WAC Wrap & Tourney PreviewPosted by Brian Goodman on March 9th, 2011
It’s Utah State and everyone else. At least that’s what it looks like on the outside looking in. However, this could be one of the most wide open tournaments in years. Anyone can beat anyone. Heading into the final week of play, there was a scenario in which five teams could have finished 9-7 and tied for second. While it didn’t turn out that way, the teams are still tightly bunched and it should lend itself to a few upsets.
The hottest team coming into the tournament is Boise State, having won seven in a row. Right behind them is Utah State with five in a row. Idaho earned the 4-seed and is the only team to have handed Utah State a loss. Hawai’i could be the darkhorse in this tournament as the 5-seed. If they make it past Adrian Oliver and San Jose State, they certainly will have revenge on their minds against Idaho, who swept the season series. The Warriors are the only team to push Utah State in both regular season meetings and have what it takes on a neutral court to upset the regular season champs.
On the other side of the bracket, an exciting showdown between New Mexico State and Boise State looms in the semifinals. That is, if the Aggies can get past their quarterfinal game. They face the winner of the Nevada/Fresno State game and both of those teams beat the Aggies this year. Should fans be lucky enough to see a Boise State/New Mexico State game, it could be the game of the tournament in terms of excitement. These two teams played an epic triple-overtime championship game in the 2008 tournament, with Boise State coming out on top. The Broncos and Aggies split the season series and the average final score of the past nine games is 92-85.
New Mexico State is the defending tournament chance and could make a run to its second straight title and third in five years IF they play with a higher level of energy. Head coach Marvin Menzies is 10-3 in his tournament career and knows how to get his players up for tournament games. The Aggies have made it to at least the semifinal game each year they’ve been in the WAC.
The interesting question again this year is whether Utah State has done enough to warrant an at-large berth if they don’t win the WAC autobid. USU steamrolled through the WAC for the second straight season, but they have just one quality win, a Bracketbusters victory over St. Mary’s. No doubt the UtAgs will be rooting heavily for SMC in the WCC tournament final on Monday night as it will only add to that quality win. No other team in the WAC has a shot at an at-large bid, so it’s do-or-die for the remaining seven. Hawai’i with a win or two could earn themselves an NIT bid, as can Boise State. Idaho could find themselves in the CBI with a win or two in the tournament as well.
Also, on a side note, Boise State stands at 19 wins, Hawai’i and Idaho at 18. Utah State has 28 wins and the last time the WAC failed to produce multiple 20-win teams was the 1982-83 season. Should the Broncos, Warriors or Vandals lose prior to the semifinals, there is a strong possibility that streak will come to an end.
Hawai’i and Boise State have overachieved, but the rest of the league can point to injuries and youth as the reasons for their “down” seasons. There was no question that with the talent drain in the WAC after last season that it was going to be a down year in the WAC.
Should Utah State win the tournament title, they could be looking at a single-digit seed. They have just one “bad” loss, against Idaho on the road. Their other two losses were to BYU and Georgetown.
A Look Back
The storyline of the season was the sheer domination of Utah State. The northern Aggies finished the conference season 15-1 and head into the WAC Tournament as the prohibitive favorite.
The other main storyline of the WAC season has been the parity from positions two through eight. There has been so much parity in fact that the remaining seven seeds in the conference tournament were not determined until the final week of play with spots three through eight up for grabs on the final night of play.
One can’t talk about the season and not talk about injuries. They’ve affected nearly every team. No team has been hit harder than perennial contender New Mexico State. The southern Aggies lost star forward Wendell McKines on the second day of practice and he elected to redshirt leaving New Mexico State without their double-double machine. The injuries kept piling on as Troy Gillenwater suffered a severe ankle sprain and missed several games. Gillenwater re-injured the ankle a couple weeks ago and missed another game and last week he broke his thumb on his shooting hand. Aggie starting center Hamidu Rahman has been bothered by a calf injury nearly the entire season limiting his effectiveness. Even lone senior Gordo Castillo was not immune to the injury bug, as he also missed a game due to a sprained ankle.
