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.
Can Wendell McKinnes And New Mexico State Defend Their WAC Tourney Crown? Based On How NMSU Has Been Playing Lately, Don't Bet Against Them (AP)
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. Read the rest of this entry »
Hawai’i picked up the league’s best non-conference win of the season knocking off No. 14 Xavier (albeit a slightly shorthanded Musketeer squad) in the Diamond Head Classic en-route to a 2-1 finish in their home tournament. New Mexico State got thumped by in-state rival New Mexico at home and Utah State had a relatively easy time in its home tournament.
Zane Johnson Led Hawaii Over Xavier Before Falling To Auburn In The Diamond Head Classic. (AP/Marco Garcia)
Nevada (10-3): The Wolf Pack avoided a Cedarville trap game and has eight days off to rest before starting WAC play. The Wolf Pack have the best record in non-conference play and boast the best defense in the league allowing just 0.91 points per possession. Nevada continues to get it done with seemingly little help from the bench in terms of scoring production. That’s something that could hurt them down the road when the rigors of conference play and WAC travel start to take their toll. One thing in the Wolf Pack’s favor is the conference schedule. They’ll get the Idaho/Utah State and New Mexico State/Louisiana Tech road trips out of the way in the first half of the league schedule.
Hawai’i (7-5): The Warriors vault into the number two spot thanks in large part to a solid showing at the Diamond Head Classic where Hawai’i won two out of three: a 65-62 loss to Auburn, an 84-82 overtime victory over 14th ranked Xavier and finally a 75-68 win versus Clemson. In the latter contest, Zane Johnson regained his accuracy and finished with 27 points, bolstered by going 6-12 long distance shooting and center Vander Joaquim produced a 14/10 double-double. UH shot 49% overall and committed just 12 turnovers. It was forward Joston Thomas scoring 26 points and Joaquim scoring 20 in the win over Xavier. Last year’s strong performance in the DHC set the Warriors up for a better-than-expected conference season and their 2-1 record this year could be the catalyst for a strong run through the WAC again. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been a relatively disappointing start to the season for WAC teams. Outside of New Mexico State‘s win over in-state rival New Mexico and Utah State‘s win over BYU, the league has fallen flat in the early going. The USU win over BYU was tempered by losses at Weber State and a horrendous loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Preseason favorite Nevada has also struggled with closer-than-expected wins over Prairie View A&M and Longwood. On the bright side, the league has protected home court with the eight teams combining for a 14-2 home record.
Christian Kabongo And The Aggies Are Looking Impressive In An Otherwise Middling WAC. (Credit: NMStateSports.com)
1. New Mexico State (5-1): The question mark surrounding the Aggies entering the season was two-fold. First, would they be able to find scoring after losing leading scorer Troy Gillenwater and second, would the team commit itself on the defensive end? They’ve answered both with a ‘Yes’. The Aggies have topped the 80-point mark three times this season but have also shown the ability to lock down a team on the defensive end holding in-state rival New Mexico to their worst offensive performance under head coach Steve Alford (53 points on just 28% shooting) and Central Michigan to just 49 points. The Aggies finished third in the Great Alaska Shootout by dismantling Central Michigan before losing to Southern Mississippi in the semifinals. The Aggies bounced back with a come-from-behind win over San Francisco. The Aggies have been getting to the free throw line at an alarming rate (at least for their opponents), a whopping 36% of their points are coming from the free throw line and the team shot an eye-popping 131 free throws in three days in Alaska.
2. Idaho (3-2): The Vandals find themselves at number two on the power rankings not as much for their wins but for their losses. Of the teams below them, they have the least egregious losses of the bunch. Their two losses on the season have both come on the road– one at Long Beach State (who beat then #4 Pitt on the road) and at Montana. The Vandals are hitting nearly 50% of their shots from the field this season but need to do a better job at the charity stripe where they’re hitting just 63.3% for the season.
3. Utah State (3-2): Utah State has faced a trio on in-state opponents, beating BYU and Southern Utah but losing at Weber State. Senior point Brockeith Pane leads the Aggies in scoring at 15.3 points a game followed by Morgan Grim at 11.7 and Preston Medlin with 11.0 per game. It’s obviously early and they are replacing four starters, but Utah State is at an uncharacteristic 29% from three-point range and a paltry 60% at the foul line. USU also has just 25 assists to date. Those numbers will rise as the newcomers blend in and roles are earned. The biggest concern in the immediate term is finding production in the absence of forward Brady Jardine, who is out 2-4 weeks with a foot injury. The Aggies clearly missed his presence in the close win over Southern Utah and a stunning loss on the road at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
4. Nevada (4-3): One thing has become clear after seven games: if the Wolf Pack starters aren’t scoring, the Wolf Pack won’t win. Nevada hasn’t had much help from its bench this season. The Wolf Pack starting five is accounting for nearly 80% of the team’s offensive production and if you can hold those five in check, chances are you’re coming out with a ‘W’. The Wolf Pack absolutely have to find some help for their starters or they run the risk of having a dead tired group of starters by the middle of conference play. A concern for Wolf Pack fans should be that two of their wins, Prairie View A&M and Longwood, have come by 13 and two points, respectively. Those are two teams who are usually scheduled for easy wins.
