Wednesday , Nov , 10 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Western Athletic Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Western Athletic Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: The last time a Western Athletic Conference team won
the national title was way back in 1966. Unfortunately, it appears as
though the drought will continue in 2004-05, but not without some spirited
play from the mid-major conference. Of the 10 teams in the league, three are
starting off with new head coaches and one of those, Texas-El Paso, is
actually being given the inside track on the conference title by the coaches.
It will be a sizeable jump for the Miners after they lost their opening round
game to the Maryland Terrapins in the NCAA Tournament last season, especially
since new head coach Doc Sadler is making his debut as the top man at the
Division I level. Nevada, which owns the nation’s eighth-longest home
winning streak at 15 games heading into the new season and will be hosting the
WAC Tournament in March, also has a new man in the first seat on the sidelines
in Mark Fox. Fox, now the Wolf Pack’s 16th head coach, takes the place of
Trent Johnson who abandoned the program he took far into the NCAA Tournament
last season for a spot with the Pac-10 Conference and Stanford. Lastly, Jimmy
Tubbs assumes the lead coaching position with SMU after spending the last two
years with Oklahoma, which came only after he resided 12 years in Dallas as an
assistant with the Mustangs. Boise State, SMU and Hawaii are all middle-of-
the-road programs that could beat one of the upper echelon squads on any given
night, but to expect them to make a push for the postseason might be a bit too
much. In recent years Tulsa and Fresno State were the cream of the crop in the
WAC, but it appears as though the schools will be rebuilding and trying to
draw quality talent to their respective campuses. Then there’s San Jose
State, a team that completely collapsed down the stretch in 2003-04, losing 20
of its last 21 outings, including seven in a row. Not much is expected of the
Spartans again this year, considering not a single returning member averaged
at least double-digit points last season and the coaching staff is as young
and inexperienced as the players they are directing on the court. On the
horizon there are great changes in store for the conference, as four teams
will take their leave next year (UTEP, SMU, Rice, and Tulsa) while the league
entertains new arrivals, Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Texas-El Paso

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Texas-El Paso; 2. Rice; 3. Nevada; 4. Louisiana
Tech; 5. Hawaii; 6. Boise State; 7. SMU; 8. Tulsa; 9. Fresno State; 10. San
Jose State

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

UTEP – It is not that often that a team with a brand new coach is expected to
be the cream of the crop in their respective league. Add to that the fact that
UTEP’s Doc Sadler is making his first appearance as a head coach at the
college level after spending a dozen seasons as an assistant. Sadler, who was
an assistant with the Miners last season, brings a brand new staff to El Paso
with him, and yet the team is considered the top contender in the Western
Athletic Conference among the coaches and media. What makes this team so
dangerous is starting senior guard Filiberto Rivera, a First Team All-WAC
selection who will be making a strong bid for player of the year in the league
this time around. Rivera, who was named the 2003 Junior College Player of the
Year before transferring to UTEP, isn’t afraid to mix it up in every facet of
the game. He averaged 11.2 points, 4.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds last year and
when combined with super sub Omar Thomas the duo led the Miners to a record of
24-8 and a spot in the NCAA Tournament when they fell to Maryland in the first
round. Thomas, who hails from Philadelphia, PA, and spent time at Panola
College before he too transferred to El Paso, was electric off the bench for
the group as he led the team in scoring with 15.5 ppg. He’ll probably find his
way into the starting lineup this season, but that could hamper his
explosiveness at the offensive end of the floor. Junior center John Tofi used
his 6-10 frame to clog the middle and produce 10.8 points and 5.9 rebounds,
second only to Jason Williams and his 6.1 rebounds per contest. With Williams
(11.6 ppg) also back in the fold there are few teams in the WAC that can match
the firepower of UTEP.