WAC leading scorer Adrian Oliver missed some playing time for San Jose State due to concussion-type symptoms. Utah State’s Tai Wesley broke his nose for the second consecutive season, Louisiana Tech lost their second leading scorer Brandon Gibson for the season with an injury and Hawai’i center Bill Amis missed significant playing time in non-conference play with a foot injury. Those are just a few of the players that missed playing time.
- Three players deserved mention for consideration as WAC Player of the year. They are Adrian Oliver (San Jose State), Tai Wesley (Utah State) and La’Shard Anderson (Boise State). Wesley’s team won the most games and also captured the regular season rather easily, Anderson’s play catapulted the Broncos into a winning season plus a second place finish and Oliver was unstoppable offensively, although San Jose State finished in eighth place. How an individual defines the POY winner determines the choice.
- The WAC Coach of the Year should be “The Stache” — aka Don Verlin. Idaho was picked to finish eighth by both the coaches and media (the Vandals ended up in third place) and UI best epitomized the ;whole being better than the sum of its parts’ maxim. Verlin’s group absolutely achieved the most with the least. Hawaii was supposed to be the WAC caboose, so Gib Arnold also deserves some love for an 8-8 fifth place finish. Of course, Stew Morrill was fine, as usual, at Utah State but he enjoyed the largesse of four returning senior starters.
- The Top Newcomer was Brockeith Pane because his numbers — 12.9 PPG, 50% overall shooting, 4.3 assists per game — only tell part of his story. Pane’s dribble-drive penetration and creative ability brought as aspect to Utah State that no other Aggie could offer and that helped immensely when the offense wasn’t producing shots or points. UH’s Zane Johnson, he of the prolific three-point shooting (40.8 percent) and scoring ability (15.9 PPG) is next in our ranking.
- Deonte Burton was the unquestionable Freshman of the Year. Despite early doubts about his stroke, 15.3 points a game on 50% overall shooting and 45% on treys, plus his 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals each time out made him the runaway winner.
- The Top Sixth Man goes to Utah State’s sub-six-footer Brian Green at 9.9 points and 2.1 rebounds a game. But the whole story is revealed with his 47% and 42% overall and three-point shooting percentages respectively. He wasn’t always ‘on’ but his stroke was the best of all the Aggie outside shooters.
- Best Game: Idaho’s win at home over Utah State on February 9 — the only defeat inflicted on the Aggies in the regular season — is far and away the top contest, though Boise State’s 102-101 quadruple-overtime victory over San Jose State and Utah State’s 89-84 double-overtime victory over Hawai’i in Honolulu both deserve honorable mention.
- Best New Big Man: Vander Joaquim (Hawai’i) who led the conference in rebounding, averaged 12.4 points per game, shot 55% and blocked 1.8 shots a contest.
- Marathon Man: Justin Graham at 39.2 minutes game– aided by the large number of OT games by the Spartans.
- On the Verge of Busting Out: Idaho’s Kyle Barone with 13.2 PPG (65% shooting) and 6 RPG in league play. He has the best hands of any big in the conference and just needs to use them this summer to both pack down more calories and hoist some iron.
- Provider of the Best Change of Pace: Brady Jardine with his over-the-top athletic ability amidst teammates much more bound by gravity, as evidenced by this angry dunk against St. Mary’s:
1. Utah State (28-3, 15-1)
Up Next: 03/11 vs. TBD
Utah State reaps the benefit of earning the one-seed by sitting out the first two days of the WAC tournament thanks to the new format that gives the top two finishers a double-bye into the tournament semifinals. They’ll face the winner of the Quarterfinal matchup which will pit four-seed Idaho against the winner of the first round matchup, five-seed Hawai’i vs. eight-seed San Jose State. The UtAgs have not had the best of conference luck. Despite being the four-time regular season champion, they have just one tournament title to show for it.