5. Hawaii (2-2): Hawaii handily beat Northridge, but reversed course by getting blown out by Gonzaga and was manhandled at home by Eastern Washington. Three Rainbow Warriors are averaging in double figures with Zane Johnson‘s 17.8 points per game at the expected head of the pack, freshman point Shaquille Stokes is second with 11.8 a contest, and sophomore Trevor Wiseman surprising checking in 11 points each time out. The biggest surprise? Sophomore point Bobby Miles has started three of four games, is averaging 28.5 minutes of action, and has compiled a 1.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. Hawaii’s defensive effort is strong so far, holding opponents to 39% shooting overall and just 27.3% from long distance. One key-to-the-season-component, mercurial power forward Joston Thomas is averaging just 13.8 minutes a game. He could become a big help to Coach Gib Arnold or blow out, there appears to be no middle ground for him.
6. Fresno State (2-4): There’s not necessarily any rhyme and/or reason early in the season as the Bulldogs have handled Illinois State and SMU but fallen to Manhattan, Stanford, Texas San-Antonio, and North Dakota State. It’s been the Kevin Olaikabe show to date as the sophomore is averaging 21.3 points per game with Jonathan Wills as the only other teammate in double figures at 11.3 points per game. JC transfer Kevin Foster is the best big man that coach Rodney Terry has, but he has been and is putting up just 7.0 points (on 32% shooting) and 4.7 rebounds per game. Senior point Steve Shepp is usually among the best in the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio but stands at 1.4 right now. However, some of that may be due to Fresno State shooting just 38.6% as a team.
7. Louisiana Tech (2-3): It’s been a bit of a rough start for first year head coach Michael White as his team has a couple of wins early in the season against less than stellar competition. Despite running an up-tempo offense, the Bulldogs haven’t been able to score many points averaging just 66.4 points per game and they are a terrible free throw shooting team hitting just 57.1% on the season, 342nd out of 344 teams. One positive for the Bulldogs has been their perimeter defense which is allowing just 15.9% from behind the arc, tops in the country. They’re also forcing 19 turnovers per game, ranking 21st in the country in that category. The Bulldogs need to score a few more points to help out their efforts on the defensive end.
8. San Jose State (2-3): The Spartans have been involved in close games and blowouts so far with a 27-point loss to Cal Poly, a one-point win versus Irvine, a two-point loss to USF, and a 26-point defeat to crosstown rival Santa Clara. Sophomore guard Keith Shamburger tops the team with 15.0 points per game followed by JC newcomer Jay Kinney‘s 12.6 points per game average. Will Carter has been steady averaging 10.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. However, outside of Carter, rebounding has been an issue as the Spartans own a -9.6 rebounding differential.
There are a few marquee matchups on the slate for the WAC. New Mexico State plays host to Arizona and then ventures on the road to take on Southern Mississippi in a rematch of their semifinal game at the Great Alaska Shootout that was won by the Eagles. Nevada also hosts Washington later in the week. The WAC desperately needs more quality wins and 3-0 or 2-1 against this trio would qualify as a good week.
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?
Can Stew Morrill's Aggies Keep Their Grip on the WAC Another Season?
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).
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 Crimsonand 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, TexasState and UT-San Antonio). This summer, there are no more defections (thankfully) but there have been additions. SeattleUniversity 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 FresnoState 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 OluAshaolu 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 RodneyTerry 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 MickDurham, who took the head men’s basketball position at Division II Alaska-Fairbanks, and assistant GeraldLewis, 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.
The Dee Glen Smith Spectrum will have to rock even harder than usual in 2011-12 after Utah State lost several contributors from its sterling campaign last season.
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences and an occasional contributor.
The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Committee met this week in Chicago, and the biggest item on their agenda was to decide on the format of the new 68-team tournament. In deciding to expand from the 65-team tournament, which has been the rule for the last ten years, to 68 teams in time for the 2011 tournament, the NCAA has committed itself to four opening round games. The questions of who will play in those games, however, and where those games will take place, among other logistical issues, are still to be decided. While it doesn’t look like a decision will be announced this week, outgoing committee chairperson and UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero has spelled out three possible options for who will compete in the opening round games:
The teams that would be the 16th and 17th seeds in a bracket, or those teams seeded at spots 61 through 68 in the overall field — likely teams from the historically one-bid conferences,
The last eight non-automatic qualifiers or the teams generally referred to as bubble teams — generally teams from a mixture of BCS leagues and mid-major conferences, or
Some combination of the first two options, with the most talked-about scenario being the last four bubble teams playing in a couple of games and the lowest seeded automatic qualifiers (seeds 65-68) playing in the other two.
While it is still within the realm of reason that additional options could arise (maybe the lowest seeded automatic qualifiers each match up against one of the bubble teams), the answer will likely be one of the three options above. And, frankly, option three is a bit of a copout, so the decision between options one and two comes down to something of a battle between the big power conferences and the less influential conferences that nonetheless make up the bulk of Division I. And neither side wants to play in those games.
Should a conference champ be sent to an opening-rounder and have a better chance to make more money, or should their performance be rewarded with a spot in the main draw?
“I think that if you are an automatic qualifier, you should not be in a play-in game,” said Winthrop head coach Randy Peele when we talked with him earlier this week, and he’s had experience with the opening round game as the coach at a school that has now appeared in two opening round tournament games, including last season’s loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Peele’s sentiment was echoed by Michael White, the Associate Athletic Director for Communications at East Tennessee State University. “For teams like ours that come out of a league with one tournament bid, and to have to earn it by winning our conference tournament, we don’t want to have to be sent to a play-in game.”
Even the term “play-in game,” used in reference to the single opening round game played in Dayton for the last ten years, is a divisive one. The NCAA has gone to great lengths to make sure that game was referred to as the “opening round game,” despite it commonly being referred to by fans and media as the play-in game. “The way the NCAA markets the first day is critical,” said ETSU’s head coach Murry Bartow. “They shouldn’t be marketed as play-in games, where you’re not even in the tournament until you win that game.”