2009-10 Conference Primers: #12 – WAC

Posted by rtmsf on October 26th, 2009

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Sam Wasson of bleedCrimson.net and Travis Mason-Bushman of Vandal Nation are the RTC correspondents for the Western Athletic Conference.

Travis’ Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Idaho (11-5)
  2. Utah State (11-5)
  3. New Mexico State (10-6)
  4. Nevada (10-6)
  5. Louisiana Tech (8-8)
  6. Fresno State  (7-9)
  7. Boise State  (6-10)
  8. San Jose State  (5-11)
  9. Hawaii  (4-12)

Sam’s Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. New Mexico State (13-3)
  2. Utah State (12-4)
  3. Nevada  (11-5)
  4. Idaho (11-5)
  5. Louisiana Tech  (9-7)
  6. Fresno State  (6-10)
  7. Boise State  (5-11)
  8. San Jose State  (3-13)
  9. Hawaii  (2-14)

All-Conference Team:

  • Mac Hopson (G), Idaho
  • Jahmar Young (G), New Mexico State
  • Luke Babbitt (F), Nevada
  • Sylvester Seay (F), Fresno State
  • Magnum Rolle (C), Louisiana Tech

6th Man. Kyle Gibson (G), Louisiana Tech

Impact Newcomer. Steffan Johnson (G), Idaho

wac logoWhat You Need to Know. Once a solid multi-bid league, the WAC has struggled to gain national traction in recent years but appears poised to send multiple teams to the Big Dance after graduating just eight starting seniors in the entire league after last season. Five of the nine WAC teams return at least four starters and New Mexico State returns all five starters. The league also returns 14 of the 15 top scorers this season.

Travis’ Predicted Champion. Idaho (NCAA #12) — one and done.  The Vandals have a storied tradition in college hoops — in the early 1980s, Idaho dominated the Big Sky under legendary coach Don Monson, leading an unlikely charge to the 1982 Sweet 16. But that remains the high-water mark for Idaho basketball. In the first three seasons after joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2005, the Vandals were a perennial bottom-feeder.

Last year, Idaho hired Don Verlin, a longtime assistant at Utah State under Stew Morrill, to lead the Vandals out of the hoops wilderness. The move paid dividends far more quickly than anyone expected. Verlin’s Vandals posted one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA basketball, going from an awful 8-21 to a respectable 17-16, despite having just seven scholarship players on the roster. It was the first winning season for Idaho hoops in a decade. The highest-profile sign of the turnaround was a much-celebrated season sweep of Idaho’s hated in-state rival, Boise State — another first-in-a-decade feat. The Vandals finished in a tie for third in the conference, but lost in the WAC Tournament’s opening round.

After going from “terrible” to “contender” last year, Verlin’s squad is poised to follow that up with a run to the WAC Tournament Championship. Six of Idaho’s top seven scorers return, including First Team All-WAC point guard Mac Hopson (16.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.9 apg) and big man Marvin Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg). Added to the mix are new depth and size in the post, along with probable conference Newcomer of the Year Steffan Johnson, a shoot-and-dish guard who earned First Team All-Big West honors at Pacific (14.5 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.5 spg) and will likely pair with Hopson to form the WAC’s best backcourt. The Vandals’ best freshman get is Corey Stern, a Rivals three-star forward from Seattle who spurned Big 12, Mountain West and WCC offers in favor of Idaho. He’ll likely see solid playing time and may even start some games later in the season.

With an experienced cast on the floor (four of five projected starters are seniors), plenty of depth at most every position and one full year under Verlin’s system, it’s now or never for Idaho. Next year will be a bit of a rebuilding project, and the players know it. They’ll be motivated to go out with a statement season that will silence the naysayers and re-establish the Vandals as a hoops power in the Pacific Northwest.

Sam’s Predicted Champion. New Mexico State (NCAA #12) — 2nd round. Head coach Marvin Menzies enters year number three as the head coach of the Aggies and after an up and down season last year that saw them fall seconds short of the WAC championship game, the Aggies are loaded and ready to make a run for the WAC championship. The Aggies lost no seniors this year, a stark difference from a year ago, and return virtually everyone to a team that finished tied for fourth in league play. The Aggies will be without their top rebounder Wendell McKines (Jr.) and fellow frontcourter Troy Gillenwater (Soph.) for first first half of the season due to academics. The Aggies will rely heavily on junior all-conference guard Jahmar Young and the team’s Jonathan Gibson, one of two Aggie seniors, to weather the first half of the season. If the two frontcourt stars are able to take care of academics and become eligible for the second semester, it will give the Aggies a shot in the arm and will be akin to a midseason blockbuster addition to an already deep team.

Other than the two players sitting out for academic reasons the Aggies lost center Chris Gabriel who opted to transfer after fellow freshman center Hamidu Rahman established himself as the top big man last season. However, the Aggies added a pair of frontcourt talents in BJ West (Cheneyville, LA) and Bandja Sy (Cergy, France) to go along with fellow frontcourter redshirt freshman Tyrone Watson (Ontario, Canada).

The Aggies are arguably the deepest team in the league and if and when McKines and Gillenwater return it will make the Aggies that much deeper.

