RTC Summer Updates: Western Athletic ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on July 15th, 2011
With the completion of the NBA Draft and the annual coaching and transfer carousels nearing their ends, RTC is rolling out a new series, RTC Summer Updates, to give you a crash course on each Division I conference during the summer months. Our newest update comes courtesy of our WAC correspondents, Sam Wasson of Bleed Crimson and Kevin McCarthy of Parsing The WAC.
Revolving Door. The revolving door in the WAC consists of schools, coaches and players. Last summer, it was the defection of four schools to the Mountain West and the addition of three schools (Denver, Texas State and UT-San Antonio). This summer, there are no more defections (thankfully) but there have been additions. Seattle University will join the WAC for basketball starting in the 2012-13 season and the latest development has UT-Arlington joining their old Southland Conference brethren, Texas State and UT-San Antonio, in the WAC for the 2012-13 season. While it’s still one full season away, the signs are pointing to an eventual East/West split of the WAC. A pair of hopefuls in Utah Valley and Cal State-Bakersfield could bring the basketball league to 12 teams, but whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen.
Early Entries. On the personnel front, the WAC once again saw several underclassmen declare for the NBA Draft, but unlike last season, which saw four get drafted, none of the 2011 early entries were selected. New Mexico State scoring leader Troy Gillenwater was one of those who opted to enter early but he withdrew his name from the draft. However, he will not be returning to New Mexico State after hiring an agent and will likely seek out options in either the NBDL or overseas. Greg Smith from Fresno State opted to leave the Bulldogs after just two seasons but the 6’9″, 250-pound center did not hear his name called. One other big name is no longer with his team and that is Louisiana Tech‘s Olu Ashaolu who has transferred to the University of Oregon. Ashaolu averaged 14.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season for the injury and suspension-depleted Bulldogs and was one of the conference’s top talents. Ashaolu will be eligible immediately for the Ducks as he earned his undergraduate degree from LA Tech and because Oregon offers a graduate program not available there.
Coaching Carousel. For coaching changes, it was a busy offseason for a few teams as Fresno State and Louisiana Tech both opted for a fresh start, hiring new head coaches. Both schools drew high praise for their hires. The Fresno State Bulldogs lured Texas assistant Rodney Terry to Fresno while their namesake counterparts in Louisiana, the LA Tech Bulldogs, hired Ole Miss assistant Michael White. At just 34 years old, White is one of the youngest head coaches in the country joining familiar names Josh Pastner (Memphis) and Brad Stevens (Butler) at that age. New Mexico State also saw some major turnover in their staff as the Aggies lost a pair of assistants in Mick Durham, who took the head men’s basketball position at Division II Alaska-Fairbanks, and assistant Gerald Lewis, who returned to his alma mater, SMU, as the Director of Basketball Operations. The Aggies filled one of the two assistant positions by hiring former Kentucky standout Tony Delk who spent the past two seasons at his alma mater alongside John Calipari and staff in a non-coaching role. Delk figures to have an immediate impact on recruiting, having played in the NBA and also owning a national championship ring while with the Wildcats.
- Nevada: The Wolf Pack may have the most returning talent in the league and after taking their lumps last season (an 8-8 league record and 13-19 overall record), head coach David Carter, now in his third season, appears to have the Wolf Pack in position to exit the league in a common position: On top. Right now, it’s the Malik Story and Deonte Burton Show, with Dario Hunt along as a strong supporting piece. But both Story and Burton need to demonstrate greater consistency, as the former’s 40% overall shooting from the floor needs at least a 5% jump, as does the latter’s 42%. Story and Burton provide a great one-two punch. Story is more of a catch-and-shoot scorer while Burton went to the foul line a team-leading 185 times due to his dribble-drive talent. Hunt slowed down a bit towards the end of last season, but he is the top big in the WAC for 2011-12. Add Olek Czyz and the Wolf Pack should have zero trouble regarding consistent production. But Czyz needs to add a dribble-drive weapon to his repertoire plus tally a much better free throw shooting percentage than 60%. The one thing Nevada needs is more reliable bench play in order to prevent a major dropoff in proficiency when two or more of the starters are on the bench. If they can shore that up, the league may be theirs for the taking.
