that's going to be truly hard to guard. We have pieces up front that can score on the block and are big. Will (Baker) can shoot it. K.J. (Hymes) can shoot at. Warren (Washington's) really worked on his shooting. We've got guys that can shoot it on the perimeter, and then we've got really good, strong, aggressive guards. So we present a lot of problems. If we can get you in rotations, we're going to hurt you, and I think we're going to get people in rotations because we've got a lot of guys you can't guard one-on-one."
Last season, Nevada was better offensively than it was defensively, ranking 72nd in the Ken Pomeroy advanced metrics in offensive efficiency and 125th in defensive efficiency. The Wolf Pack went 16-10 overall and 10-7 in the Mountain West, finishing in fifth place in the conference. That came one season after Nevada went 19-12 overall and 12-6 in the MW, tied with two other teams for second place. Alford's first team ranked 141st in KenPom defensive efficiency, so making strides on defense will be required if Nevada is going to reach its goals of winning a MW championship and getting to the NCAA Tournament.
"It's where we develop defensively, and if we can really buy in," Alford said. "The guys have done a good job of learning over the summer. But if we can grow defensively as the season goes on, we've got a real chance. And I think if you're asking for a goal, we finished second, we finished fourth, fifth in the league. We've done a really good job in two years staying in the upper echelon of the league. But let's take that next step. And so I think as we start our season, it's all going to be, 'Can we win a conference? Can we put ourselves in position in those last two weeks to have a chance to win a conference?' Year one, we finished second, but San Diego State clearly had clinched two weeks prior. We want to put ourselves in a position those last two weeks where we're striving for a conference championship."
The Wolf Pack returns all five of its starters from last season and added five scholarship players to the roster, including three Division I transfers who are expected to make an impact this season. Those include Baker, a 7-foot transfer from Texas who was a five-star recruit; AJ Bramah, a Robert Morris transfer who averaged 21.0 points and 10.3 rebounds last season; and Kenan Blackshear, a Florida Atlantic transfer who averaged 9.4 points as a sophomore and is potential plus-defender.
After inheriting a roster in rebuild mode when he got the job from Eric Musselman following the 2018-19 season, Alford finally has a roster full of the players he recruited in place.
"Coach (Craig) Neal and I talk about putting the pieces of the puzzle together," Alford said. "We're not a group that does things differently maybe, but it's how that puzzle fits our culture and the people that we want, and Muss' last year a lot of guys left. That was a very old team. So we had some sit-outs and had to make some very quick additions. That always happens in the first year or two. And now as we get into year three, we're deep. We're very deep at every position. We're very big at every position. We're athletic. We don't have great experience, but we've got enough experience."
That experience starts with the backcourt of Grant Sherfield and Desmond Cambridge Jr., who earned first- and third-team All-MW honors, respectively, last season. The duo combined for 34.9 points, 8.5 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game last season, their first at Nevada. Alford expects those guards to be improved this year, not only as individuals but as players who will make their supporting cast better.
"We've talked to Grand and Des, who are very good players, but to really take your next step from very good to great, it's how you lead the rest and, 'Can you make other guys around you better?'" Alford said. "That's their job this year. It's not just going to be about what they do. It's, 'Can they elevate the play of their teammates?' And if they do that, then you're going to see very good players become great players. And both of those guys have that potential. I think as you play at this level, you've got to have guys that when things break down or you've got late-shot clock or as you saw last year in games with Grant, you have to make a play on your own and trust that individual. Both Des and Grant are two guys that can create plays on their own late in the game."
Unlike the previous year, Nevada had a full offseason of practices, which include both team and individual work. Given Alford and Neal pride themselves on player development, the Wolf Pack staff believes there will be great year-over-year improvement. Alford is happy with how offseason training has gone and is excited for the shackles to be removed from the team so it can have full practices on a daily basis starting next week.
"We like the way the team looks now," Alford said. "Now, there's a lot of coaches in the country — I've been doing this a long time — that say the same thing. But we are big up front. We've got really good guards in the backcourt with size and with experience. So we really like this group. We like what they've done all summer. They've had a great mindset. And we're excited to go into the official practices where we get them on the court for a little bit longer time."
You can watch Steve Alford's full NSN Daily interviews below.