2. Boise State (19-11, 10-6)
Up Next: 03/11 vs. TBD (ESPN2, 9:00 p.m. PT)
The Broncos likewise earn the double-bye and will face the winner of the Quarterfinal matchup between three-seed New Mexico State and first round winner (six-seed Nevada vs. seven-seed Fresno State). Boise State enters the tournament as the hottest team in the league, having won seven straight games. The Broncos won the conference tournament in 2008 with a similarly veteran roster.
3. New Mexico State (15-16, 9-7)
Up Next: 03/10 vs. TBD
New Mexico State earns the three-seed in the WAC tournament and avoids having to play four games in four days to try to defend their tournament title. The Aggies will face the winner of the Nevada/Fresno State game and split with both teams during the regular season. The Aggies may be without the services of junior center Hamidu Rahman as he continues to be inhibited by a calf injury.
4. Idaho (18-12, 9-7)
Up Next: 02/03 vs. Fresno State, 02/05 vs. Seattle
Idaho earns the four-seed in the WAC tournament and will face the winner of the Hawai’i/San Jose State matchup. Idaho must beware of a potential “look-ahead” as both Hawai’i and San Jose State are dangerous teams. Idaho is the only team to have defeated top seed Utah State and the rubber match would take place in the semifinals. However, SJSU with Adrian Oliver and Hawai’i (playing hot basketball, winners of nine of their past 12 games) are more than capable of knocking off the Vandals.
5. Hawai’i (18-11, 8-8)
Up Next: 03/09 vs. 8-seed San Jose State
The Warriors saw their five game win streak halted at Fresno State but still heads into the WAC tournament on a roll having won nine of their past 12 games. The Warriors will take on San Jose State at noon on Wednesday as the WAC men swap spots with the women by playing the early games the first two days of the conference tournament. Hawai’i defeated SJSU 77-71 just last week in San Jose. Hawai’i has the players to make a run and if the trio of Zane Johnson, Vander Joaquim and Bill Amis play well, they could certainly make a run to the title game.
6. Nevada (12-18, 8-8)
Up Next: 03/09 vs. 7-seed Fresno State
The Wolf Pack are in an unfamiliar situation. Accustomed to playing as the 1, 2 or 3-seed, the Wolf Pack find themselves playing in the first round this year. They take on Fresno State, a team that just ended Hawaii’s five game winning streak in emphatic fashion. The Pack and Bulldogs split the regular season series with each winning on their own home court. The winner of the rubber game will face 3-seed New Mexico State on Thursday.
7. Fresno State (14-17, 6-10)
Up Next: 03/09 vs. 6-seed Nevada
The Bulldogs look to make a run in the WAC tournament this week and erase what has been a largely disappointing season. They’ll face Nevada in the quarterfinals and then, should they win, they would face three-seed New Mexico State. The good news for Fresno State is that they have split with both teams this year so they know victory is attainable. Tim Steed is back in the fold after sitting out several games due to a suspension and his shooting prowess will be needed for a deep run.
8. San Jose State (15-14, 5-11)
Up Next: 03/09 vs. 5-seed Hawai’i
A familiar foe faces the Spartans on Wednesday afternoon as they tip off the WAC tournament action facing Hawai’i. The Spartans lost to the Warriors last week 77-71 and lost the season series with the men from Honolulu falling 67-61 on the islands. Could this be George Nessman’s final ride as the head coach at SJSU? Can top scoring Adrian Oliver and sidekick Justin Graham lead the Spartans to an upset victory?
9. Louisiana Tech (12-20, 2-14)
Up Next: The offseason
It was an ugly end to an ugly season for the Bulldogs. Utah State came to town and embarrassed the Bulldogs 72-30. LA Tech scored just two points (that’s not a misprint) through the first 13 and a half minutes of the game. Will there be coaching changes in the offseason? Will DeAndre Brown be back next season after sitting out the final five games due to suspension?