- Hawai’i: Last season, the Warriors went 8-8 in league play and notched 19 victories under first-year head coach Gib Arnold. Hawai’i has solid talent coming back and has added some intriguing players which could lead the Warriors to a run for the league title this season. Recall that Hawai’i was the only team to play the league champs, Utah State, close in both regular season meetings (the rest of the teams put up a good fight in one or none of the games but not both). Zane Johnson is the top returner for the Warriors. The transfer from Arizona showed his ability to torch the nets and he should end up as the leading scorer on this team as well as one of the top scorers in the league. He averaged 15.9 PPG last season during conference play, which put him fourth in the league in scoring. The three players ahead of him are no longer in the league and of the top 15 scorers in conference play last season, just five return this season. This is Zane Johnson’s team and remaining healthy all season is a must for the centerpiece. One of the other top returners for the Warriors is big man Vander Joaquim, who averaged nine rebounds per game in league play. The addition of freshman point guard Shaquille Stokes (along with the probable midseason addition of point guard Jeremiah Ostrowski from the football team) as well as Jace Tavita, a transfer from Utah who will be eligible in the spring semester, and this team appears to have the pieces in place for a title run.
- Utah State: It’s always hard to pick against Stew Morrill, but this could be a little bit of a down year for the Aggies. Coming off a 30-win season, the Aggies lose four important players from last year’s team in the persons of reigning WAC POY Tai Wesley, Nate Bendall, Brian Green and Tyler Newbold. The UtAgs do return point guard Brockeith Pane and Brady Jardine (he of the angry dunk versus St. Mary’s). For the first time in quite a while, there are many questions needing answers for the Aggies. However, we have no doubt that Morrill’s team will still be in the title picture come March thanks in large part to his coaching. You don’t win 25-plus games per season for over a decade without good coaching.
- New Mexico State: There may not be a more snake-bitten program in the WAC than New Mexico State. The Aggies always have some of the best talent in the league and yet have managed to have an inordinate number of obstacles thrown in their path that are either out of their control (injuries) or in their control (academics) that have prevented them from realizing their full potential. For the second consecutive season, the Aggies will lose their top scorer due to early departure. Last season, it was the departures of Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson and this season, it’s Troy Gillenwater and his nearly 20 points per game. The Aggies return the services of Wendell McKines who redshirted last season due to injury and a pair of other seniors in Hernst Laroche and Hamidu Rahman who will give the Aggies a solid foundation for the upcoming season. However, the question that remains for the Aggies (perhaps for the first time in a long time) is where the scoring will come from. Laroche is a better distributor than scorer and the Aggies would much prefer his role to be just that. Wendell McKines will likely be a solid 15/10 type and the Aggies certainly hope that a fully healthy Rahman can provide ten and ten on a nightly basis. However, past that, there are no Aggies on the roster who averaged more than nine points per game. In fact, of the returnees, Laroche is the only player to have averaged double figures last season (11.5 PPG). The key to the Aggies’ season will be in the development of Christian Kabongo, who averaged 8.9 points per game last season but shot just 18.7 percent from the three-point line and only 37.9 percent from the field overall. Kabongo has the ability to create scoring opportunities but played a bit too out of control last season (often times driving wildly to the basket with no clear plan in mind). If Kabongo can play within himself, he could find himself being the leading scorer on the team, perhaps approaching 20 points per game. The talent is clearly there but the discipline needs to improve. The Aggies have a host of newcomers who will be relied heavily upon, including Remi Barry and Daniel Mullings. It is still unknown whether K.C. Ross-Miller will be eligible this season, but if he is, he could provide valuable minutes as a former SEC-level talent. Once again, the Aggies are a team with tremendous upside potential, but whether they live up to it will be the million dollar question.
- Idaho – Idaho surprised many last season finishing third in the league at 9-7 despite what on the outside appeared to be lesser talent than the 2009-10 team. However, much like Stew Morrill’s Utah State teams are about collective play, so was Don Verlin‘s Idaho team last season. No player averaged more than 12.8 PPG and no player averaged more than 5.8 RPG. It was clearly a team effort. Kyle Barone returns in the middle and is the Vandals’ best returner. He appears poised to make a much more indelible impression in WAC basketball circles this coming season. In 26 minutes an outing, he averaged 10.5 points (shooting 61%) and 5.8 rebounds with a body desperately in need of at least 20 more pounds. With a summer to add muscle, Barone should look to be an All-WAC first or second teamer. Look for Idaho to have a very solid in-the-paint game this coming season based on one of the better group of bigs in the WAC. However, some outside sharpshooting will be needed to keep defenses honest since graduated senior Jeff Ledbetter is taking his 45% long distance success rate with him. It appears the key for Idaho this season will be the contribution of their guards and wing players. The Vandals have a pair of JUCO transfers coming in in Mansa Habeeb and Anthony Jones who could have immediate impacts and the Vandals return Deremy Geiger who needs to shoot the ball better (just 32 percent from the field last season) in order for the Vandals to be contenders.
