Unleash the Wolf Pack. Both Nevada basketball teams tip off the regular season on Tuesday at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.
At 3 p.m., the women’s team is set to face St. Mary’s of the West Coast Conference. At 7:30 p.m., the men face Utah of the Pac-12 Conference. The men’s game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
Both Nevada squads enter the 2019-20 campaign with plenty of promise and talent. New men’s head coach Steve Alford seeks to guide the Wolf Pack to a school-record 19th consecutive home win.
Alford begins his 29th season as a college head coach. He’s accumulated a 587-298 career record and a 509-269 record in 24 seasons as a Division 1 head coach.
For now, Alford is focused on the fundamentals during the opening games of the schedule.
“Once we tip, you just play so many games in a short amount of time,” he said. “You need to have the foundation of what you are going to do. You’re not going to be perfect on offense or defense.”
Senior guards Jazz Johnson, Nisré Zouzoua and Lindsey Drew are the only returning players. Redshirts junior guard Jalen Harris and freshman forward K.J. Hymes practiced with the team last season. Johnson won the Mountain West Conference Sixth Man of the Year Award last season. Drew missed all of last year recovering from a ruptured Achilles, followed by offseason hip surgery. Zouzoua scored just 27 points last season, but has had an increased role off the bench in both exhibition games.
Nevada won an average of 27.5 games during the four seasons under coach Eric Musselman, who has moved on to Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference. With the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline gone, it’s up for this year’s team to carry on the winning tradition. There’s plenty of hungry players waiting for their time to shine and now is the chance to do something about it.
Eight newcomers to the squad can make an immediate impact. Freshmen Zane Meeks and Kane Milling garnered experience during their high school years . Meeks attended Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire and led the team to the 2019 National Prep Championship. Milling attended CSP Limoges in France and played in the French High School Finals in 2017.
K.J. Hymes was selected by the Mountain West media as the preseason Freshman of the Year. The 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward displayed his hustle and athleticism in both exhibition games.
Alford has pushed Hymes to reach his ceiling on the floor.
“We haven’t had a true litmus test for our bigs down low, that’s why I’ve been hard on K.J.,” he said. “He’s gonna get a test against Utah. So we’re going to have a better gauge of him from that standpoint.”
Along with an intriguing mix of underclassmen, fifth-year senior Johncarlos Reyes is a new member of the Wolf Pack. He was as a graduate transfer at Boston College of the Atlantic Coast Conference, appearing in 91 games. The 6-foot-10 225-pound forward joins Hymes to add height in the frontcourt.
In the backcourt, junior guard Jalen Harris — a Louisiana Tech transfer — scored a team-high 26 points against Colorado Christian on Oct. 30. His scoring prowess of both slashing into the paint and shooting on the perimeter has added to the team’s offensive firepower.
Alford took note of the team’s talent on both ends on the floor, but is focused on catching them up to speed.
“Our guys know how to play both ways,” he said. “They know how to play with effectiveness. You’re not adding stuff in November … You just start getting more stressed as a coach thinking ‘Have I shown them enough?’ and you end up having a lot to cover.”
Levens touts team chemistry
The women’s team is looking to bounce-back from a 12-19 record last season, but there’s a sense of optimism from the players and coaching staff. Head coach Amanda Levens took note about the team’s chemistry and production in practices and exhibitions.
“We’re really bonding as a unit and that’s important early on,” she said. “It’s good to build that communication on the floor and development before the season starts.”
This year’s team includes five transfers and three freshmen. Junior guards Lapraisjah Johnson and Jacqulynn Nakai transferred from junior colleges. Marguerite Effa, a graduate transfer from USC, adds much-needed size down low with her 6-foot-3 frame.
Freshman forward Dom Phillips was named Gatorade Arizona Girls Basketball Player of the Year after scoring over 1,700 points in high school.
Sophomore guards Da’Ja Hamilton and Essence Booker add to a talented backcourt. Booker dished-out 50 assists last season and was tasked as the primary ball handler in Nevada’s exhibition contest on Oct. 30. Hamilton played in all 31 games during her freshman season with eight starts.
With an intriguing group of freshmen, sophomores and juniors, Levens emphasized selfless basketball and constant ball movement.
“It doesn’t matter who gets the shot as long as it’s a great shot,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to emphasize. I think they really want to win and be coachable. … We’re coming together and everyone is excited.”
The loss of Terae Briggs, Jade Redmon and Camariah King left the Pack without 37.3 percent of the team’s total scoring offense last season. But Levens is confident that the current core can help fill the roles on both ends.
“We have a lot of players that can do a bit of everything,” she said. “It gives us some flexibility. … We want players who can play multiple positions and I feel we have that.”
— Isaiah Burrows