WAC Tournament Preview & Season Wrap-UpPosted by Brian Goodman on March 8th, 2012
WAC Tournament Glance
It may sound cliché, but the tournament is wide open.
Even though top seed Nevada ran away with the league, the second half of the conference schedule was not a cakewalk. The Wolf Pack won the first seven games by over 10 points per game, but won by just under four points per game in the second go-round (and took a loss against Idaho). There was much jostling in the final weekend of play with seeds two through six up for grabs heading into the final game this past Saturday.
The first round boasts three intriguing matchups with upset potential (seed-based) in all three. New Mexico State struggled to put away Fresno State in both regular season meetings, winning by four and then by five in overtime (overcoming a 19-point second half deficit in the process).
Idaho and Hawai’i split the regular season meetings with each winning on the other’s home floor.
Utah State swept the season series with Louisiana Tech, but the Bulldogs lost by just four points in the first meeting and has won five of their last six games.
With apologies to San Jose State, they don’t stand much of a chance against Nevada and this one should be a breeze although the Spartans did play tough in the game in San Jose losing by just six points.
- Favorites: Nevada and New Mexico State. They’re the top two seeds and it would be a shame if the two didn’t meet in the championship game.
- Dark Horses: Idaho and Utah State. Two schools with similar styles of play, well coached (Idaho’s head coach Don Verlin was Stew Morril’s understudy at Utah State) tons of sets in their offense, not likely to beat themselves. Utah State boasts the league’s best coach in Stew Morrill.
- Most Likely To Pull A First Round Upset: Louisiana Tech. They’re a scrappy bunch who has significantly overachieved under first year head coach Michael White. At this point they’re playing with house money and a win over Utah State in the tourney would be icing on the cake.
- Tournament Prediction: After all that, we’re going to go straight chalk. Nevada and New Mexico State have proven themselves to be the best two teams in the league and as such, we expect a third meeting between the two teams with New Mexico State proving the age-old adage that it’s hard to beat a team three times in a season.
A Look Back
It’s hard to believe the regular season is over and the WAC Tournament starts on Thursday, meaning it’ll likely be lights out for all but two or three of the eight WAC teams by the end of this week. It was a bit of a strange season, to say the least. We truly did not expect one team to run away with the title as Nevada did, but the Wolf Pack did just that by finishing 13-1 and three games clear of second place New Mexico State.
The biggest surprise of the year, however, is Louisiana Tech. Picked dead last by both the coaches and media, the eastern Bulldogs finished in a tie for fourth place (they’ll be the five-seed due to tiebreakers) with perennial favorite Utah State, who was picked first by the media (a whopping 13 first place media votes) and third by the coaches (with three coaches picking them to finish first).
The other overachiever was Idaho, tabbed to finish fifth when the season started, but the Vandals did them two better and also defeated every team in the conference at least once for the first time since the 1989-90 season. Kudos to Idaho head coach Don Verlin, who has overachieved three of the past four seasons. The Vandals were picked eighth (of nine teams) last year, finished third and were picked dead last in 2008-09 and finished tied for third.
Utah State had a down year with six conference losses, including two at home (Nevada and New Mexico State) and a fourth place finish. Fresno State finished in seventh but clearly the Bulldogs are headed in the right direction as a program under first-year head coach Rodney Terry, but they’ll need to get better in a hurry with the Mountain West looming next season.
San Jose State has the biggest questions to answer. The Spartans clearly struggled after graduating the backcourt duo of Adrian Oliver and Justin Graham, but a 1-13 conference record and an overall record of 9-21 are not going to help head coach George Nessman keep his job.
Coach of the Year – David Carter, Nevada: He has obviously done well, buttressed with a load of talent in the starting five, but give him credit because there really hasn’t been all much help off the bench in Reno this season. Carter really has but one creator offensively. Plus, the Pack is tops in field goal percentage defense in the WAC.
Don’t Forget: Louisiana Tech’s Mike White deserves public notice for what he and his Bulldogs accomplished this season — both a record and a competitiveness nobody predicted. Solid cases can also be made for Marvin Menzies and Don Verlin.
Player of the Year – Deonte Burton, Nevada (17.3 PPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 SPG, 75% FT, 39 3FG): The best player on the best team gets the easy nod here. It wasn’t just about stats, however. Those who watched the Wolf Pack can tell you that the defense he attracted led to teammates Dario Hunt (10.6 PPG) and Olek Czyz (14.9 PPG) flourishing in Reno. Leading a team to a comfortable first place finish as a sophomore is something to be rewarded, and for these reasons, it’s logically impossible to go with anyone else.
A clear second goes to “Big Wen” (Wendell McKines), who led the league in both scoring (18.6 PPG) and rebounds (10.9 RPG) in conference games as well as in all games (18.6 PPG/10.8 RPG). He’s also just the third player in WAC history to accomplish the feat.