- Fresno State: The first of the two schools with new head coaches. First, the bad news. No more Greg Smith. The big man is no longer with the team after declaring for the NBA draft (hiring an agent in the process). The good news is that the Bulldogs do return Kevin Oleikabe, who led the team in scoring at 12 points per contest. Tim Steed, the Bulldogs’ best three-point shooter last season (45.7 percent) is no longer with the team and a replacement for him will be needed. The Bulldogs hope that 6’7″ redshirt sophomore Givon Crump will become a scorer as he had a rep for production as a prep talent but didn’t play much (43 minutes) in his initial year at Baylor. As was the case last season with Hawai’i and Boise State, how the Bulldogs quickly adjust to a new coach and new system will be the key to their season, which will also be their last in the WAC.
- Louisiana Tech: Louisiana Tech is the other school in the WAC with a new coach and much like Rodney Terry at Fresno State, Mike White does not have the luxury of the team’s best player returning as Olu Ashaolu (14.2 PPG/9.4 RPG) now resides in Eugene. Also gone is point guard DeAndre Brown, who led the team in scoring at 15.8 PPG but spent the final weeks of the season riding the pine due to a suspension. The good news for LA Tech and White is that Brandon Gibson returns this season after suffering a season-ending injury early in WAC play. Gibson was averaging 9.2 PPG and 5.1 RPG at the time. Getting his team to score enough points is going to be quite the task for White, so his proposed running style will play to a strength — athletic ability. This fast-paced team will also defend with more intensity simply because of a new coach at the reins and gobs of playing time are there to be earned by who hustles the longest and hardest.
- San Jose State – The Spartans. Where to begin? Gone is leading scorer (and third in the country behind some guys named Jimmer and Kemba), Adrian Oliver. How do the Spartans replace his 24 PPG? Also gone is Justin Graham (14.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.4 APG). At least the Spartans return sophomore Keith Shamburger, who debuted with 12.4 PPG and 3.8 RPG but needs to shoot better from the field (36 percent from the field and 32 percent from deep). Shamburger is also going to be the major target of opposing defenses this coming season so that will take adjusting to. Another element worth noting is his 80/42 assist to turnover ratio, remarkable for a freshman. The other guard bringing big expectations is junior college transfer James Kinney, a combo player with scoring prowess plus the ability to create on the floor. Fellow JC transfer LaVanne Pennington will also be relied upon for scoring (mainly from three-point distance). In the paint, the Spartans have Wil Carter and a bunch of unknowns. Carter averaged 8.0 RPG and 9.8 PPG and will be the main focus of many solid WAC frontcourts. As has been the case for the past couple of seasons, the Spartans’ frontcourt development seems to be the major issue for the team.
Unlike last season, there is no clear-cut favorite entering 2011-12. We could see a rehash of the 2007-08 season, when four teams finished in first place. One certainty is that it’s unlikely we’ll see Utah State run roughshod over the league as they’ve done the past two seasons. Nevada probably has the most talent returning, Utah State has the best coach in the league, New Mexico State has perhaps the most athletic team (as usual) and Hawai’i, with a mix of returnees and newcomers along with a solid debut season from head coach Gib Arnold, has maybe the most momentum heading into the season. Those factors combined with a pair of first-year head coaches at Fresno State and Louisiana Tech should make for an exciting final season of the WAC as we’ve come to know and love it with Nevada and Fresno State headed for the Mountain West and Hawai’i headed for the Big West.
As you might have guessed, we think Hawai’i is the team that is ready to break through in 2011-12. The Warriors exceeded expectations in the first year of Gib Arnold’s tenure and really brought an excitement for hoops back to the islands that was clearly lacking in the Bob Nash era. With Zane Johnson on the outside and Vander Joaquim on the inside, the Warriors have as good an inside-outside threat as there is in the WAC. They’ll get a boost right around the time conference play starts as Jace Tavita (Utah transfer) becomes eligible and Jeremiah Ostrowski joins after fulfilling his duties on the gridiron. The addition of freshman point guard Shaq Stokes out of Brooklyn was a good get for Arnold, as he was also considering Colorado State, Western Kentucky and South Carolina. The pieces seem to be all there for the Warriors and as we noted in their team capsule, last season they were the only team to push WAC bully Utah State to the brink in both regular season meetings.
Mark Your Calendar
- As is the case nearly every season, the WAC will play its fair share of high-profile non-con games. Hawai’i will once again host the Diamond Head Classic (Dec 22-23, 25) with Clemson, Kansas State, UTEP and Xavier in the field along with Auburn, Long Beach State and Southern Illinois.
- New Mexico State will host Sean Miller’s revamped Arizona squad on November 29, a rare true road game for a BCS power.
- Nevada will host Washington on December 2, and also has games at UNLV and vs. BYU in Chicago. The Wolf Pack could also face Wisconsin in the Windy City.
- Utah State has inked a two-for-one with Mississippi State, and the Aggies will play visitor in the first battle this season.