There should be no doubt that Steve Alford of the Nevada Wolf Pack will win the Mountain West’s Coach of the Year award next month. Anything short of a total Pack collapse over the final five regular-season games, starting Saturday night at Utah State, will make Alford the second Nevada coach (along with Eric Musselman in 2018) to win the award. The Pack, coming off a 13-18 season in 2021-22, was picked to finish ninth in the 11-team Mountain West by the media this year. It was not a surprising prediction, given the previous season’s struggles and the off-season when the Pack lost its top three players (Grant Sherfield, Desmond Cambridge, Warren Washington) to the transfer portal. Alford, who won the Mountain West coaching award while at New Mexico in 2009, 2010 and 2013, might have been the only reason the Pack wasn’t picked to finish last. But Alford now has the Pack sitting at 20-6 overall and 10-3 in the Mountain West with a chance to win the league’s regular-season and tournament championships. San Diego State’s Brian Dutcher has his Aztecs at 20-5, 11-2 and might get the award (he won in 2020 and 2021) if he wins the league. All coaches, of course, believe all other coaches are amazing and do a tremendous job every game and every season, so the award should simply go to the coach that wins the conference. But we know better.
The Wolf Pack is certainly not the most talented team in the Mountain West. It is clearly not the deepest team. Opponents don’t run and hide when the Pack comes out on the court. All you have to do to beat the Wolf Pack is not allow Will Baker to get the ball near the basket, not allow guard Jarod Lucas to shoot wide open threes and be fully prepared for Kenan Blackshear to take every shot and attack the basket in the final four or five minutes of the game. But Lucas, Blackshear and Baker haven’t really been stopped all year. The Pack has won 20-of-26 games this year (exactly 10-of-13 in league and non-league) and refuses to lose (13-0) at home. Alford and his devoted staff (Craig Neal, Bil Duany and Kory Barnett) are not reinventing the college basketball wheel with this team. The Pack is not doing it with smoke and mirrors, parlor tricks or sleight of hand. Lucas, Baker and Blackshear don’t try to be something they are not. The Pack simply tries to do what it does reasonably well on every possession while avoiding what it doesn’t do well. That is the essence of coaching.
If the Wolf Pack had a secret weapon going into this year it was freshman Darrion Williams. Lucas is basically the same player he was at Oregon State the last three years. Baker is basically the same player he was at Nevada last year. The same is true for Blackshear, though his numbers are up because last year he was the Pack’s fifth-leading scorer behind Sherfield, Cambridge, Baker and Washington while this year, at least in his mind, he’s the No. 1 option and dominates the ball, especially with the game on the line. This is his team and everyone, from Alford to the players who rarely step on the floor, knows it. Williams, though, is the biggest reason the Pack is fighting for a league title when most everyone expected them to finish in the bottom third of the conference. There’s nothing Williams can’t do on the court. He is the Pack’s most versatile player and it’s not even close. He can score (7.3 points a game), shoot threes (34 percent), shoot free throws (.818), rebound (team-high 7.1 a game), pass the ball (second on team with 75 assists) and play defense (second with 38 steals). He’s a big reason why Lucas, Blackshear and Baker are free to do what they do best. Williams has battled through the typical freshman frustrations, but he is settling into exactly what the Pack needs him to be right now. And that can change from game to game, from passer to rebounder, defender and scorer. And he’s just getting started. Starting next year, he’ll be a double-double threat most every night.
Alford’s success this year is based on convincing his team to do what many coaches don’t even dare ask their teams to do these days. Alford has the Pack playing unselfishly, hustling on defense and valuing the ball on offense. They share the ball, stay within themselves and don’t shy away from contact. This team isn’t trying for the highlight play or hero moment, even though they have plenty of each this year. And, by the way, they will fight you to the final buzzer. Just ask New Mexico. Boise State and San Diego State also do those things, explaining why the Pack, Aztecs and Broncos are atop the league right now and two of them will no doubt be in the tournament title game. All three, by the way, will go to the NCAA Tournament.
The Pack is near the middle of the conference in most statistical categories. But there is one area where they have excelled above all else. They are the best free-throw shooting team in the Mountain West, making 456-of-571 from the line (.799). Lucas (.858), Blackshear (.794) and Baker (.839) are among the top eight free-throw shooters in the league. Nick Davidson (.833) and Williams (.818) would also be among the leaders, but they haven’t gotten to the line enough. Even Tre Coleman (30-of-40) and Trey Pettigrew (14-of-18) can make a clutch free throw now and then. They’ve all enrolled in the Steve Alford Free Throw Shooting School and have done their homework and extra credit. This is Alford’s best free-throw shooting team since he got to Nevada in 2019-20. The Pack is second in the nation with 456 free throws made, fourth in percentage (.7986) and third in attempts (571). That’s because the right people have the ball at the right times. The Pack should easily set the school record for free throw percentage in a season (.756 in 2006-07).
Andy Reid, the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, might have beaten the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl on Sunday. But he did lose to the Wolf Pack in 1986 when he was Northern Arizona’s offensive line coach, a blemish he has somehow overcome in his long career. Reid and the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll are the only two Super Bowl-winning head coaches to ever coach against the Wolf Pack. Carroll was the defensive coordinator at Pacific in 1983 when his Tigers lost to the Pack. The Pack also beat another Super Bowl-winning coach, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Doug Pederson, when Pederson was the quarterback for Louisiana-Monroe in the 1990 Division I-AA playoffs. The Pack has faced two coaches that lost a Super Bowl. John Fox, who lost the Super Bowl with Denver and Carolina, beat the Pack in 1980 when he was Boise State’s defensive backs coach (when he coached future Pack coach Mike Bradeson). The Pack also faced Bill Callahan, who lost the Super Bowl with Oakland, three times. Callahan lost to the Pack twice (1987, 1988) when he was Northern Arizona’s offensive line coach and then beat the Pack in 2007 when he was Nebraska’s head coach. All of the Super Bowl-connected coaches the Pack has faced did so when Chris Ault was Nevada’s head coach, giving Ault a 5-2 record against Super Bowl head coaches.
Reid turned in one of the best Super Bowl coaching performances in history in the second half on Sunday. Brock Purdy with one arm could have thrown those last two touchdown passes against that confused Eagles defense. Reid-Mahomes has now joined Bill Walsh-Joe Montana as the greatest coach-quarterback combo in Super Bowl history. Other combos, of course, won as many or more Super Bowls than Reid and Mahomes and even Walsh-Montana. But (sorry, Tom Brady fans) there is more to being the greatest than simply winning championships (ask Otto Graham). Many of those other legendary Super Bowl coaches were mainly defensive-minded coaches (like Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick) who barely paid attention when their quarterback was on the field. And some of those Super Bowl-successful quarterbacks were game managers usually carried by their defenses or content to hand the ball off to win the game. Reid and Mahomes as well as Walsh and Montana were (and are) brilliant, innovative offensive-minded coaches combined with a generational quarterback. The only time those two combos lost in six combined Super Bowls was a few years back when Mahomes had to face Brady (on Brady's home turf) without the benefit of an offensive line. Walsh-Montana and Reid-Mahomes are the best we've seen in a Super Bowl.
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