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Nevada Basketball: Midseason takeaways

Nevada is 9-8 with a 3-3 MWC record — what are a few takeaways from its 17-game start?

Syndication: Reno Gazette Journal JASON BEAN/RGJ / USA TODAY NETWORK

We have officially eclipsed the halfway point of the Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball season!

The squad is 9-8 and 3-3 in Mountain West competition. A lot has happened within those 17 games; Nevada began the season a dreadful 1-4; it dismissed its top offseason addition off the team due to team misconduct followed by rattling off five straight wins; in the meantime, it’s suffered a half-dozen COVID-19 cancellations and postponements along with an up-and-down Mountain West conference stretch with both vindicating wins and dreadful losses.

I outlined a brief list of my top takeaways through the first 17 games. Let’s jump into it!

It’s beaten bad teams, and (mostly) lost to good ones:

The thing that stands out about Nevada’s record the most about is who it’s beaten and, ultimately, who it hasn’t beaten.

Prior to its four-point win against Fresno State on Jan. 21, all of its previous eight wins have been against teams who rank outside the top-100, per KenPom. By that measure, Washington, George Mason and Loyola Marymount were its three-best ones, though they rank No. 142, 112 and No. 153, respectively. With their win against the Bulldogs and subsequent loss to Colorado State on Tuesday, they’re now 1-7 against teams that reside in the top-100 and 2-7 against Quad 1 or 2 opponents in the NET Rankings, a quadrant system oftentimes used to measure the quality of opponents based on its NET ranking and the location of the game.

It’s dropped two straight at home to formidable conference opponents Boise State and Wyoming. While they remainded competitive, they played without any semblence of consistent play for the requisite 40 minutes required to beat good teams, for the most part. Against Boise, they had to play from behind and couldn’t muster together a formidable second-half push; against Wyoming, it’s shooting woes (more on that later) compounded on top of itself, shooting 6-of-30 from 3-point range and 2-of-19 in the second half (1-of-8 in the game’s final eight minutes) — leaving a performance that left Alford frustrated after the game which prompted him to question their toughness. (Can anyone blame him?) Nevada’s play was much more consistent against Fresno, despite nearly fumbling away the game after missing an exasperating 15 free throws (on 29 attempts), going 10-for-21 in the second half. The Wolf Pack have a healthy batch of Quad 1 and 2 games remaining on its schedule with how deep the conference is (also more on that later), so it will need to rack up the victories if it has any hopes to make any postseason tournament. Better late than never, right?

Nevada hasn’t shot the 3-ball well:

Speaking of shooting, the Wolf Pack have been in a recent funk from distance. Over the their last eight games, they are shooting a combined 28.6 percent (53-185) from 3-point range, knocking down just six triples in five of those eight games. Grant Sherfield has been their most formidable 3-point shooter over that span, going 17-for-47 (36.2 percent); Kenan Blackshear (8-for-24: 33.3%) and Will Baker (7-for-18: 40.0%) have been serviceable, too, just on smaller volume; while he’s slowly recalibrating his shooting stroke that’s carried him throughout his basketball career, Desmond Cambridge is 16-for-63 (25.4 percent) over the last eight games; Tre Coleman, who’s struggled all season finding any offensive flow after netting 36.1 percent last season, is 3-for-15 (20.0%). Daniel Foster and Alem Huseinovic, albeit on small volume, have yet to make one of its 11 combined attempts.

To add on, in conference play, they have sported the Mountain West’s second-worst 3-point shooting percentage (28.3 percent) and rank No. 260 nationally for the season (31.7 percent). If that continued, it would be the program’s worst mark since 2015-16, when it netted 29.1 percent (No. 342) from distance in 38 games. In the Wolf Pack’s win over Fresno State, they canned over 38 percent of its 3s, which was the second-best mark against any Division-I foe all season — but it doesn’t have much to show for recently. If Nevada competes for a Mountain West title, it’s going to have to become more efficient from deep, which will open up more opportunity for damage from its potent downhill attackers (Sherfield, Blackshear, Cambridge, etc).

Production from Sherfield and newcomers:

Perhaps Nevada’s brightest spot throughout its shaky start has been the play of All-Mountain West guard Grant Sherfield and, most recently, its newcomers in Blackshear and Baker.