All-Conference First Team:
- F Wendell McKines, New Mexico State (18.6 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 78% FT)
- F Vander Joaquim, Hawai’i (15.4 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 63% FG)
- F Olek Czyz, Nevada (14.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 57% FG)
- G Kevin Olekaibe, Fresno State (39.7 MPG, 16.3 PPG)
- G Preston Medlin, Utah State (18.5 PPG, 2.6 APG, 52% FG, 46% 3FG)
- G Hernst Laroche, New Mexico State (12.6 PPG, 4.0 APG, 2.2 SPG, 41% 3FG)
- F/C Dario Hunt, Nevada (10.1 RPG, 2.8 BPG)
- F Wil Carter, SJSU (15.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG)
- F Joston Thomas, Hawaii (16.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG)
- G Malik Story, Nevada (14.6 PPG, 41% 3FG)
- Kyle Barone, Idaho
- Hamidu Rahman, New Mexico State,
- Zane Johnson, Hawaii
- Brockeith Pane, Utah State
- Deremy Geiger, Idaho
Co-Newcomers Of The Year:
- Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State (10.4 PPG, 52% FG)
- Raheem Appleby, Louisiana Tech (15.1 PPG, 44% FG)
Final Power Rankings
- Nevada (25-5, 13-1): The WAC tournament has gone back to the traditional format this season after doing the WCC-style double-bye method last season. As a result the winner will have to win three games in three days. For the Wolf Pack, the only way to avoid a nerve-wracking Sunday waiting for at-large news is to win the WAC’s auto bid. To do so, they’ll need to win big in the first round and semis and get their starting five some rest. The bench hasn’t provided much respite for the starters this season and accounts for roughly 15 percent of the scoring this season. If they can win their first two games going away, they’ll be able to rest that starting five for what will no doubt be a battle for the title. If they get into the NCAA Tournament either via the auto bid or an at-large, this is a team that can win a first-round game because of their talented starting five. They’ve got a win over Washington but not much else but couple of close losses to UNLV and Iona in the non-conference.
- New Mexico State (23-9, 10-4): New Mexico State’s only way for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament is to win the auto bid. In order to do so, they’ll need to shoot well from the field and in particular the three-point arc. The Aggies are built for a three-day tournament run with their physical style presence in the post that can wear teams down. The Aggies get to the free throw line plenty and the ability to draw fouls may be their biggest asset. They also like to run which that combination can also help wear down their opponents. New Mexico State’s front line is as physically imposing as any in the country and they could also win a first-round game if they reach the Big Dance. Their best win is over MWC co-champ New Mexico in The Pit. They played close with Arizona at home and defeated San Francisco in the Great Alaska Shootout (and USF did beat Gonzaga a couple weeks ago) but couldn’t take advantage of games against Southern Miss (twice) and lost at home to New Mexico and on the road at UTEP.
- Idaho (18-12, 9-5): The Vandals must first get past a slumping Hawai’i squad that they just faced last week. If they do that, they’ll likely have to get past a New Mexico State squad that they defeated in Moscow and if they do that, they’ll have to get past a Nevada team that they beat in Reno. It may sound tough but aside from Nevada, they’re the only team in the league that has beaten every other team in the league at least once and that’s got to count for something. Kyle Barone needs to have a monster three days for the Vandals. If he does, it could mean a trip to the NCAA’s. Any trip to the Big Dance would likely result in a first-round loss.
- Utah State (17-14, 8-6): It’s been a down season for the UtAgs, but a run through the WAC tourney would cure a lot of ills felt this season. Their biggest asset? Head coach Stew Morrill. He’s the league’s elder statesman and he’s had his team in the championship game each of the past three years and won it all twice. The key for USU is for Preston Medlin to shoot lights out and for Kyisean Reed to have a breakout performance over three days. Reed is the most athletic Aggie and USU will need him to play well. Like Idaho, a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAAs would likely result in a first-round loss.
- Louisiana Tech (16-15, 6-8): As we noted above, the Bulldogs are playing with house money. They have a shot at upending Utah State and if they were to get past that they’d even have an outside shot of dropping Nevada (they held leads in both games against the Pack). However, this year it’s all about building confidence heading into season two of the Michael White era.
- Hawai’i (15-15, 6-8): The Warriors have nosedived. They’ve lost five in a row and seem to have lost their way. Just two weeks ago this team had an outside shot of winning the league and a realistic shot of finishing second but it all went wrong on a three-game road swing that started with BracketBusters in Montana. What followed that were three consecutive league losses by a combined 78 points. The Warriors seemed to have all the tools to win the championship, but Zane Johnson did not travel with the team due to illness. Still, with not one but two skilled big men in Vander Joaquim and Joston Thomas as well as a scrappy senior point guard in Jeremiah Ostrowski, Hawai’i can still give teams trouble when their stars are connecting. However, given their late-season swoon and appearances of a team that’s thrown in the towel, it looks like the Warriors need to get ready for life in the Big West where they’ll head after this season.
- Fresno State (3-11, 13-19): Fresno State has played every WAC team close at home, losing by an average of just 4.75 points including taking league champ Nevada to triple overtime and New Mexico State to overtime (though they were up by 19 points in the second half). The Bulldogs are headed to the much tougher Mountain West next season so finishing the season on a high note will help with that transition next season. The Bulldogs have a solid player in Kevin Olekaibe, but not much around him. The Dogs will have to significantly improve their talent level if they want to be contenders in the MWC.
- San Jose State (9-21, 1-13): It’s probably one-and-done for the Spartans as they’ll probably close out their rough season with a loss to Nevada in the first round. There are a ton of questions for the Spartans as they head into the offseason. Head coach George Nessman got a contract extension before the season but many more nine-win seasons and he won’t be around much longer. Denver, Seattle, UTSA and Texas State all enter the league next season (with Boise State coming back in 2013). At the very least, the Spartans need to prove that they’re better than at least two of those five teams.