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Can Nevada make a run in the Mountain West Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Nevada Wolf Pack’s 2019-20 campaign ended with a bitter taste. It was on the wrong end of a shocking 75-72 upset as the No. 3 seed in the Mountain West Tournament versus the No. 11 seeded Wyoming Cowboys. It was unable to redeem itself, as COVID-19 promptly wiped out multiple sports leagues and tournaments — including the NCAA, NIT, CBI and CIT tournaments — across America.

In the offseason, guard Jalen Harris forwent his final year of eligibility and entered the 2020 NBA Draft where he ended up as a second round selection (No. 59 overall) to the Toronto Raptors. In addition to his departure, the Pack also lost four seniors: Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Johncarlos Reyes and Lindsey Drew.

Grant Sherfield transferred to Nevada last spring with three years of eligibility remaining and received an eligibility waiver in August. Desmond Cambridge, who transferred from Brown prior to the 2019-20 season, gained eligibility after sitting out the season due to the NCAA transfer policy. There were question marks surrounding the team entering the 2020-21 season, especially with COVID-19 factor involved.

Now, just over a year after its previous tournament departure, Nevada enters the Mountain West Tournament at 15-9 with a 10-7 conference record and the conference’s No. 5 seed — its fifth straight season earning a top-5 seed (that features a Mountain West bye). It will go up against No. 4 Boise State Thursday at 2:30 p.m. PST on CBS Sports Network.

The question remains: Will Nevada compete for a Mountain West Tournament title? Let’s explore, answering some questions below:

How has Nevada fared against the top-four in the Mountain West?

In total, Nevada is 3-4 against the Mountain West’s top four: San Diego State, Utah State, Colorado State and Boise State. If it wants to clinch its fourth NCAA Tournament berth in five years, it will likely have to go through three of the Mountain West’s top four seeds. Here is what the bracket looks like:

The Wolf Pack might be sitting 2.5 games behind the Broncos for the No. 4 seed, but you could argue that it’s played its best basketball against the Mountain West’s top competition.

It owns four wins (in eight games) against Quad 1 or 2 opponents, three more than it had all of last season. Three of those have come against Mountain West opponents. Nevada swept Boise State (who they play Thursday) at home — by two and 11 points — and upset Colorado State by three (after trailing by 13) in its regular season finale.

Three of its Quad 2 victories have featured late-game heroics from Sherfield, who’s knocked down three game-winning baskets with under 10 seconds remaining.

The Pack got swept by then-unranked San Diego State on the road, but it hung with them in those two games. In the first game, Nevada possessed a 60-58 lead with just over two minutes remaining. The Aztecs rattled off a 7-0 run in the final 2:16 and won the game 65-60. In the latter contest, more late-game heroics by Sherfield (game-tying 3-pointer with six seconds left) were wiped away after Aztec guard Trey Pulliam raced the length of the floor to hit a buzzer-beating floater to earn the 69-67 victory.

Not to mention, they would be considered Quad 1 victories if Nevada won either of the two games, thus improving its resume for a postseason tournament bid.

Utah State sweeping the Wolf Pack was their one blip (or two, depending on how you look at it) against the conference’s top four. Utah State led by 21 at one point in the opening game — Nevada’s first game back after an 18-day hiatus due to COVID-19 — but it came back and lost by three. In the second game, Nevada got trounced by 21 and trailed by 20-plus points for the final 11:26.

Maybe the near three week hiatus contributed to its sluggish play. Nonetheless, it did not play well in Logan, Utah — but it stood out as an anomaly compared to the rest of its body of work against the conference’s top competition.

What is Steve Alford’s history in the Mountain West Tournament?

Nevada’s second-year head coach Steve Alford has previous experience in the Mountain West Tournament.

Alford was the head coach at New Mexico from 2007-13, going 155-52 with a 68-26 record in conference play. He was six Mountain West championships — four regular season with two conference tournament titles — during his Lobo tenure.

Steve Alford at New Mexico

Year Overall Record MWC Record UNM Seed for MWC Tournament
Year Overall Record MWC Record UNM Seed for MWC Tournament
2007-08 24-9 11-5 3
2008-09 22-12 12-4* 3
2009-10 30-5 14-2* 1
2010-11 22-13 8-8 5
2011-12 28-7 10-4** 2
2012-13 29-6 13-3** 1
* - Outright/shared Mountain West regular season champion
** - Mountain West regular season and tournament champion

This year will be Alford’s second year entering the Mountain West Tournament where his team is outside a top-3 seed. The only other time being in the 2010-11 season when New Mexico, the No. 5 seed, knocked off No. 4 Colorado State 67-61 in the quarterfinal round, but fell to top-seeded BYU 87-76 in the semifinals.

