College Basketball Preview - Western Athletic Conference
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - OUTLOOK: With the 2006-07 slate ready to tip off, it appeared as though the New Mexico State Aggies were about to put their future in jeopardy when head coach Reggie Theus suspended junior forward Tyrone Nelson just a few days before the end of October. However, on October 28th it was announced that Nelson had rejoined the squad in Las Cruces, which means NMSU is again on track to finish at or near the top of the Western Athletic Conference standings. The only team that should be standing in the way of the Aggies is perennial favorite Nevada, which has the top player in Nick Fazekas back for yet another run at postseason glory. Coach Theus got New Mexico State to rise to the occasion in their first year in the WAC in 2005-06, putting up a record of 16-14 overall and 10-6 in league play, but with Nelson a year older and hopefully a little wiser, the outlook looks even brighter for the Aggies. Now entering his second year with the Bulldogs after spending eight with BYU over in the Mountain West, head coach Steve Cleveland has to be pleased with the fact that he too has all five of his starters from a year ago back. While Fresno State was the top scoring team in the conference with 73.8 ppg a year ago, Cleveland has to have just a little concern about the squad's defensive abilities after ranking last in the conference with 73.7 ppg allowed. In their first season in the WAC as well last year, the Utah State Aggies surprised more than a few people when they posted a 23-9 record and finished in a tie for second in the conference with an 11-5 mark. However, the squad has lost some significant players, especially on the inside, which will make it that much more difficult for the squad to matchup in the paint against some of the tougher players in the league this season. Although, having sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll back and ready to unleash one three-point bomb after another has to be a comfort for head coach Stew Morrill. Hawaii missed out on the postseason last year for the second straight time after going to the NCAA and NIT Tournaments in the previous four campaigns. While a new season always brings a renewed spirit and excitement, too many critical losses from the roster will probably hinder major improvement. Boise State, with five starters back again for 2006-07 is really lucky that Coby Karl is again ready to take on the world after the senior guard had made himself eligible for the NBA Draft following his junior campaign. Karl, the son of NBA coach George Karl, is back in Idaho now, even after rounds of chemotherapy this summer to treat thyroid cancer. Whether Karl is fully recovered should be apparent once he takes the floor for the season opener against Wyoming on November 11. As the top rebounder in the nation the last three seasons (an NCAA record), Paul Millsap loaded the rest of the Louisiana Tech team on his back and carried them as far as he could go. Now the Bulldogs are on their own and have just one starter back from last season's group that finished 20-13 and 11-5 in conference. Needless to say, head coach Keith Richard has his hands full as he asks his young players to provide a bigger bang in 2006-07. Of all the players coming back for the San Jose State Spartans, not one of them averaged as many as seven points per game last season, so to see them at the bottom of the conference standings should not be all that shocking. The same goes for Idaho which has a new head coach in George Pfeifer. The Lewis-Clark State College alum spent last season as an assistant with the Vandals, a team that has won a grand total of just 12 games the last two seasons. Of the 326 Division I programs, Idaho ranked 304th in scoring a year ago with only 60.4 ppg, so Pfeifer has his work cut out for him.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Nevada
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Nevada; 2. New Mexico State; 3. Fresno State; 4. Utah State; 5. Hawaii; 6. Boise State; 7. Louisiana Tech; 8. San Jose State; 9. Idaho
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NEVADA: Senior forward Nick Fazekas has tossed around the idea of leaving the Wolf Pack on a couple of occasions, but perhaps he stuck around this time because he saw something in this particular group that was lacking in earlier versions. A candidate for the annual Wooden Award, Fazekas is the most feared big man in the WAC this year because his talents run the gamut. The two-time WAC Player of the Year is more than just a huge presence on the inside, what with his penchant for averaging a double-double (21.8 points, 10.4 rebounds per game). Fazekas has a soft touch for a man his size, converting not only 52.9 percent of his shots from the field but also 84.6 percent at the free-throw line. Once a feared presence out on the perimeter as well, Fazekas had some issues with his long-range shooting in 2005-06, converting only 29 percent of his 107 attempts. Nevertheless, when you factor in his 68 assists and 49 blocked shots from a year ago, there are very few opponents who have the ability to matchup with him everywhere he goes on the floor. Junior guard Marcelus Kemp, who was named to the 2006 WAC All-Tournament Team, finished second on the Wolf Pack and 11th in the league in scoring with 15 ppg. While he started only 18 of 33 games in 2005-06, Kemp figures to be a staple in the lineup from the opening tip against Alaska-Anchorage on November 10. Senior guard Kyle Shiloh has increased his scoring average every year with the Pack, jumping up to 8.7 ppg last year, but it is his defense that makes him so much a force for Nevada. Players like Shiloh are what made the Pack first in the WAC in field goal shooting defense, limiting opponents to only 40.1 percent.