RICE – The Owls weren’t afraid to suit up against anyone last year, playing
both Stanford and UConn before switching gears for the WAC schedule, and that
tells a lot about the team and head coach Willis Wilson, now entering his 13th
season with his alma mater. Now having coached more seasons than anyone prior
to him at Rice, Wilson is well aware that this group of players has got to
make a name for themselves this season or much of his hard work will have gone
for naught. Considering Rice has the Preseason Player of the Year in senior
forward Michael Harris, the league’s active leader in career double-doubles
with 33, Wilson shouldn’t worry himself all that much. Harris is inching his
way up the school’s scoring chart, but points are not the total story for this
physical specimen because he also enjoys knocking bodies around in the paint,
to the tune of close to nine rebounds per contest in 2003-04. Taking some of
the heat off Harris will be the backcourt tandem of Brock Gillespie and Jason
McKrieth, both seniors who have plenty of game experience to draw upon in
tough times. Gillespie (9.2 ppg) might not be the scoring threat that he set
out to become, but at any moment he can unleash a barrage of three-pointers
that will keep defenses on their toes. McKrieth, who has raised his scoring
every year with the Owls, up to 15.8 ppg last season, will now be called upon
to make more of the passing decisions for the group since they lost Rashid
Smith and his nearly five dishes a game. The Owls have been to the postseason
(NIT) just three times since 1977, but that should change this year.

NEVADA – With success comes change, and that is nowhere more evident in the
Western Athletic Conference than on the campus of the University of Nevada
where the squad is dealing with a new leader on the court as well as one on
the bench. After advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament for the
first time in school history, Kirk Snyder, the 2004 WAC Player of the Week,
opted to forgo his senior campaign and is now on an NBA roster after being
selected in the first round of the draft. So, not only are the players trying
to find new direction on the court, the person who helps to make that decision
is also new, since Trent Johnson took his new-found fame to the Pac-10
Conference and Stanford. In steps Mark Fox as head man on the bench for the
Pack after spending the last four seasons with the team as an assistant.
Making the transition a bit easier will be the performance of players like
Nick Fazekas, Kevinn Pinkney and Jermaine Washington. Fazekas, named to the
WAC All-Nowcomer team last season after he led the team in rebounding (7.6
rpg) and was second in scoring (12.6 ppg), is chock full of potential in his
6-11 frame, and the fact that he’s only a sophomore means that he can grow
along with Fox’s program for the time being. This year’s team captain, Pinkney
has finally started to make his presence known in the paint in the last year
or so, clearing almost six rebounds and posting 9.4 point per contest.
Although he was not expected to be one of the go-to guys this season,
sophomore guard Marcelus Kemp will have no plays run for him in 2004-05 after
he tore the ACL in his left knee this past summer. Last year, Kemp appeared in
all 34 games for the Pack and averaged close to five points per outing.

LOUISIANA TECH – Practically anyone and everyone who writes about the Bulldogs
heading into this season has one player on their mind, and that’s sophomore
forward Paul Millsap. LaTech finished just 15-15 last season, 8-10 in league
play which left the group in seventh place in the conference standings, but
had they had another one or two players like Millsap at their disposal there’s
no telling how great the program could have been. Millsap came out of nowhere
practically to not only lead the Western Athletic Conference in rebounding but
the entire nation for that matter, his 12.5 rpg making him just the second
freshman since 1951 to lead the country in that department. Luckily for
the Bulldogs, he was not just one-dimensional as he also scored 15.6 ppg for
the Keith Richard-led unit. Thanks to help from his teammates, Millsap and the
Bulldogs also placed seventh nationally in rebounding margin, checking in with
a plus-seven on average game in and a game out. But Millsap can’t do it all
himself, which is why the further development of Corey Dean and Wayne Powell
is so important in 2004-05. Dean, a local product from Ruston, started all
but one game for the group last year and chipped in with 12.7 points and
almost two and a half assists per contest. Powell is there to take some of the
rebounding burden away from Millsap, having already proven his worth with five
and a half boards per game a season ago. Throw in point man Donnell Allick
(11.2 points, 3.6 assists per game) and the Bulldogs have all the necessary
parts to play strong throughout the campaign.

