Sam Wasson, Co-Founder and Editor of bleedCrimson.net covering New Mexico State athletics, and Kevin McCarthy, Founder of Parsing The WAC, are the RTC correspondents for the WAC.
A Look Back
At the midway point of the conference schedule, the WAC race has become for all intents and purposes a race for second place. Utah State dispatched another challenger in New Mexico State to jump out to a 7-0 start in conference play, two games better in the loss column than their nearest competitors, Idaho and Boise State (whom they defeated in the first of the two meetings). Boise State made things more interesting in the middle of the pack as they took down rival Idaho in Moscow cluttering things up from spots two through six with just two games separating the five teams. Nevada has seemingly found the magic formula and after starting out 1-3 in league play, the Pack has run off three in a row including a 19-point victory over New Mexico State to jump ahead of the Aggies an into the coveted Top Four. Louisiana Tech continues to struggle at 0-7 in the league standings and San Jose State also continues to disappoint as they’re off to a 1-6 league start. Hawai’i returned home to the islands where they promptly rattled off two more victories and have now won three in a row in conference play after starting out 0-5. The second half of conference play starts this week as teams make the push for the Top Four. The top two finishers earn double byes into the semifinals while the third and fourth place finishers earn first round byes. Seeds five through eight must win four games in four days if they want to dance.
- R-E-S-P-E-C-T: After rattling off their 13th consecutive victory of the season with a 59-49 victory over New Mexico State, the Utah State Aggies cracked the Top 25 for the first time since the 2008-2009 when they climbed as high as 17. The UtAgs also now own the third-longest active home winning streak at 26 in a row, behind only Duke (36) and Kentucky (28).
- Bracketbusters: The WAC has been an annual participant in the ESPNU Bracketbusters challenge, but this season, they may only garner one of the televised matchups. Utah State at 18-2 and freshly ranked (25th) should receive top billing as the best mid-major in the Bracketbusters field and will likely face St. Mary’s.
- Road Cooking No More: The top three teams in the WAC standings, Utah State, Idaho and Boise State are a combined 9-0 on the road. The remaining six teams have combined for just five road wins against 18 losses.
- Player of the Week: Nevada’s Deonte Burton was named the Player of the Week after lead Nevada to a pair of conference wins against New Mexico State (90-71) and Louisiana Tech (66-58). In the win over New Mexico State, Burton tied for game-high honors with 22 points on 8-11 shooting, including 3-5 from three-point range. He also had a game-high six assists, five rebounds and three steals. Against LA Tech, Burton scored a team-high 18 points making seven of nine field goals including a pair of threes. For the second straight game, he recorded six assists and three steals. For the week, Burton averaged 20.0 points, 6.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.0 repounds per game while shooting 75% (15-20) from the field and 71.4% (5-7) from three-point range.
1. Utah State (18-2, 7-0)
Up Next: 01/27 at San Jose, 01/29 at Hawai’i
Seven up, seven down. Utah State had no trouble dispatching Louisiana Tech 74-57) and New Mexico State (59-49) and in the process ran their conference regular season winning streak to a WAC-record 21 games. Oddly enough, its 21 straight wins isn’t even their longest conference win streak, as they dominated the Big West for 23 straight during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Up next for the UtAgs is the dreaded San Jose/Honolulu road swing. The Spartans offered up a bit of resistance in Logan at the beginning of the season, falling by nine, and Hawai’i pushed the UtAgs harder than any WAC team this season in an eight-point loss. The potential for an upset is there at Hawai’I, where the Warriors are a vastly different team than they are on the mainland.
2. Nevada (7-13, 4-3)
Up Next: 01/27 vs. Fresno State
Don’t look now, but the young Wolf Pack are surging. Winners of three in a row, including a 90-71 thumping of New Mexico State in Reno, the Wolf Pack are back in the hunt for a top-four spot in the conference race. Freshman point guard Deonte Burton has carried the load for the Wolf Pack in the past four games, averaging nearly 21 points per contest. The Wolf Pack have just one conference game this week, but it provides a chance to avenge an earlier conference loss to Fresno State.
3. Boise State (12-7, 5-2)
Up Next: 01/27 at New Mexico State, 01/29 at Louisiana Tech
After dropping two straight games in conference play, the Broncos rebounded nicely with a rivalry win over Idaho. Down six with ten minutes left to play, the Broncos persevered to win 70-67. Boise State had four players in double-digits led by La’Shard Anderson‘s 21. Defense is still an issue for Boise State, as Idaho shot 51 percent for the game. It’s be something they must shore up as they head on the road to take on New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech. The Broncos defeated both the Aggies and Bulldogs earlier in Boise. They erased an eight-point second half deficit against New Mexico State and throttled Louisiana Tech (the final score was 71-60 but Boise State led by as many as 24).
5. Idaho (12-7, 5-2)
Up Next: 01/27 at Louisiana Tech, 01/29 at New Mexico State
The Vandals had their six-game winning streak snapped in the worst of ways, losing a second half lead to their in-state rival. Idaho heads back to the road where they are a perfect 3-0 so far this season. Their task will be to take down a listless Louisiana Tech team and avenge a five-point loss to New Mexico State. The Vandals have the second best scoring defense in the league allowing just 60.9 PPG. They are also the best free throw shooting team (73.9 percent) and the best field goal percentage team (49.2 percent) as well as the best field goal percentage defense team (37.6 percent) all good factors when venturing out on the road in search of wins.
