Monday , Nov , 07 , 2005 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: Remember what the Western Athletic Conference looked like last year
when the Nevada Wolf Pack needed to worry only about Texas-El Paso and Rice
when it came to taking the regular season title? Well now, the 2005-06 outlook
has a whole different twist to it, aside from Nevada expecting to be at the
top of the pack once again. The Wolf Pack don’t have to be concerned about the
Miners or the Owls, or SMU and Tulsa for that matter, because all four have
decided that they’ve gone just as far as they can as part of the WAC and have
left the ranks for Conference USA instead. As a result of losing forty percent
of its members, the WAC has decided to fill in the gaps with cast-offs from
other conferences as the New Mexico State Aggies join the fray from the Sun
Belt, while the Idaho Vandals and the Utah State Aggies defect from the Big
West. For the last few seasons Utah State has been a strong team in the Big
West, but has always dwelled in the shadow cast by the Pacific Tigers. Just a
couple of seasons ago USU made history by becoming the first Division I
program, nationally-ranked at the end of the regular season, not to be invited
to play in the NCAA Tournament after it failed to win its league tournament.
As for those other Aggies from NMSU, they had just one win in 15 conference
games last season, so expect them to bring up the rear in the WAC this time
around, with the same going for Idaho which was a dismal 8-22 overall while
playing most of its games against inferior opponents such as UC-Riverside and
Cal Poly. As for the mainstays in the WAC, after Nevada comes a squad like
Fresno State which is going to have to find fill-ins for some vitally
important players, but always seems to be in the thick of things during crunch
time. The Hawaii Warriors, whether they still want to hold on to the “Rainbow”
aspect of their name, are quite a colorful bunch and could easily give the
Bulldogs a run for their money for second place. Having a pair of schools
nicknamed the Aggies might be tough to get used to, but it’s nothing new for
the WAC because it also governs over the Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech, a team
that has one of the top two players in the conference (Paul Millsap) but
doesn’t have the necessary supporting cast to make that big of a splash this
year. Following newly acquired Utah State in the final standings will be teams
like Boise State and San Jose State, with the Broncos needing to replace a
pair of crucial elements from last season and the Spartans failing to have a
single returning player who averaged double-digits in scoring a year ago. As
stated earlier, not only do New Mexico State and Idaho have to get used to
playing in a tougher league, but both will have to do so with inferior talent
and recent track records that show little sign of the two programs turning it
around any time soon.

CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Nevada

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Nevada; 2. Fresno State; 3. Hawaii; 4. Louisiana
Tech; 5. Utah State; 6. Boise State; 7. San Jose State; 8. New Mexico State;
9. Idaho

TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:

NEVADA: Considering the Wolf Pack’s biggest loss since last season was Kevinn
Pinkney (12.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg), there’s really no reason to take them off the top
of the list as the best team in the WAC. Certainly Pinkney was a terrific
player but Nevada, under the direction of second-year head coach Mark Fox,
continues to revolve around the exploits of one Nick Fazekas. Overlooked by
most of the country because he plays in a league that doesn’t get a lot of
press east of the Mississippi, and is in a state that has to do battle with
the ghosts of the famed UNLV squads from more than a decade ago, Fazekas is
not a name that casual college basketball fans know. However, the WAC Player
of the Year and Honorable-Mention All-American should have people talking even
more about his exploits this season. Fazekas, still just a junior, is an
extremely talented performer who is comfortable both in the low post as well
as out beyond the arc. In fact, that’s what makes him such a difficult matchup
for opponents, his ability to shoot the three-pointer at almost 33 percent.
According to the media poll conducted by the WAC in early October, Fazekas is
not the only talent on the Pack roster as sophomore Ramon Sessions, the
2004-05 WAC Freshman of the Year, was named a preseason All-WAC First Teamer
thanks to posting nine points, 5.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game as a
freshman. Adding some punch inside, while Fazekas works his way around
defenses to figure out his best mode of attack, is senior Mo Charlo who should
be putting up double-digit points per game in 2005-06. Recognized by many as
perhaps the best defender in the WAC, junior guard Kyle Shiloh could be so
much more if only he didn’t shoot the ball so poorly from the field (.305) and
beyond the three-point line (.216). As long as he bumps those numbers up and
the Pack gets efficient play from a couple of juco transfers and two healthy
youngsters who were lost to injury last season, another league title is not
out of the question.