His last two seasons with the Lobos — as a No. 2- and No. 1-seed — resulted in automatic NCAA Tournament bids. SDSU is the only No. 5-seed to win the Mountain West Tournament, doing it twice in 2002-03 and 2017-18.

If Nevada wins the tournament this year, it could arguably be Alford’s biggest accomplishment of his career.

Can Nevada’s young pieces pave the way?

This year’s Wolf Pack squad — differently than past seasons — are one of the youngest teams in the Mountain West. They have just two scholarship upperclassman: Cambridge and Robby Robinson.

Robinson started all 31 games for the Wolf Pack last year. That hasn’t happened this year, starting in just three of the 22 games he’s played in. The 6-foot-8 forward is scoring 1.1 points and hauling down 3.5 rebounds in 13 minutes per game.

Sherfield and Cambridge have created one of the best backcourt duos in the Mountain West. Both were named to All-Mountain West teams this week: Sherfield made All-Mountain West first team and earned the conference’s Newcomer of the Year award, while Cambridge was an All-Mountain West third team honoree.

Both appeared in all 24 regular season games. Sherfield tallied 18.0 points and 1.6 steals, while dishing out a conference-best 6.2 assists per game. Cambridge averaged 16.4 points, 4.8 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. They are the two primary catalysts that fuels Nevada’s engine.

Warren Washington, a former Oregon State transfer who is in his first season of eligibility with Nevada, has been a capable big man. The 7-footer is averaging 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 21.3 minutes per game. When he’s been on the floor, K.J. Hymes has been one of the better rim protectors in the Mountain West. True freshman Tre Coleman has stepped up, tallying double figure scoring in each of the last three games.

The Pack’s two best players — Sherfield and Cambridge — don’t have experience in a postseason tournament. In Sherfield’s case, last year’s AAC tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic; when Cambridge was at Brown, only the top-four seeds were allowed and the Bears never made that threshold in his two seasons with the program.

Washington has limited experience, playing just seven minutes in a 73-58 loss to Colorado in Oregon State’s first game of the 2018-19 Pac-12 tournament.

This core will only be hindered by the absence of Zane Meeks, who is averaging 9.0 points with a team-high 5.9 rebounds on 35.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He has missed the last three games due to a knee issues and it appears unlikely that he will play in the beginning of this week’s tournament.

If Sherfield and Cambridge can perform like they did in the regular season, with strong contributions from Washington, Hymes or Coleman, the Pack will be a dangerous team entering this tournament.

Final verdict: Yes, they can, although the task becomes harder without Meeks.

To do so, as I noted above, Nevada will likely have to go through a gauntlet of premier Mountain West foes to win the tournament, barring any upsets.

Winning the Mountain West tournament might be Nevada’s only opportunity to make a postseason tournament. The NIT field was cut in half from its typical 32-team field, making the Nevada’s path more difficult considering it’s extremely unlikely it cracks an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. The CIT tournament — a lower-level postseason tournament that is held for mid-majors only — announced in early February that it was cancelled.

That leaves the CBI Tournament, which Nevada won in the 2015-16 season. Alford offered his thoughts on potentially accepting a CBI bid if it does not make the NIT or NCAA tournament bracket.

“The NCAA and NIT, that makes sense. But paying to go somewhere with no fans and those types of things, just financially, we’re trying to do everything we can to help our university in this COVID year. President (Brian) Sandoval has been absolutely outstanding trying to help all of our athletic teams kind of go through the weeds because financially it’s been a really tough year with no fans for football, no fans for basketball. That makes it very hard on everybody, and to know go to a postseason tournament where you have to pay out of pocket and then pay out of pocket to travel and stay, that’s a little different than a normal CBI year where you’re playing home games and getting fans. We’d have to look at it, but my guess right now is I’d lean toward no,” - via Nevada Sports Net.

So, as of right now, the easiest route for a postseason bid would be winning the Mountain West Tournament. It might be the only route, too.

I’ve said this before: If Nevada plays their game, they can compete with anyone in the Mountain West. Meaning, if Sherfield and Cambridge stand out, they defend, rebound (which will be harder without Meeks) and hit timely shots, among other qualifications — they have a shot against anyone, including the red-hot San Diego State (that have won 11 straight).

This is March (Jon Rothstein should have that statement copyrighted, if we’re being completely honest.) This is the Mountain West; crazy things happen on a yearly basis. If Nevada can find their stride, they won’t want to be a team anybody wants to see.