RENO, Nev. — For Lobo fans, the glimpse across the court whenever the UNM men’s basketball team laces ‘em up against the Nevada Wolf Pack has a glimpse of the past.
Former Lobo head coaches Steve Alford and Craig Neal, trying to replicate in Reno what they once had in Albuquerque, are now in their third season as the Wolf Pack’s head and associate head coach, respectively.
For first-year Lobos coach Richard Pitino — hired four years after the end of the decade-long Alford/Neal tenure at UNM — his glance at the opposing team Saturday night in the Lawlor Events Center in the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams will both bring back memories of his coaching past and optimism about his coaching future.
Grant Sherfield, Nevada’s superstar point guard who was voted the Mountain West’s preseason Player of the Year in October and is averaging 19.6 points and 6.3 assists entering league play, is very familiar to Pitino, who recruited and offered him a scholarship to play at Minnesota.
Sherfield, who would have likely had to sit behind some talented guards early in his Minnesota career, ultimately committed to UCLA before Alford was fired there, then played at Wichita State and eventually transferred to Nevada to play for Alford.
“Yeah, I liked him. I really did,” Pitino said. “We wanted him at Minnesota. We had a bit of a log jam (on the roster) with Marcus Carr sitting out and we had some good guards in there. He had originally committed to UCLA with Coach Alford and then goes to Wichita State, and that made some sense.
“I think he chose the right place. I really do. I think he’s flourishing at Nevada and he’s a problem. He’s a really, really good player. You make a mistake, he’s gonna make you pay.”
Now, years removed from the recruiting of Sherfield and seeing him team with fellow guard Desmond Cambridge (17.4 points per game) to light up opposing teams for the second season together, Pitino hopes what he sees is a glimpse at the Lobos future.
In the 6-foot-2 Sherfield, in his second season with the program, and the 6-4 Cambridge, in his third season at Nevada, the Wolf Pack has a veteran one-two guard tandem whose 37.0 points per game accounts for 47.7% of the team’s scoring each night.
UNM’s first-year backcourt duo of 6-2 Jamal Mashburn Jr. (18.4 points per game) and 6-0 Jaelen House (16.6) combined for 44.0% of the Lobos scoring each game and, like the Wolf Pack duo, they combine for more than half of their team’s assists.
Both guard tandems are the core of what their teams are built around, though it’s clear one — the one that has played together more than half a season and has a third-year head coach — is much further along in their development than the other.
Hence the records and rankings: Nevada is 6-5, was picked third in the preseason MWC poll and has a KenPom.com ranking of 85 compared to UNM, which is 7-6, was picked tied for 8th/9th in the preseason MWC poll and ranked 224th in KenPom.
“I think Sherfield and Cambridge are what we hope our backcourt evolves into,” Pitino said. “Cambridge has got more size, certainly, but they’ve got experience. … They got those guys, right when they got there and sat them out (before) the transfer portal rules changed.
“I think our roster … can evolve into something really, really good.”
Mashburn said the Lobos have watched a lot of film on how Nevada’s offense — still influenced heavily by Neal as he did when he was Alford’s assistant at UNM — operates and puts Sherfield and Cambridge in positions to succeed on the court. And it’s something they hope to “mimic” as a team.
As for the specific challenge of playing against a preseason MWC Player of the Year pick, the Lobos’ sophomore guard said it’s a challenge he looks forward to.
“Of course. As a basketball player, and me wanting to be my best version of myself, you want to go against top guys,” Mashburn said. “So I look at this as a challenge for myself and also for the team for us getting a big road win and just start conference play off on a good note. It’s a big challenge for all of us.”
SATURDAY: New Mexico at Nevada, 7 p.m., FS1, 770 AM/96.3 FM