Top Contenders:

  • Utah State  (NCAA #12) — one and done.  It’s extremely tough to pick against the WAC-juggernaut Aggies, but they’ll be sorely missing conference Player of the Year Gary Wilkinson, who owned painted areas all across the WAC during his career with Utah State. Coach Stew Morrill is a genius at getting unheralded players to produce massive numbers so the Aggies are not at all out of the picture. But with the WAC deeper this year than any other in recent memory, his job may be just a little bit tougher.
  • Nevada (NIT).  The Wolf Pack had a busy offseason and not all of it was good for the team. The biggest departure was not a player but a coach. Head coach Mark Fox left for the greener pastures of Georgia (read: the money of a BCS school). Taking over in Fox’s place is long time assistant David Carter. Carter was an assistant for both Trent Johnson (LSU) and Mark Fox (Georgia). Carter will be every bit as important as any player this season as the Wolf Pack hope to maintain their status as an elite WAC team. The team’s lack of depth could hurt the Wolf Pack as the season starts to hit the grind and fatigue or foul trouble could prevent them from winning close games late.

Top 10 RPI Boosters (all times local):

  • Nov. 13. Idaho at Utah, 7 p.m.
  • Nov. 17. New Mexico at New Mexico State, 7 p.m.
  • Nov. 18. Utah State at Utah, 6:05 p.m.
  • Nov. 21. Idaho at North Dakota State, 5 p.m.
  • Nov. 27. Nevada at VCU, 7:30 p.m.
  • Nov. 29. Nevada at North Carolina, 7:45 p.m. (Fox Sports Net)
  • Dec. 2. Brigham Young at Utah State, 7:05 p.m.
  • Dec. 9. Louisiana Tech at Arizona, 8 p.m.
  • Dec. 15. New Mexico State at UCLA, TBA
  • Dec. 22. Nevada vs. BYU, 7:30 p.m.

Key Conference Games (all times local):

  • Jan. 2. Utah State at New Mexico State, TBA (ESPNU) — This opening-weekend battle of the Aggies will reveal much about both title-contending squads.
  • Jan. 4. Nevada at New Mexico State, 9 p.m. (ESPNU) — The brutal opening weekend for NMSU continues and defending home court will be crucial.
  • Jan. 13. Utah State at Nevada, 8 p.m. (ESPN2) — A rematch of the 2009 WAC Tournament title game, there’s no love lost between these squads.
  • Jan. 25. Boise State at Idaho, 8 p.m. (ESPNU) — A vicious intra-state rivalry game, on national TV for the first time ever.
  • Feb. 3. Idaho at Utah State, 9 p.m. (ESPN2) — Can Idaho hang with Utah State on the WAC’s toughest home court?
  • Feb. 10. Nevada at Idaho (ESPN2) — A must-win home game for the Vandals and a chance for the Wolf Pack to demonstrate they’re still top dog in the conference.
  • Feb. 17. Louisiana Tech at Utah State, 9:05 p.m. (ESPNU) — Are the Bulldogs going to be a threat in the conference tournament? This game should tell the tale.
  • Feb. 24. Idaho at New Mexico State, 9 p.m. (ESPN2) — With just two weeks left in the regular season, a key road test for the Vandals and a huge opportunity for the Aggies.

Digging Deeper.

  • Utah State head coach Stew Morrill is the elder statesman in the WAC and his coaching tree features five head coaches, including one in the WAC (Don Verlin, Idaho) in addition to Randy Rahe (Weber State), Blaine Taylor (Old Dominion), Terry Dunn (Dartmouth) and Jeff Jackson (Furman).
  • Utah State holds the nation’s second longest home winning streak at 34 games, second only to Kansas’ 41-game home win streak.

Fun With KenPom. There may not have been a bigger difference between offensive and defensive efficiency for an NCAA Tournament team than exhibited by Utah State last season.  Stew Morrill’s squad was an excellent offensive team, ranking #17 nationally in offensive efficiency.  But they were very average on the defensive end, ranking #158 in that category.  It didn’t seem to hurt them much, though, as they still went 30-5 (14-2 in the WAC), and took Marquette to the last possession in the ir first round game of the NCAAs last year (losing 58-57).  

NCAA Tournament History. The last two years the WAC has been a one-bid league, but historically that’s been quite unusual for this conference.  In fact, other than 2003 when Tulsa was the sole WAC representative, you have to go back all the way to 1983 to find another year where only WAC team was invited to the Big Dance (Utah).  The league is 65-91 (.417) all-time, and a typical year sees at least two teams from the conference invited.  With the high number of players returning from last season throughout the league, it wouldn’t surprise to see the WAC move back to multi-bid territory very soon.

Final Thoughts. In the past four seasons the WAC has had four different conference champions in Nevada, New Mexico State, Boise State and Utah State. With the wealth of returning players from last season, the WAC will be as deep as it’s ever been and has hopes of returning to its multi-bid status this season. With non-conference games against North Carolina, Arizona and UCLA as well as battles with fellow mid-majors Utah, BYU, St. Mary’s, Virginia Commonwealth, New Mexico and UTEP ,this could be the season the WAC puts itself back in the national picture.

rtmsf (3729 Posts)


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2 Responses to “2009-10 Conference Primers: #12 – WAC”

  1. Myself and @Aggie2k1 joined forces to write Rush The Court's 2009-10 WAC hoops preview – check it out: http://bit.ly/OjFZ

  2. A lot of really impressive research, but take it from the WAC blogger, Idaho does not win the WAC this year. They won’t finish top 3 even. USU will probably win the regular season, but I don’t know about the tournament. USU replaces Gary Wilkinson (who wasn’t relied on that much) with Nate Bendall, a star from SLCC (who won the JC national championship last year).

    USU was replacing the WAC player of the yr/team leading scorer last year too and what did they do? They won 30 games.

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