HAWAII – For quite some time now Hawaii has been that one team in the WAC that
is always expected to do well, but seems to underachieve as far as most
critics are concerned. Last year head coach Riley Wallace, who needs just 17
more victories this year to give him 300 for his career (20 years) with the
Warriors, pushed his team into the postseason for the fourth straight season,
even though it was the NIT once again. The Warriors finished with a record of
21-12 and placed fifth in the WAC with 11 victories in 18 tries, which is why
the program has had a winning record for five straight years and in all but
four of Wallace’s seasons in Honolulu. However, this season might be a bit
different for the Rainbows as they deal with having to fill four starting
positions from last year, more than half of their scoring production. Senior
forward Jeff Blackett showed moments of brilliance when he was inserted into
the starting role for the group and was given plenty of time off the bench,
posting 7.9 ppg, but now that he’ll be the main focus in the paint the points
may not come as easily. The player that the Warriors are counting o n to make
them respectable this time around is junior forward Julian Sensley, a local
product who comes by way of Los Angeles City College for his second year at
the Stan Sheriff center. Sensley averaged 12.3 ppg, the team’s top returning
scorer, and was among the top 10 in the WAC in both rebounding (7.3 rpg) and
assists (3.4 apg) as well. The real problem with this team lies in the fact
that so many players have little or no experience with the program. Heading
into the season there are no less than eight players designated as junior
college transfers and another transfer (Brandon Matano) from Siena College, so
there are going to be a lot of growing pains in the early going.

BOISE STATE – They may have been just NIT victories over UNLV and Wisconsin-
Milwaukee last season, but those two postseason triumphs were more than the
Broncos had in their entire history at the Division I level, which is why
there is optimism in Idaho as Boise State starts playing in the newly-renamed
Taco Bell Arena. Even though the Broncos have lost two of their top three
scorers from a team that finished 23-10 a year ago, 12-6 in WAC play, head
coach Greg Graham is far from ready to concede this season before it begins.
As the 11th-leading scorer in the Western Athletic Conference last season with
his 13.7 ppg, senior Jermaine Blackburn has proven that he can carry a
significant amount of the offensive burden for the group, although at 6-6 the
guard/forward is going to have to do better than just three rebounds per game
if opposing teams are going to consider him a viable force in the paint at
both ends of the floor. Senior forward Jason Ellis is on his way to becoming
the school’s all-time leading rebounder, needing 108 boards to turn the trick.
Perhaps with his improved efforts at the offensive end he’ll also be able to
translate caroms into baskets for himself and others. Sophomore guard Coby
Karl showed poise for a youngster last year as he knocked down 34.3 percent of
his three-point shots, and with several guards having departed he’s going to
find the ball in his hands out on the perimeter more and more. The issue that
BSU has this year is experience, or a lack of, with five junior college
transfers and three freshmen to work into the rotation in order to find the
right combination for success.

SOUTHERN METHODIST – Picked as a consensus First-Team All-WAC member by the
coaches and media heading into the season, junior guard Bryan Hopkins is well
aware of the pressure that SMU and Dallas basketball fans are lumping onto his
six foot frame. Last season Hopkins, who closed out the campaign’s last five
contests by scoring a scorching 24.4 ppg, rang up 17.7 ppg for the Mustangs as
he started all 29 of the games in which he appeared. Hopkins was also good for
nearly four rebounds, four assists and two steals per contest in 2003-04,
which solidified his importance in the success for this year’s group.
Unfortunately, while Hopkins was carrying the team, it still led to a record
of just 12-18 and eighth place overall in the WAC with a 5-13 mark. The team
loses just one starter from last season and the four remaining are actually
the top four scorers from 2003-04. Senior forward Patrick Simpson made splash
in the team’s WAC tourney win over Tulsa, putting up 20 points, five boards
and three assists, which leads one to believe it can only get better for the
Denver native. That’s what new head coach Jimmy Tubbs is counting on since
this is his first chance at leading a Division I squad. Tubbs, who spent the
last two years as an assistant with Oklahoma, is no stranger to SMU
basketball after sitting on the bench for 12 years under both Mike Dement and
John Shumate so he knows the scrutiny under which the program operates.

