Tuesday , Mar , 07 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Western Athletic Conference Tournament Preview

The Sports Network

By Gregg Xenakes, College Basketball Staff Writer

FACTS & STATS: Site: Lawlor Events Center (11,200) — Reno, Nevada.
Dates: March 9-11. Television: SportsWest (Quarterfinals, Semifinals),
ESPN2 (Championship Game). Annual: 23rd. Defending Champion: Texas-El Paso

OUTLOOK: This might be the 23rd installment of the Western Athletic
Conference Tournament, but among the nine teams that currently represent
the league there are a total of just five titles, which tells you a
little something about this transient stop-over for schools looking for the
next big thing in terms of a conference affiliation. Of those five
championships, only one has been claimed by nationally-ranked and top-seeded
Nevada, which defeated last year’s champion, Texas-El Paso, in a 66-60
decision in 2004. Luckily for the Wolf Pack, in addition to UTEP having left
after last season, so have SMU, Rice and Tulsa, but in their places have
stepped Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State.

Normally a nine-team league would have a wrinkle or two to iron out in order
to accommodate teams for the league tournament, but this year the rest of the
members can thank Fresno State for getting into some trouble a short time ago
and, as a result, is prohibited from taking part in the postseason in any
capacity. The Bulldogs closed out their season with a 74-60 loss to this same
Nevada squad on Saturday, with the win extending the Wolf Pack’s current win
streak to 11 in a row, marking the longest streak for the program in 40 years.

Nevada, which has the WAC Player of the Year in Nick Fazekas and Coach of the
Year in Mark Fox, plays in the third game on Thursday against eighth-seeded
Idaho (4-24, 1-15). Fazekas, who led the conference in scoring with 21.9 ppg
and was one of only two players to average a double-double with his 10.3 rpg,
and his teammates crushed the Vandals in their first meeting this season in
Reno (70-44) but were nearly stunned a couple weeks ago in Moscow, when Idaho
fought hard in a 74-68 setback. With the tournament being played in Nevada’s
own building (Lawlor Events Center), the chances of the Vandals surprising the
favorite are quite slim, especially considering Idaho was last in the WAC in
scoring with a mere 60.6 ppg and second to last in points allowed at
72.2 ppg. Aside from a surprising win over Fresno State at home in early
February, the WAC schedule has been a complete loss for the Vandals, who
are riding an eight-game slide into the tournament and have dropped 18
of the last 19 overall. The only non-conference wins for the Vandals
were against Southern Utah, Eastern Oregon and North Dakota State.

Although they tied Louisiana Tech with a record of 11-5 in league play
this season, the Utah State Aggies earned the second seed in the
tourney thanks to the tiebreakers and will face off against a struggling San
Jose State (6-24, 2-14) program as a result. The Aggies (21-7) have
their own small spot in college basketball lore when, as a member of the
Big West Conference a few years ago, they finished the season nationally-
ranked, but after a loss in the conference tournament, became the first ranked
school since the event went to 64 teams that was left out of the field. USU
has won two in a row and five of the last six to close out the regular season
and expect players like Nate Harris (All-WAC First Team) and Jaycee Carroll
who is among the nation’s top three-point shooters, to carry it to the next
level.

As for the Spartans, they’ve been the doormat for the conference for a
number of years but have Idaho to thank for kicking them out of that
position this season. Along with the Vandals, SJSU is the only other
program in the WAC to have a negative scoring margin this season at
-5.4 ppg. The squad is last in the conference in field goal shooting (.408)
and is second to last in three-point shooting (.308) as well. With an eight-
game slide and just two wins overall since early December, there really isn’t
much hope for San Jose State moving on in the tournament.

Playing in the first game of the day on Thursday will be third-seeded
Louisiana Tech (19-11, 11-5) against sixth-seeded Boise State (14-14,
6-10). The Bulldogs have perhaps the toughest player that the rest of the
nation has never seen or heard of in Paul Millsap, once again a First-Team
All-WAC member. Millsap, who led the nation in rebounding as both a freshman
and sophomore the last two years, is doing it again for the Bulldogs with 13.5
rpg in 2005-06. In the regular-season finale versus Hawaii on the road on
Saturday, Millsap recorded 20 points and grabbed 23 rebounds. The rebound
total was the second-most of the season for him behind the 28 pulled down
against San Jose State in mid-February.

As for the Broncos, who lost to UTEP in the championship game last year
and have a record of 5-4 in the tournament overall, they are led by Coby
Karl, the son of NBA coach George Karl. The younger Karl posted 17.3 ppg and
earned Second-Team All-WAC recognition as a result. While shooting 40.9
percent from three-point range, Karl also led the unit with 112 assists, 13
blocks, 29 steals and was among the leaders with five rebounds per
game.

The most intriguing game of the quarterfinal round pits fourth-seeded
Hawaii (17-10, 10-6) against fifth-seeded New Mexico State (15-13,
10-6). The Rainbow Warriors, who have three championships to their credit,
but haven’t taken the trophy home to Honolulu since 2002, won seven of
nine games down the stretch but have won only three times on the
mainland this season. Led by All-WAC First Team member Julian Sensley, who
averaged 17.7 ppg and was also among the team leaders with 5.9 rpg and 83
assists, one never knows what the Warriors are going to bring to the
floor on any given night. One game Sensley will be the player who can do
it all and the next he’s making only a handful of baskets and limiting
his play because of foul trouble.

As for the other Aggies of the league, NMSU was very sporadic in the
early weeks of the campaign, unable to win back-to-back games until the
second week of January. Take away the team’s regular-season finale loss
to Hawaii on March 2nd (61-56), and aside from Nevada, New Mexico State may
have been the hottest team in the WAC thanks to the play of people like Tyrone
Nelson. Nelson, a First-Team All-WAC choice, led the team in both scoring and
rebounding in five of the last six outings, which is a big reason why the
group had a six-game win streak heading into the battle with the Warriors.
Nelson finished the year with 18.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.

Prior to UTEP taking the title last season, the top seed in the three
previous tournaments took home the big prize, which bodes well for
Nevada, which is going to be under a lot of scrutiny in front of the hometown
crowd. Clearly the Pack is the favorite for most people, but if Utah
State, which was among the nation’s best field goal shooting teams (.501)
as well as three-point threats (.419) can get on a roll, the Aggies
could get some revenge on a selection committee that held them out of the NCAA
Tournament a few years ago.

Nevada shouldn’t worry about making the NCAA Tournament because it’s
pretty much a lock already, which might be why a team like USU could slip
through and give the WAC some additional representation in the Big
Dance.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: Utah State