NEW MEXICO STATE: For the Aggies the season was almost over before it begun with the suspension of Tyrone Nelson, a member of the Preseason All-WAC First Team. Last year Nelson became the first New Mexico State sophomore to earn all- conference honors in almost 30 years thanks to his 17.8 ppg and 8.7 rpg. But as good as Nelson might be, the transfer from Prairie View A&M probably still takes a back seat to senior guard Elijah Ingram in the eyes of coach Theus. A guard himself who went on to become one of just seven NBA players to ever record 19,000 points and at least 6,000 assists, Theus knows the importance of having a man on the hardwood who can direct traffic and get the best out of his teammates, and Ingram appears to be that sort of player. Last season the guard struggled a bit with his shooting from the field (38.4 percent), but he was the closest thing the Aggies had to a consistent point guard with his team-high 89 assists. Of the 326 programs at the Division I level, NMSU was ranked 298th in assists with only 11.2 dishes per outing, so obviously Ingram will have to get more of his teammates to buy into the notion that passing is good. Although he has yet to play a game for New Mexico State, junior guard Fred Peete figures to be a huge influence on both Nelson and Ingram after spending time in the Kansas State program back in 2004-05. Peete did a little bit of everything while with the Wildcats, posting 13.0 ppg, 146 rebounds, 109 assists and 62 steals over the course of 29 starts. Senior forward David Fisher has been hiding behind the exploits of Nelson, but now would be a good time for him to work on the numbers (8.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg) that made him so important to the 16-14 program a year ago.
FRESNO STATE: While the exhibition tour of Canada that wrapped up in early September was not supposed to be a highlight film for the Bulldogs heading into this season, perhaps it served another purpose and got the players to know each other a little better. Continuity and chemistry are words that are often thrown around when talking about sports teams, so time to bond in the Great White North hopefully did just that for coach Cleveland and his team. Last season, the first under Cleveland, the Bulldogs produced one of the hottest scoring tandems in college basketball with Quinton Hosley and Ja'Vance Coleman bouncing back and forth with their scoring exploits. Hosley, a senior guard, ended up leading that fight with his 18.6 ppg, which was third in the conference. A transfer from Lamar Community College, Hosley, named a Preseason All-WAC First Team member, also brought a considerable amount of fight to the glass for the Bulldogs with his team-best 9.2 rpg as well. The team leader in blocked shots (31) and steals (58), the only real knock on Hosley was that he had far too few assists (38) considering how much time he spent on the floor. Coleman, a Preseason All-WAC Second Team selection, shot the same from three-point range (38.5 percent) as he did from the field last season. A starter in all 28 games, junior guard Kevin Bell kept FSU always moving in the right direction, even if they did finish with a 15-13 record. Bell posted a team-high 165 assists in conjunction with his 7.6 ppg, a number that could have been significantly higher were it not for his 59.5 percent effort at the charity stripe.