While Sherfield’s lumped in the stiff competition for the Mountain West Player of the Year — presumably led by Fresno State’s Orlando Robinson and Wyoming’s Graham Ike — he remains the only player in Division-I to be averaging at least 19 points and six assists per game, averaging 19.2 and 6.3, respectively. He’s doing so on decent efficiency, shooting 44.2 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from beyond the arc, both are slight improvements upon last year, though his 55.5 true-shooting percentage is slightly lower than it was in 2020-21 (56.8 percent). The 6-foot-2 guard has recorded nine games with 20-plus points this season, including a career-high 31 points on 11-of-17 shooting in a pivotal 88-69 win over George Mason on Nov. 23. He’s come close to a Nevada’s first triple-double in over four decades on three seperate occassions, too.

Even in the midst of all the stoppages, Sherfield’s still finds ways to generate an impact both by weaving through defenses to either score the rock or dishing dimes to teammates above the rim or along the 3-point line. He’s a maestro in the pick-and-roll and has gotten better since his career started with Wolf Pack over a year ago. If he can continue sustaining this play, don’t be surprised if he backs his way into the player of the year race come March, especially since voters are asked to vote based on conference play alone (though not all of them do).

Blackshear, one of the Wolf Pack’s best defenders, got off to an inefficient offensive start. He averaged 5.9 points on 31.9 percent shooting across his first 10 games. While that’s usually an unsustainable shooting mark to begin with, he’s been substantially more efficient on higher volume (and more confidence!) of late. Over his last seven games, he’s averaging 9.9 points, shooting 47.9 percent from the floor (34.8% 3PT) on 6.9 field goal attempts per game (4.7 FGA over first 10). The uptick in comfortability and rhythm has benefitted his defense too, wrestling players for steals and jump balls while creating havoc in the passing lanes. Baker, a former five-star recruit, has allowed Alford to dabble with a two-big lineup in stints throughout the season. The 7-footer can stretch the floor, be the primary faciliator in dribble hand-offs on the perimeter and has shown to be a capable rim-runner. He’s averaging 11.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 21.9 minutes per game, shooting 56.1 percent from the floor with a 63.6 true-shooting percentage and 19.6 player efficiency rating. When he elects to shoot it from distance, he’s been efficient — canning 45.0 percent of his 3-pointers — but won’t shoot them often, hoisting just 2.4 triple tries per contest. His role will be amplified in the near-future with Warren Washington’s hand injury, so it’s crucial he keeps up this quality of play.

BONUS: This might be the deepest MWC ever, and Nevada’s road won’t get much easier:

Midway through the season, the Wolf Pack, who sit at .500 through six conference games, rest in the middle of arguably the deepest Mountain West conference we’ve ever seen.

Though the end-of-season results will almost certainly end up different than they are right now, the conference boasts six teams inside the nation’s top-60, per Ken Pom. Those teams read as follows: Colorado State (35), San Diego State (39), Boise State (41), Utah State (53), Wyoming (57) and Fresno State (59). Since KenPom began tracking in 2002, there’s been more than five teams to crack the nation’s top-60 in overall efficiency.

Each of those six feature at least one key cog: Boise State possesses two stable wings in Abu Kigab and Emmanuel Akot; San Diego State has the smooth southpaw in Matt Bradley, a stablizing point guard in Trey Pulliam and a dominant shot-blocking center in Nathan Mensah; Fresno State has a multi-faceted double-double machine in Orlando Robinson, who will certainly be a draft prospect this upcoming summer after testing the draft waters in 2021; Colorado State has the “I will play six inches bigger than my size and you will do nothing about it” linebac-....I mean hybrid wing in David Roddy with pillars Isaiah Stevens and Kendle Moore; Utah State has Justin Bean, a mix of the Robinson and Roddy prototypes at 6-foot-7; Wyoming’s Graham Ike, another potential finalist for the MWC POY award, has taken a year-two leap as an offensive-centric big.

Heck, even Nevada fits into that category — featuring the crafty playmaking guard in Sherfield in addition to Cambridge, who will take-and-make shots without conscience. But partly because of the reasons listed above, the Pack aren’t as successful as its six counterparts. And the road doesn’t get much easier for Nevada, either. At the time of this publishing, nine of Nevada’s final 11 opponents — two against Utah State (two) and San Diego State (two), UNLV (one), Boise State (one), Colorado State (one), Fresno State (one) and Wyoming (one) — are currently in the Quad 1 or 2 territory; five of the nine are slated to be Quad 1 foes. Over half of those games are on the road, too. Given its weak-ish non-conference slate — outside of Kansas — the Pack can’t afford to lose many more of these (tough!) games and will need to build up victories against these aforementioned foes if it plans to have any postseason aspirations.