FRESNO STATE: The last few years have seen the Bulldogs trying to hide one
black eye after another and it just hasn’t happened. The program hopes that
the hiring of former BYU head man Steve Cleveland might just start the ball
rolling in their favor once again. Although the Cougars fell to 9-21 last
season, there was a stretch of five straight years in which Cleveland got the
squad into the postseason, which is certainly an expectation for the future as
he moves back to California from where he graduated college himself (UC-
Irvine) three decades ago. But there is a lot of work to be done, what with
having a number of players leave the team for one reason or another. The FSU
roster doesn’t have a single senior listed, which means Cleveland could use
this year to institute his philosophy and then see how well it plays out next
year when the core players are in their final semesters. Most crucial to the
success of the Bulldogs this season is junior guard Ja’Vance Coleman who
finished last season as the team’s top scorer with 16.9 ppg following his
transfer from the College of the Sequoias. Coleman works hard on the glass
(5.0 rpg) and is not afraid to give up the ball (2.8 apg), but he does have a
knack for taking too many bad shots after converting just 36.6 percent of his
attempts from the field last year. Sophomore guard Donovan Morris (11.7 ppg,
3.4 rpg) was a pleasant surprise in 2004-05, now he just has to show that he
deserves to stay in the starting lineup. The rest of the starting group could
easily be filled out by a trio of juco transfers in Renato Cesar, Quinton
Hosley and Dekyron Nicks. Two other roster spots are being taken up by Justin
Loewe and Dominic McGuire, transfers from Texas A&M and California,
respectively, which means that next year this group will really be ready to
roll once that pair becomes eligible. And the entire program will have to wait
for postseason play apparently, as it was announced on November 4th that the
Bulldogs were issuing self-imposed sanctions due to recruiting violations. The
program is eligible to win the regular season title in the WAC, but will not
be invited to the league tournament, nor can it compete in either the NIT or
NCAA Tournament.

HAWAII: Topping Mississippi Valley State and Coastal Carolina in their first
two games of 2004-05 was pretty much expected, but then the Warriors defeated
Southern Illinois and followed that up with victories over Saint Louis, St.
Mary’s-CA, Long Beach State, Oral Roberts and USC before finally falling to
Fresno State after an eight-game win streak to begin the campaign. The Hawaii
faithful had never seen a run like that to start a season, and while it
probably won’t happen again this time around with schools like Michigan State
and Wisconsin-Milwaukee popping up on the schedule during the first three
weeks, there’s still some big potential in Honolulu for head coach Riley
Wallace as he moves into his 19th year wearing his flashy shirts courtside.
Showing up on the coaches preseason All-WAC First Team was senior forward
Julian Sensley who frequently led the Warriors in scoring, rebounding and
assists from one game to the next last year. Overall he finished with 12
points, 6.9 boards and 3.1 dishes per outing, making him a tough matchup for
defenders. Matt Gibson, not to be confused with Matt Gipson who averaged less
than five points per game and shot less than 60 percent at the free-throw
line, is the top returning scorer for the Warriors at 13.0 ppg and is one of
their top perimeter threats at 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. A local
product, junior guard Bobby Nash started just 14 games last year, mainly
because he was such an uplifting performer coming off the bench. Strangely
enough, while Nash has a good eye from downtown (.397), he seems to get a
little rattled at the free-throw line (.636). If there’s one aspect of
Hawaii’s game that is not complete it’s free-throw shooting, with the team
hitting just 66.1 percent as a group last year to place eighth in the
conference.