UTAH STATE: Not only are the Aggies trying to bounce back from having their top scorer (Nate Harris) gone, the squad has to pick up for two other starters from 2005-06 who are no longer residing in Logan. Junior guard Jaycee Carroll, who is just nine points away from becoming the 32nd player in program history to reach the 1,000-point plateau, is a master of the three-point shot for Utah State, which is why the team was among the nation's best at 40.1 percent from beyond the arc. Carroll shot almost as well from behind the three-point line (.451) as he did from the field overall (.465) last year. With 16.3 ppg, Carroll was the only player other than Harris (17.3 ppg) to hit for double digits on a consistent basis. Head coach Stew Morrill has been with the team for eight years and has yet to have a losing season, making it to the postseason in one form or another every year except 1998-99 when he began his tenure with a 15-13 mark. Last year, their first in the WAC after coming over from the Big West where they were one of the premier programs with Pacific, the Aggies never lost back-to-back games until they folded in the WAC Tournament against Nevada in overtime and then bowed to Washington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Based more on speed and accuracy from the outside, Utah State will again focus its energies on running the floor rather than feeding the ball inside to undersized players. Senior forward Chaz Spicer was a NJCAA First-Team All-American as a sophomore with Kankakee Community College before landing in Logan where he averaged 7.9 ppg and pulled down almost three rebounds per game purely as a backup off the bench. Similar to Spicer, senior guard/forward Durrall Peterson is another JC transfer who came over from Hutchinson and put together a strong effort in 2005-06 with 7.2 ppg and 3.4 rpg. While he shot 37.4 percent from three-point range, he made only 37 percent from the field overall. Ranked 11th in the nation, USU averaged 17.3 assists per game, so you can see how the Aggies plan to attack opponents once again, with ball movement and team play rather than individual showmanship.
HAWAII: Now entering his 20th season with the Warriors, head coach Riley Wallace is the old guard of the WAC, having guided his teams to 15 winning seasons overall and a streak of seven in a row since 2000. However, Wallace and the Warriors have not made it to the postseason in either of the last two years and have never made it past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Considering Wallace has brought this university along from a dismal 4-25 mark in 1987-88, there's always something positive to look forward to for this group. Of the players on the roster heading into this season, all but five have come to the land of sun and sand from another college at some point. Senior guard Matt Lojeski, who attended Eastern Wyoming College before arriving in Honolulu, is the top returning performer for Hawaii, having put up 13.6 ppg a year ago. A starter in all 28 games, Lojeski had the best mark from behind the three-point line among the regulars, converting 38.4 percent. Hawaii was not a high-scoring team by any means even though they did start out the campaign with an 84-62 blowout victory over Michigan State at home. Senior forward Ahmet Gueye dropped in 12.2 ppg and was responsible for a team-high 7.7 rpg for the Warriors, which is why he is such an important component for the group again this year. However, there are no guarantees right now with Gueye, who missed the last two games a season ago due to a torn ACL in his right knee. There are two other significant performers who are returning to action after injuries for the Warriors as well, Matt Gibson and Bobby Nash. Gibson, a junior guard who earned a medical redshirt last year for a staph infection, put up 13.0 ppg in 2004-05, while Nash was responsible for 6.2 ppg two years ago but often played well in key spots along the schedule.
BOISE STATE: Father and NBA head coach George Karl watched his son work out this past summer in preparation for the NBA Draft and recommended to the Denver Nuggets organization that they would be smart to snatch up Coby in the second round, but that was before the youngster decided to find his way back to Boise. Obviously head coach Greg Graham could not be happier with Karl's decision, because without him the Broncos would be worse off than they are right now. That's not to say that BSU can't make some big strides this year in the WAC, but compared to the other elite teams in the conference, the Broncos are simply a few notches below. A candidate for All-WAC and All-American honors again this season, Karl is currently seventh on the school's all-time scoring list with his 1,240 points. However, this team is not completely about Karl, although it often seems that way. There's also seniors Eric Lane and Seth Robinson for opponents to take note of every time down the floor. Lane, a perfect complement to Karl, averaged 11.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game a year ago. Robinson is a 6-6 forward who has the potential to produce double-doubles, but needs to be properly motivated. With such a short roster, it is important for coach Graham to start grooming some of the bigger bodies like Colin Hallberg (6-11) and Zack Moritz (6-10) and have them ready for relief duty down the stretch when the Broncos need it most.
