RTC Conference Primers: #14 – WACPosted by Brian Goodman on October 22nd, 2011
Reader’s Take I
- Utah State Looks To Maintain Dynasty: Will someone finally break Utah State’s stranglehold on the league? The northern Aggies have won at least a share of the regular season conference title four straight seasons but return only two key players from last year’s championship squad, point guard Brockeith Pane (the only starter) and forward Brady Jardine. Nevada, New Mexico State and Hawai’i all have a legitimate shot at dethroning the Aggies. Will one of them finally step up and do it?
- It’s The End of the WAC As We Know It: Boise State has already transitioned to the Mountain West, and Fresno State and Nevada will join the MWC as well next season. On top of that, Hawai’i is headed for the more travel-friendly confines of the Big West. The WAC will welcome Denver, Seattle, UT-San Antonio, UT-Arlington and Texas State in the 2012-13 season, not exactly an equal trade in terms of prestige and history. Can the WAC make some noise nationally before it slinks into relative obscurity next season? It’s up to New Mexico State, Utah State, Nevada and Hawai’i to make it happen.
- New Faces: Once again, the WAC welcomes some new coaches to the league. By all accounts, Fresno State and Louisiana Tech landed themselves a pair of good ones when they hired Rodney Terry and Michael White, respectively. Like the past hires at Idaho, New Mexico State, Nevada and Hawai’i, neither of them have any previous head coaching experience, but the hires were praised on a national level. Terry spent the past several seasons as an assistant coach at Texas while White, the son of Duke Athletic Director Kevin White, spent the past seven seasons as an assistant on the Ole Miss coaching staff. White is a youngster at just 34 years of age but finding that new hot coach seems to be the trend these days (Brad Stevens at Butler and Shaka Smart at VCU being the two prominent examples).
Predicted Order of Finish
- Nevada 10-4
- Hawai’i 10-4
- New Mexico State 9-5
- Utah State 9-5
- Idaho 6-8
- Fresno State 5-9
- Louisiana Tech 4-10
- San Jose State 3-11
- Hawaii (if Zane Johnson is healthy all season)
- Utah State
- New Mexico State
- San Jose State
- Fresno State
- Louisiana Tech
- PG: Deonte Burton, Nevada – Nevada’s point guard enters his sophomore season needing to be more of a distributor. He was a lethal scorer last year averaging 15.8 points per game, but was seventh in the league in assists at just 3.4 dimes per game.
- PG: Brockeith Pane, Utah State – Pane will need to continue his mastery of the Stew Morrill offense and will be even better this season than he was last year, considering all the new faces on the Utah State team.
- SG: Zane Johnson, Hawai’i – The 6’6” shooting guard is the player in the WAC most likely to pick up the scoring mantle vacated by Adrian Oliver (San Jose State) and Troy Gillenwater (New Mexico State). The transfer from Arizona had an immediate impact last season and was fourth in scoring in WAC play at 15.9 points per game.
- PF: Wendell McKines, New Mexico State – At 6’5”, McKines is an undersized four, however, his game is anything but undersized. McKines is the ultimate energy guy and would start for any team in the league.
- PF: Kyle Barone, Idaho – At 6’11”, Barone led the league in field goal percentage at 64.5% but didn’t crack the top ten in scoring. He’ll need to do that this season if the Vandals have any hope of contending for the title.
6th Man: Trevor Wiseman, Hawaii. Even at 6’7”, he probably won’t score a lot. His defensive effort and rebounding — just his ability to spark the team – makes him a valuable player in the WAC.
Impact Newcomer: Shaquille Stokes, Hawai’i – Stokes is just a freshman but he’s already had an impact on the court. The Warriors took an overseas trip this summer and Stokes poured in double figures in each game the Warriors played. While playing against Asian teams is not the same as playing against Division I competition, the experienced gained is invaluable for the youngster and could really help ease the transition into college ball.
Nevada (NCAA seed: #9): Nevada clearly has the most talent returning this season. Point guard Deonte Burton, shooting guard Malik Story, forwards Dario Hunt and Olek Czyz posted 91 percent of the Wolf Pack’s scoring from last season. They’re all back and they’re all a year more experienced. The Wolf Pack have by far the toughest non-conference schedule in the league with games against Missouri State, UNLV, Pacific, BYU, Wisconsin or Bradley (depending on a tournament outcome), Washington, Arizona State and Montana. There are opportunities aplenty for the Wolf Pack to not only make their case for an at-large bid but also to solidify a strong seed in the NCAA Tournament. The drawback to the schedule is that they could also fall flat on their faces as they did a year ago when they went 3-10 in non-conference play. Nevada also needs to find some depth. As good as the four players we mentioned are, they can’t all play all the time and Nevada will need to find some additional bench scoring.
Other Postseason Teams
- Hawai’i (NCAA seed: #13) – The WAC sending two teams to The Big Dance is a long shot, but if Nevada cleans up in non-conference, wins the regular season title but loses to Hawai’i in the tournament final, the WAC should get two teams in. This pick is predicated on that scenario.