LOUISIANA TECH: It doesn’t happen that often, but there are some cases where a
school has one of the best players in the nation at his position, and still
they can’t get the right players to surround him and get him recognized. That
appears to be the case with the Bulldogs and All-WAC performer Paul Millsap
who has played like a man among boys since stepping foot onto campus in Ruston
a couple years back. Millsap, who became the first WAC player to lead the NCAA
in rebounding during his freshman year with 12.5 boards per outing, made sure
that it wasn’t a fluke and turned the trick again last year with 12.4 rebounds
per contest again. But he’s not just a one-dimensional force on the glass,
instead scoring in double figures in all 29 of LaTech’s games and registering
a double-double in all but seven of those contests, finishing with an average
of 20.4 ppg to place fourth in the conference. Should he lead the country on
the boards again this season Millsap, who became the first player in three
decades to lead the nation in back-to-back years, could become the greatest
rebounder that the college basketball world has never heard of. Rolling along
into his eighth year with the program, Keith Richard plans to leave no stone
unturned while trying to get this team back to the postseason. In addition to
Millsap, the Bulldogs have a bona fide playmaker in Daevon Haskins who placed
second in the league in 2004-05 with almost six assists per game. With the
emergence of Haskins, senior guard Corey Dean (10.5 ppg) can now focus more on
his woeful performance at the free-throw line where he made only 59.5 percent.
Along with the three primary returners, the Bulldogs also figure to get a lot
of mileage out of juco transfers Chad McKenzie and Jerome Richardson, the
latter being an NJCAA All-American at Frank Phillips College.

UTAH STATE: Here’s an interesting tidbit for the Aggies as they enter into
their inaugural season as part of the Western Athletic Conference; the team
has a winning record against every single member of the league except for
Louisiana Tech, against which it has yet to play. Obviously, that fact alone
is not enough to lift this team into the top half of the standings in the WAC,
but having led the entire nation in field goal shooting last season (.525)
certainly does validate the support that many are giving the program right
now. While its true that Utah State lost Spencer Nelson, one of the top
scorers (16.0 ppg) and rebounders (7.9 rpg) on the team, there’s still plenty
of talent from which eighth-year head coach Stew Morrill can draw from in
Logan. A two-time All-Big West Conference First Team member, Nate Harris is
one of those players that gets in the paint and doesn’t move until he gets the
job done. Scoring 13.0 points and clearing six rebounds per game was one
thing, but in 2004-05 Harris finished second in the entire country in field
goal shooting at 65.2 percent. While he’s managing to do damage in the key,
sophomore sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll takes care of the rest for the Aggies.
Also an All-Big West First Team choice last season, Carroll led the league in
three-point shooting at 47.6 percent, en route to 14.7 ppg. But before
defenders think he’s just focusing on one facet of the game they have to
realize that Carroll also helped teammates with four and a half assists per
game and mixed it up in the paint with almost as many rebounds per outing.
Regarded as one of the most underrated players in the league, senior guard
David Pak is as steady as they come, which is important with as many as eight
juco transfers and one freshman on the roster.

BOISE STATE: Playing in what is now known as Taco Bell Arena, the Broncos have
never had a losing season in the building since 1982-83, but all that could
change in 2005-06. Now in his fourth season with the program, head coach Greg
Graham would like to think he has a handle on affairs in Idaho, but it’s now
been more than a decade since Boise State appeared in the NCAA Tournament, and
when that happened the Broncos had just won the league title — in the Big
West Conference. The team has to adjust to having two huge influences depart
the program, with Jermaine Blackburn and Jason Ellis combining to average
almost 26 points and 14 rebounds per game last season, even though Ellis was
on the injured list for a spell. Needing only 259 points to crack the 1,000-
point barrier for his career, junior point guard Coby Karl, son of NBA head
coach George Karl, is the top returning scorer for the group after putting up
12.7 ppg and shooting almost as well from three-point range (.370) as he did
from the field overall (.408). But he’s not only looking to shoot the ball
when he brings it down the floor because he dished out 129 assists as a
sophomore, the fifth-highest single-season total in school history. As one of
only three seniors on the roster, forward Tezarray Banks has fully put his
height to the test for the Broncos, averaging just 5.1 ppg and 3.9 rpg last
season. If BSU is hoping one of the other seniors (McNeal Thompson or Kareem
Lloyd) is going to make much of an impact this year, the team is in some real
trouble. If nothing else, the schedule makers have been rather kind to the
Broncos in the early going, giving the squad opponents like Montana State-
Northern, Idaho State and Utah Valley State to toy around with before the real
games start.

