By Neil Patrick Healy
With the 2015-2016 school year wrapping up, it’s never too early to preview what the next school year holds for Nevada athletics. Here are a few noteworthy storylines to look forward to in the upcoming year.
BASKETBALL’S RISE TO PROMINENCE
Nevada basketball ended 2016 with a win in the CBI and rejuvenated interest in the program throughout the Reno community. After going 9-22 two years ago, the Wolf Pack had one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation. Led by first-year head coach Eric Musselman, Nevada finished 24-14.
With the 2016-2017 season comes great opportunity accompanied by great expectation. With the expected return of Mountain West Freshman of the Year Cameron Oliver after he put his name into the NBA draft process, the insertion of the No. 35 ranked recruiting class in the nation and a plethora of high-quality transfer players becoming eligible, Wolf Pack basketball is expected to make a run at a Mountain West championship and a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Along with Oliver, Nevada returns tenacious defending freshman guard Lindsey Drew and junior forward D.J. Fenner to go along with the incoming talent, so keep your eyes on this program’s rise to the top of the Mountain West standings.
WHERE DOES POLIAN STAND?
It’s now or never for Nevada head football coach Brian Polian. Entering the fourth of his five-year contract, Polian’s record as a head coach is a meager 18-20. After winning the Arizona Bowl and finishing with a 7-6 record (his first winning season as a head coach), Nevada failed to get a player drafted in the NFL draft for the second straight year. There are still questions if senior quarterback Tyler Stewart is the answer for the Pack under center. The front seven loses six of seven starters and the offensive line is still a foreseeable problem.
The schedule for Nevada is extremely manageable. With tough conference foes Fresno State, San Diego State and Utah State coming to Mackay Stadium and a manageable nonconference schedule, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for the Wolf Pack to win eight games and compete for a MWC Western Division title and go to the MWC championship game. In fact, the only game the Pack won’t be competitive in is the game at Notre Dame, so anything less than a winning record is considered a failure.
Still, Polian’s contract makes for an interesting offseason. If he barely qualifies for a bowl game and there are no signs of optimism for the future, will Athletic Director Doug Knuth eat the last year of the contract and send Polian packing, or will he be forced to offer an extension? Having a head coach go into his final year of his contract without an extension is recruiting suicide, so a decision will be made.
WILL VOLLEYBALL TAKE THE NEXT STEP?
Nevada volleyball’s 12-18 record doesn’t look like much on paper, but if you take a closer look you can see the progress being made under head coach Lee Nelson. Those 12 wins are as many as the program has won in the previous two seasons combined. To go along with that, the Wolf Pack was 9-3 at home and beat rival UNLV for the first time in a decade. Sure, six games below .500 isn’t going to get people excited; Nelson will more than likely take the progress and build upon it. He’ll be looking to improve on the 1-11 record on the road and the 7-11 conference record, but visible progress is being made. With kill leader and All-Mountain West right side hitter Madison Morrell returning and outside hitter Madison Foley looking to capitalize on their outstanding numbers in 2015, expect the Wolf Pack to improve the next step to compete in the Mountain West.
WILL SWIMMING AND DIVING STAY ON TOP?
After first-year head coach Neil Harper led Nevada to its first Mountain West title in program history, having sophomore Sharae Zheng win two individual national championships (1-meter and 3-meter dive) and having diver Krysta Palmer qualify for the Olympic trials in June, the question is “How can this get any better?” Palmer and swimmers Erin Fuss and Yawen Li to graduation will be tough, but the rest of the team comes back to defend its MWC title. Expect Nevada swimming and diving to continue to compete for a conference title.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.