Nevada hasn’t had many issues playing at home this season. It is 11-2 at Lawlor Events Center, its two losses to Pac-12 teams.
Nevada hasn’t had many issues playing on neutral courts, either. It is 3-1 in such games, the lone loss coming to likely NCAA Tournament Saint Mary’s by five points in the Gaels’ backyard.
But Nevada has had plenty of issues on the road. It is 1-7 in true road games as it heads into a crucial two-game stretch at UNLV on Wednesday before playing at New Mexico next Tuesday.
“We’ve passed two tests,” Wolf Pack coach Steve Alford said. “The home test and the neutral test. We haven’t passed the road test. We’ve been close, but we have to figure out how to get over the hump. That usually means 40 minutes of good, concentrated focus and effort that goes along with executing on offense and executing a game plan defensively. You just have to be able to do that. With three weeks left in the season, those opportunities are getting few and far between. We have to really step up and focus for 40 minutes.”
While Nevada has played some good teams on the road, including contests at San Diego State, Utah State and BYU, it's fair to say the Wolf Pack’s level of play simply hasn’t been as high away from Lawlor Events Center as it has been inside it. Nevada is 3-5 against the betting line in its eight road games compared to 12-5 against the spread in all other contests. The Wolf Pack hasn’t been able to carry 40 good minutes into a road environment outside of its one win away from home, a 15-point victory at Air Force in early December.
With only three road games left – at UNLV and New Mexico and then at Wyoming, the Mountain West’s last-place team – the Wolf Pack doesn’t have many more chances left to win on the road. Nevada will likely need at least one road win to finish in the top five of the MW, which comes with a conference tournament bye. Sweeping all three games would likely net Nevada a crucial top-three seed.
“With just three weeks left in the season, it’s about trying to take advantage of as many opportunities as we can,” said Alford, whose team is tied for fourth in the MW, half a game in front of sixth-place UNLV.
While Nevada's road struggles have been a major story line this season, the Wolf Pack has been good at Thomas & Mack in recent seasons. Nevada has beaten its rival four straight times on the road and in six of its last seven matchups at Thomas & Mack. UNLV and first-year coach T.J. Otzelberger are 10-5 at home and 2-8 away from it this season, so the Rebels should give Nevada a better test than it offered last month in Reno when the Wolf Pack won, 86-72, in a game that wasn’t that close.
“Like a lot of teams throughout the country, they play a lot better at home,” Alford said. “It’s one of those things were we just have to do a good job of going into another environment and be a little tougher mentally, not have lapses, stay away from runs. This is a team where you have to really defend the dribble-drive, you have defend the backboard and you have defend the transition. More than (offensive) sets and those kind of things, it’s a lot of dribble-drive defense that we have to do a good job guarding.”
Senior guard Elijah Mitrou-Long, a transfer from Texas, has returned to action since missing the Nevada game last month with a broken thumb. Mitrou-Long is third on the team in scoring (11 points per game) and first in assists (3.7 per game). That has given UNLV more depth and scoring ability. He will try and slow down Nevada, which has won a program-best five straight games against its southern rivals.
Nevada’s Jalen Harris has been on a tear of late, scoring 30-plus points in four straight games, a school record, while being named the national player of the week after stellar efforts in wins over Air Force and San Jose State last week. Harris had 28 points and six assists in Nevada’s win over UNLV earlier this season.
“Really happy for him,” Alford said. “Very deserving. You look at what he’s done the last couple of weeks and it’s one thing to get a Mountain West award, a regional award, but when you get a national award it speaks volume to the work you’ve put in. His teammates have done a great job working with him and he’s produced at a very high level, so very happy with him.”
If Nevada sweeps its two upcoming road games at UNLV and New Mexico, it will most likely lock up a bye in the conference tournament no matter what happens in its final three games of the regular season. But the immediately goal is to extend its recent domination of the Rebels.
“This is a rivalry game,” Harris said. “I know that, the team knows that. For us to go down there and get another win is big time. We know it means a lot to us and the team and it means a lot to the community. For us to go down there and have that experience will be good for us.”