SAN JOSE STATE: Last season the Spartans were the lowest-scoring team in the
WAC with just 61 ppg, the squad consequently being outscored by more than 10
points per outing after finishing just 6-23 before parting ways with head
coach Phil Johnson and bringing on George Nessman. Like the football team, San
Jose State hasn’t had a lot of success in recent decades in basketball,
winning its last outright league title way back in 1949. Early on, Nessman has
been able to put a feather in his cap by signing local product Devonte Thomas,
making him the first high school senior from the area to sign with the
Spartans in more than two decades. However, it’s a little early to get excited
about Thomas and the fact that this is the first major college head coaching
job that Nessman has taken, after playing a pivotal role in the success of one
Porterville College in California. Senior guard/forward Alex Elam has some
huge shoes to fill in the Bay Area with the departure of Marquin Chandler
(19.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg) who was one of the leaders in the WAC in both departments.
Elam, the top returning scorer with an average of just 9.8 ppg, actually shot
better from three-point range (.402) than he did from the floor overall
(.378). Matt Misko is another senior that the young squad can look to for
guidance, but he’s far from being a bona fide star after putting up just 6.2
ppg and 4.9 rpg as a 6-11 junior last season. But Misko will have to do for
now because beyond him, there are just four other players who stand taller
than 6-4. Donta Watson showed signs of growth in 2004-05, but he still has a
long way to go following a campaign in which he shot a miserable 34 percent
from the floor. Last season the Spartans leaned heavily on Chandler for
everything, now they have no one to blame but themselves when they crawl
through another disappointing campaign.

NEW MEXICO STATE: After putting up back-to-back 20-win seasons as part of the
Sun Belt Conference, the Aggies logged their second straight losing campaign
in 2004-05 as they finished a mere 6-24. If that were not bad enough, New
Mexico State was shown the door rather quickly by every other member of the
SBC, beating just one league opponent (Florida International) in 15 tries and
winning a meager three games after the first of December. As a result,
retiring Hall of Famer Lou Henson had to struggle through his final year with
the program and perhaps over-stayed his welcome. But now the real experiment
begins in Las Cruces as former NBA standout Reggie Theus is given the keys to
the Pan American Center to make what he can of the Aggies. With just two
seniors on the roster, there’s a lot of work to be done by Theus in his first
head coaching opportunity. Guard Mike Mitchell is the top returning scorer
after putting up 12.3 ppg and clearing almost four and a half rebounds per
contest. However, like the majority of players that now call NMSU home,
Mitchell is a transfer, in his case coming from Hill College, while someone
like Elijah Ingram tries to restart his career with the Aggies after starting
out with the St. John’s Red Storm and playing well during his first two years
before sitting out 2004-05 due to transfer rules. And that’s where most of
these players find themselves right now, either waiting to become eligible or
getting ready to put on the Aggie uniform for the very first time. At 6-11,
Trevor Lawrence is the other senior on the unit, hitting for 9.4 ppg but
grabbing just 4.6 rpg last season. Playing so close to the basket it only made
sense that Lawrence shot 55 percent from the floor, but converting an anemic
57.6 percent at the free-throw line makes him a liability in crunch time for
the Aggies.

IDAHO: Rather than ditching head coach Leonard Perry last season when the
Vandals finished 8-22 and only 6-12 in league play, Idaho allowed the now
fifth-year coach to blow up his support staff and build it back up again,
adding Leroy Washington and George Pfeifer who have shown due diligence in
other capacities of college basketball. Will that make a change in the way
that the Vandals play now that they’ve made the jump from the Big West to the
WAC? Probably not but at least it’s a start. Another positive to look at from
Idaho’s standpoint is guard Tanoris Shepard being granted another year of
eligibility. Shepard finished the season having started 29 of 30 games and
placing second on the unit in scoring with 12.1 ppg, not to mention leading
the group with 96 assists. However, as someone who fancies himself a long-
distance threat, Shepard converted only 32.6 percent of his 129 attempts
behind the three-point line last season, and because he was out on the
perimeter so much, he managed to collect less than two and a half rebounds per
game even though he averaged a team-high 33.2 minutes per outing. Now for the
scary part for the Vandals; behind Shepard, the next best scorer from a year
ago is Jerod Haynes who put up a mere 4.9 ppg. Worst of all Haynes, who is a
6-1 guard, shot an atrocious 29.2 percent from the field and just 26.2 percent
beyond the arc on 80 attempts. He did place second on the unit with 80
assists, which tells me he’s more valuable bringing the ball over half court
and then getting rid of it as quickly as possible so not to be enticed into
shooting when he has no range whatsoever. Considering the Vandals were just
2-13 on the road last year, scheduling the trio of Gonzaga, Washington and
Washington State all away from home in the first eight days of the season, was
not a wise move.