LOUISIANA TECH: Last season the Bulldogs were ranked first in the Western Athletic Conference and 44th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 63.1 ppg, and a lot of that had to do with the presence of Paul Millsap in the paint. The rebounding machine who averaged a double-double with 19.6 points and 13.3 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs, didn't stop there in his quest for dominance. Of the team's 132 blocked shots in 2005-06, 76 of those were credited to Millsap over the course of his 33 starts. Now without the beast on the boards, LaTech is having to regroup and reassess what is available to coach Richard. A quick scan of the roster shows that, not only has Millsap taken leave of Ruston, so have starters Corey Dean, Michael Wilds and Daevon Haskins. Left to give a face to the Bulldogs basketball team is senior guard Marcus Elliott, who is the top returning scorer after putting up 7.1 ppg. In an effort to reload, Richard has put the call out to JC players who might like to make Louisiana Tech their next home for college basketball. Senior guard Jerome Richardson, who started the first 11 games of 2005-06, could be one of those players who finds his niche this year after putting up 5.9 ppg and averaging 3.6 rpg. On the bench with a foot injury early last season, forward Chad McKenzie is a player who needs to find his stroke from behind the three-point line after converting only 12-of-55 (.218) from long range. Averaging just over 14 minutes per game, senior guard Trey McDowell (5.7 ppg) certainly has potential. The cupboard isn't entirely bare in Ruston, but to expect a winning season may be a bit much.
SAN JOSE STATE: New head coach George Nessman made a little headway with a dismal San Jose State program last season, pushing the program to its first road win in 16 tries and the squad's first road conference victory in 22 efforts. Now that Nessman has those issues out of the way he can focus his efforts on 2006-07 even if he still hasn't fixed everything that is in need of repair. SJSU, which has made it to the NCAA Tournament just once since 1981-82, hasn't had a winning record since going 15-12 in 1993-94, so Nessman clearly has some time to try and get the program moving before he becomes just another casualty. The team had just two players average double-digit points a year ago (Demetrius Brown and Alex Elam) and both of them are now gone, which leaves Menelik Barbary as the top returning scorer after putting up a paltry 6.2 ppg. Barbary, a transfer from Bakersfield College, is an undersized center at 6-9, but as the tallest player on the roster aside from incoming freshman Oliver Caballero, he'll have to be the one to fight for possessions down in the post. Forwards Kevin Fleming and Lance Holloway will be expected to make up some of the difference along the front line, but Fleming is far from an offensive force after putting up only 3.6 ppg in 31 contests a year ago. Holloway has the potential to be a tight defender, especially down on the blocks. After redshirting in 2004-05, Holloway appeared in only 15 games a year ago, averaging one point and about two rebounds per outing. Senior guard Julian Richardson (4.0 ppg) might give the Spartans their best shot at a three-point threat after hitting 35.3 percent of his attempts in 2005-06, but the fact remains that SJSU was 319th in the nation in three-point field goals made last season with only four per outing.
IDAHO: Last in the Western Athletic Conference in scoring (60.4 ppg) and second to last in scoring defense (72.0 ppg), the Vandals gave themselves little opportunity to win games in 2005-06. With the writing on the wall in Moscow, the writing that read 4-25 and just 1-15 in their new conference, the Vandals decided it was time to make a change with regards to head coach and did not bring back Leonard Perry. Clearly the transition to the WAC from the Big West was not an easy one for Idaho as it recorded its second straight 20-loss season. Without top scorer Tanoris Shepard to turn to, coach Pfeifer has his hands full trying to get the Vandals back to a respectable level. A surprise win over Fresno State on February 6th at home accounted for Idaho's only victory of the new calendar year. The leader for Idaho this year will be senior guard Keoni Watson, who is the top returning scorer for the unit after putting up 10.4 ppg. More than just his scoring, the coach expects Watson to be one of those players that he can depend on for leadership when the times get tough. Senior forward Desmond Nwoke is still a work in progress even though he too is listed as a returning starter. Nwoke, who was forced to redshirt in 2004-05 due to an automobile accident, is a transfer from Laramie County Community College who has shown some potential but is still a raw talent. Watson and Nwoke are the only seniors on the roster, a roster littered with juco players and inexperienced personnel that will have to learn on the job. An important piece of the puzzle that must be found is an interior defense for the Vandals, one that will do better than place 325th out of 326 Division I programs in blocked shots last season.