- New Mexico State (NIT) – New Mexico State is the toughest team in the WAC to project. They’re always one of the more talented, athletic teams in the conference but they don’t always put it all together when you think they should. The Aggies lose a 20-plus point per game scorer for the second straight season (losing a pair in 2010-11) but this time there isn’t anyone waiting in the wings to pick up that scoring slack. The Aggies will be forced to rely on their defense, something that they have struggled with. With that being said, this team should win over 20 games and should send out seniors Wendell McKines, Hernst Laroche and Hamidu Rahman with a trip to the postseason. If the Aggies find that scoring punch and the defense is a constant, NMSU could very well win the league and make an NCAA appearance.
- Utah State (CBI) – It’s tough to see the Aggies falling this far after winning the league four consecutive seasons but with just one starter and four letter-winners returning, this may truly be a rebuilding season for head coach Stew Morrill. If the newcomers buy in early, Morrill could find himself contending for the league for a fifth straight season.
- Idaho – Head coach Don Verlin got just about all he could out of last year’s inexperienced squad as they notched a surprising third place finish in the league. This year’s team has just two players with more than one season of Division I playing experience. Verlin’s Vandals will be hoping to recreate the magic of 2010-11 when they were the least-experienced team in the nation to qualify for postseason play. Expect junior forward Kyle Barone (10.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG) to shoulder the load for the young Vandals.
- Fresno State – First year head coach Rodney Terry has brought a lot of excitement and enthusiasm back to the program but his work remains cut out for him in his first season. He must replace the Bulldogs’ best player, Greg Smith, who declared for the NBA Draft (but was not selected). On the plus side, the Bulldogs have more than one senior on the roster for the first time in four years and they also feature a talented sophomore in Kevin Okelaibe (12.0 PPG, 1.2 SPG) who will likely be the focal point of the Bulldogs’ offense.
- Louisiana Tech – A new head coach and pretty much a new team. Brandon Gibson is the only “household” name returning and his season ended after breaking is leg early in the WAC season. The Bulldogs also return sophomore Kenyon McNeaill (8.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.4 RPG) but their best player, Olu Ashaolu, transferred to Oregon in the offseason. With just six letter-winners returning this season, it really does feel like a blank slate for first year head coach Michael White. How the team responds to him will be a huge factor in the Bulldogs’ success.
- San Jose State – How do you replace Adrian Oliver who was the nation’s third best scorer last season behind a couple of guys named Jimmer and Kemba? That’s the question that head coach George Nessman will have to answer this season. The team does return freshman sensation Keith Shamburger (12.4 PPG) and front court star Will Carter (9.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG), a duo who provide the nucleus to a team that is coming off a WAC Tournament semifinal appearance.
Reader’s Take II
Spotlight on… the WAC
It sounds odd to spotlight an entire league, but since 1963, the WAC has been a force on the national level. Great teams like Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, BYU, San Diego State, UNLV, Tulsa, Texas-El Paso, New Mexico, Hawai’i, Fresno State and Nevada have all provided their own great memories in the WAC’s rich basketball history and have provided multiple NCAA Tournament appearances including 22 Sweet 16 appearances, eight Elite Eight appearances, two Final Four appearances and even a national championship game appearance (Utah in 1998). This is the final season before another big change in the WAC, one that could see it disappear from the consciousness of the basketball nation. Hawai’i, Nevada and Fresno State all depart from the league and in their place Seattle, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio, Denver and Texas State will come in. The league will endure yet it may be a long time before it is a nationally relevant league again.
The WAC appears to be a four-team race with Nevada, Hawai’i, New Mexico State and Utah State as the four contenders. Idaho is a team that could go either up or down while not much will be expected of San Jose State, Louisiana Tech and Fresno State. There isn’t really any NBA-level talent in the WAC as there has been in years past, however, there are still plenty of skilled and athletic players that make it worthwhile to watch this league. As we noted earlier, this could be the WAC’s last hurrah which makes this season an intriguing one.
Unfortunately, there has been a significant talent drain in the WAC in recent seasons and as a result, there aren’t any players who project on to the NBA. New Mexico State’s Wendell McKines is a high-energy guy but is undersized at both the three and four spots at 6’6” and may not have the shot making skills to play the two. While he spent this past summer lighting up the summer leagues in California, defense isn’t exactly played in those games and it’s hard to project whether his 35-plus point per game average during the summer actually translates into an improve offensive presence.
We also don’t expect any of the coaches to be jumping ship for bigger and better things. With New Mexico State, Idaho, Nevada, Hawai’i, Fresno State and Louisiana Tech all hiring head coaches within the past five years, it’s unlikely that any of those programs are in danger of losing their current head coach. Utah State’s Stew Morrill likely isn’t going anywhere (although, Utah State could find itself in the Mountain West before all this conference realignment is finished) and San Jose State extended the contract of George Nessman for three more years through the 2013-14 season this past June. While the league is undergoing a facelift in terms of membership, each coach appears to be in it for the long haul.