TULSA – The Golden Hurricane return four starters from a season ago when they
finished tied for eighth in the conference with a record of 5-13. Just two
years removed from a 27-7 record and a tie for first place in the WAC, Tulsa
had its streak of five straight postseason appearances snapped. What’s even
more troubling is that the Hurricane now has to go into the 2004-05 campaign
without they top player from last season, Jason Parker, who averaged team
highs with 16.9 points and 2.9 assists per contest. Senior forward Jarius
Glenn has proven himself to be a viable scoring option for the team, raising
his scoring average each of the three years that he’s been with the program.
last year that mark reached 12.6 ppg as he shot better than 50 percent from
the floor and also cleared 6.1 rebounds per game to lead the unit.
Unfortunately, he and his teammates still didn’t work the boards hard enough
as they lost out on the battle of the glass by six rebounds a game, seven and
a half per outing when it came to WAC opponents. Junior forward Anthony Price
(10.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) also has a lot of untapped potential still to be
realized, but until he can raise his free-throw shooting percentage (.459)
past his field goal shooting (.539), there’s still a lot of work to do with
him in the post.

FRESNO STATE – For the first time since the 1994-95 campaign the Bulldogs are
entering a new year following a losing season. Last year Fresno State lost
five of its first seven games and then crumbled in February with just two wins
in eight chances during the month. Overall the Bulldogs, under the guidance of
second-year head coach Ray Lopes, put up a records of just 14-15 but was a
rather respectable 10-8 in league action. Unfortunately, the squad loses its
top two scorers in Shantay Legans and Marcus West, which means senior center
Mustafa Al-Sayyad is now the centerpiece for the group. He’s one of the top
players at his position in the WAC, collecting a team-high 7.3 rpg, but he
scored only 8.4 ppg despite spending most of his playing time in the paint and
under the basket. Coming on strong late in the season once it was clear that
the Bulldogs were not going anywhere once the regular schedule had concluded,
now-senior guard Dreike Bouldin put up some impressive numbers with 11.3
points and 8.3 rebounds per game over the last six. Overall he produced just
4.5 ppg, but the promise of more is there for him, as it is for center Jack
Marlow. Checking in at 6-9 like Al-Sayyad, Marlow carries 100 more pounds on
his frame which, if he builds on his endurance, could prove to be a benefit
for the ‘Dogs on the inside. The problem here, like it is with many schools,
is that FSU has far too many underclassmen without experience to rely on, six
freshmen overall.

SAN JOSE STATE – The Spartans were absolutely abysmal last season and adding
the two previous years under head coach Phil Johnson, the team has just 25
wins in the last three campaigns. San Jose State posted just one win in 18
chances in league action last year, a narrow 56-53 triumph over Louisiana Tech
at home in February to break up what would have been a 20-game skid. Under
Johnson the team has just 10 WAC victories in 50 chances over three years, and
that’s just not enough to get it done. And if one thought that it just
couldn’t get any worse, it already has with three of five starters from last
season gone. SJSU doesn’t have a single returning player who averaged double-
digit scoring, although senior forward Marquin Chandler did put up 11.7 ppg
against WAC opponents, even though the team as a whole lost those games by an
average of more than 12 ppg. The only other starter back for another year for
the Spartans is senior guard Kareem Guilbeaux, the only two-time letter winner
on this year’s roster. Michael McFadden, one of only six players to have more
assists than turnovers last season, shot well from behind the arc (34.6
percent) last year but was just 37.3 percent from the field overall. The
Spartans should keep their expectations within reason this season, especially
with no less than seven junior college transfers on the roster and not having
won a single road game all of last year.