The Nevada men’s basketball team is off to a solid start to the 2019-20 campaign.
Nevada kicked-off the year with a 5-3 record, currently tied with Colorado State for fifth place in the Mountain West Conference.
After a sluggish start, the Wolf Pack have won three-straight contests following a 77-62 victory over Bowling Green for the Paradise Jam World Championship in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 25.
Head coach Steve Alford has seen plenty of improvement and cohesion from this year’s unit, one that features eight new players making their Nevada debuts.
“I’m just really proud of these guys,” Alford said in a Paradise Jam post-game interview. “It’s the first year we’re trying to build a culture and build an identity of who we want to be… but I’m super proud of these guys.”
The Wolf Pack have put on an impressive offensive display thus far. They’re ranked as the fifth scoring offense in theMountain West, averaging 74.8 points per game and fifth in scoring margin at a 3.9 point differential.
Nevada is an efficient group from three-point territory. The Wolf Pack are first in three-point field goals made at 10.1 per game. The Pack’s 37.6 percent shooting from deep is second behind the San Diego State Aztecs in the conference.
Senior guard Jazz Johnson leads the Pack’s perimeter attack. His 18.6 average points per game is second in the Mountain West behind Boise State’s Derrick Alston. Johnson leads the nation with 32 made three-point field goals. He’s shooting a team-best 47.1 percent on 68 attempts from beyond the arc.
Johnson has thrived in the starting lineup this season. He won the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year award last year. No matter when he enters the game, Johnson tries to keep the same mindset.
“That’s always my kind of role no matter where I’m at,” he said earlier this season. “I try to bring that energy or spark to the team.”
Despite Nevada’s presence from three-point range, it needs to improve on the offensive end as a whole. The Pack are sixth in team field goal percentage at 44.1 percent. USC held them to 66 points on 32.8 percent shooting—both season lows—on Nov. 16 at Lawlor Events Center.
Alford has emphasized Nevada’s young squad to share the ball and take cleaner shots throughout the course of the game.
“It’s early and we’re a young team,” Alford said post-game against USC. “It’s not a lack of effort or them trying. They just need to listen and figure out offensively the difference between a good shot and a bad shot.”
Nevada has improved from its early offensive struggles. The Wolf Pack are averaging 13.5 assists and are shooting 47.5 percent over the past four games. Efficiency from the field helped Nevada capture the Paradise Jam title.
Defensively, the Pack have plenty of room to improve. Nevada is fifth in the conference in field goal percentage defense at 41.1 percent and sixth in scoring defense, allowing 74.8 points per game.
Several signs point to the Pack’s early defensive struggles this season. Opposing teams are averaging 15.1 free throw attempts per game and converted 196 made free throws over eight games on the year.
Nevada’s difficulties defending without fouling allows opponents to claw back in the game without taking time off the clock. Alford has taken note of the Wolf Pack’s deficiencies at defending against the foul game.
“We get in a lot of early foul trouble,” Alford said earlier this season. “It’s hard to win games when you’re getting beat at the line like that. We need to do a better job guarding against that and taking advantage of our opportunities, as well.”
Nevada is also struggling on the backboards. The Pack have surrendered 36.8 defensive rebounds per game, which ranks ninth in the Mountain West Conference. Opposing teams have totaled 294 rebounds against Nevada this season and hold just a 0.6 advantage in rebounding margin.
Alford has experimented with different lineups to help secure rebounds on both ends of the floor. Freshmen Zane Meeks and K.J. Hymes have joined forces down low throughout the season. The duo can bring a physical presence on the glass while helping stretch the floor on the offensive side.
Senior forward Johncarlos Reyes—who transferred to Nevada from Boston College this season—has teamed-up with sophomore forward Robby Robinson down low for a small ball lineup.
Winning the battle of the boards is a key component for the Pack’s success. Nevada is 5-1 this season when it has outrebounded the opposing team.
“We’ve been paying attention to the boards and it’s worked out,” Alford said earlier this season. “When we play our game down there and get physical, it’s huge for us. It’s a hard game to play for our bigs, but they’ve responded.”
The Wolf Pack’s tight man-to-man defense has made opposing teams uncomfortable in the half court set. Nevada’s 3.3 blocks per game rank fifth in the conference to go along with 44 steals. Lindsey Drew has a team-high 10 steals. Jalen Harris is second with eight steals on the year.
Nevada’s aggressiveness for the ball leads to fastbreak opportunities on the other end, something Alford has praised thus far.
“We’re a hungry bunch so when we have our hands on the ball we try to rip it,” he said. “If that happens, it leads to scoring on the other end and we’ve done a good job of that.”
Whether it’s on offense or defense, there has been plenty of opportunity for playing time at Nevada this season. Nine different members have played 90 minutes or more.
Meeks, Hymes, freshman guard Kane Milling and senior guard Nisré Zouzoua have each given valuable contributions off the bench or in the starting lineup. Zouzoua is fourth on the team with 83 points at 41.5 percent from the floor.
Johnson, Zouzoua and Drew are the only seniors that remain from last year’s squad. The Paradise Jam Tournament marked the first extended road trip for several new players on the team.
Alford emphasized the need for players to fit in with each other both on and off the court.
“It’s a chance for us to bond over these next 10 days and over the course of the season. It’s important to build a chemistry with the young guys on their first road trip,” Alford said earlier this season.” We’ve got a lot of basketball left to play.”
Nevada is becoming a cohesive unit on the floor. It has five non-conference home games remaining before conference play begins. The Wolf Pack have established strengths and weaknesses to fix through eight games.
As the season progresses, Nevada can establish itself as a force atop the Mountain West Conference. Johnson sees a lot of potential in the young Wolf Pack squad.
“We have a lot of potential and it shows,” he said earlier in the season. “We may go through some high points and low points, but I try to tell them to always enjoy it. We just have to come back the next day and be focused and ready to play.”
Isaiah Burrows can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SagebrushSports.