5. New Mexico State (10-11, 4-3)
Up Next: 01/27 vs. Boise State, 01/29 vs. Idaho
Deja vu for New Mexico State. The Aggies ventured on the road to Reno and Logan last season in search of a regular season title and got swept. This season, the Aggies ventured out on the road to Reno and Logan with a chance to tie for first place and got swept. It was an ugly weekend for New Mexico State, as they were outrebounded by a total of 28 in the two games combined (-13 at Nevada and -15 at Utah State). To make matters worse, the offense sputtered in the final 60 minutes of that road trip as they shot just 30.3 percent in the second half against Nevada and just 37.7 percent for the game at Utah State. They went on to get stymied for less than 50 points for the first time since conference play in the 2004-2005 season. New Mexico State hosts a pair of critical conference games as they try to keep pace with the league leaders. A home sweep of Boise State and Idaho will put New Mexico State right back in the thick of the race for a top four finish while losing both at home would spell disaster putting them at least two losses behind the fourth place team in the league. At the very minimum, the Aggies must gain a split.
6. Hawai’i (12-8, 3-5)
Up Next: 01/29 vs. Utah State
UH is definitely on the upswing, having notched three consecutive victories. Forward Bill Amis (now available as a pitchman for Rustoleum) has not only returned from a foot injury, but is a game night threat for a double-double. He notched three of these in the last trio of games, coinciding with the Rainbow Warriors’ winning streak. Center Vander Joaquim is proving to be a defensive force in the middle as well as an able rebounder. Hawaii just needs more consistency from its outside shooters to make a first division finish possible. Zane Johnson and Hiram Thompson are at 39 percent and 37 percent, respectively, in overall shooting during WAC play, and those numbers need an uptick. Freshman Bo Barnes checks in at 25 percent, andd 29 of his 36 shots have been trey attempts. UH still isn’t putting up impressive point totals, so the defensive play of the major minutes players has to remain effective. The winning streak will be put on the line when the Warriors host league leader Utah State on Saturday. They played Utah State tougher for 40 minutes than any other team has this season, and with just one game to prepare for this week, the Warriors are hoping to spring the upset.
7. San Jose State (9-9, 1-6)
Up Next: 01/27 vs. Utah State, 01/29 vs. Fresno State
Breaking a double digit losing skein on the road with a 79-74 victory in Ruston over Louisiana Tech, the Spartans then fell hard at New Mexico State 78-53 and then at Hawaii by a 67-61 score. Thus began another negative road streak. Pulling down the Spartans is a 38 percent team shooting clip while allowing opponents to be successful on 47 percent of their collective attempts. SJSU is also -3.4 in rebounding. Only winless Louisiana Tech is keeping SJSU out of the WAC basement. Adrian Oliver returned for the Hawaii game after missing the earlier two contests due to concussion-like symptoms but doesn’t appear to be quite the same performer as he was earlier. It’s Utah State followed by Fresno State — both at home. The Spartans need at least a split to separate themselves from Louisiana Tech in the WAC cellar
8. Fresno State (7-9, 3-3)
Up Next: 01/20 at Hawai’i, 01/24 vs. Seattle
“Slip-sliding Away” was a hit song by Paul Simon. He certainly didn’t have Fresno State basketball in mind when writing it but the title sure applies. A four game conference losing streak (Utah State and Idaho at home, New Mexico State and Hawaii on the road) has sent the Bulldogs to who-and-what-is-this-team territory. Thirty-six percent overall shooting from the floor during this quartet of games, along with 53 percent from the foul line, have propelled the drop. The Seattle Redhawks came to town Monday night for a non-conference tilt and departed featherless after an 86-56 loss. Now Steve Cleveland’s squad has to carry that success over to WAC play. Greg Smith continues his climb upward as he presently sits at 11.7 points and 8.3 rebounds a game in WAC play as all his numbers have risen since league action began. Point Steve Shepp‘s 24/9 assist-to-turnover ratio since his return to eligibility has also been a boost. It’s roadin’ it at Nevada and San Jose State University next for the Bulldogs.
9. Louisiana Tech (9-12, 0-7)
Up Next: 01/27 vs. Idaho, 01/29 vs. Boise State
The ‘L’ train keeps rolling down the track for the Bulldogs as they dropped both games of their road trip losing 74-57 at Utah State and 66-58 at Nevada. Olu Ashaolu had a monster game with 26 potions and 17 rebounds as he single-handedly kept the Bulldogs in the game. Fellow Dog DeAndre Brown chipped in 14 points but Louisiana Tech simply has no firepower outside that duo. It does not get any easier as the Bulldogs host Idaho and Boise State this week. The Idaho pair sent the Bulldogs on their current seven game spiral.
A Look Ahead:
The marquee matchup of the week will be the Idaho schools at New Mexico State. Thursday night sees Boise State at NM State; The winner of the past eight Bronco/Aggie showdowns has eclipsed the 80-point mark in each game, with the past eight games averaging a 92-85 final score.