What You Need to Know. Once a solid multi-bid league, the WAC has struggled to gain national traction in recent years but appears poised to send multiple teams to the Big Dance after graduating just eight starting seniors in the entire league after last season. Five of the nine WAC teams return at least four starters and New Mexico State returns all five starters. The league also returns 14 of the 15 top scorers this season.
Travis’ Predicted Champion. Idaho (NCAA #12) — one and done. The Vandals have a storied tradition in college hoops — in the early 1980s, Idaho dominated the Big Sky under legendary coach Don Monson, leading an unlikely charge to the 1982 Sweet 16. But that remains the high-water mark for Idaho basketball. In the first three seasons after joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2005, the Vandals were a perennial bottom-feeder.
A WACky regular season came to an end on Saturday night and after the dust settled the seedings were finally set. Heading into last week’s games just two of the nine seeds were cemented in place, the 1-seed (Utah State) and the 9-seed (Fresno State). The final seeds look like this 1) Utah State, 2) Nevada, 3) Idaho, 4) Boise State, 5) New Mexico State, 6) Louisiana Tech, 7) San Jose State, 8) Hawai’i, 9) Fresno State.
Tuesday night sees the two last place teams battle it out for the honor of facing top seed Utah State on Thursday in the quarterfinals.On Thursday the remaining eight teams will be whittled down to four.
1. Utah State (13-2, 26-4)
2. Nevada (9-5, 17-11)
3. Boise State (8-6, 18-10)
4. New Mexico State (8-7, 15-14)
5. Idaho (7-7, 14-14)
6. San Jose State (6-8, 13-14)
7. Louisiana Tech (6-9, 14-16)
8. Hawaii (5-10, 13-15)
9. Fresno State (3-11, 12-18)
With the WAC tournament looming next week, the only two seeds that have been determined are the 1-seed and the 9-seed. Everything in between is a mess thanks in large part to a Thursday night ambush by the league’s bottom half. Ninth place Fresno State took down second place Nevada 66-64, eighth place Louisiana Tech took down third place New Mexico State 80-71 and seventh place San Jose State took down fifth place Idaho. Only Utah State managed to maintain order with their 20 point victory over Hawai’i. Fourth place Boise State did not play but added to the carnage two nights later when they fell to Louisiana Tech by 14.
The race for the league title and the automatic bid to the NIT should be decided on Thursday night. Utah State hosts Hawai’i with a chance to wrap up the regular season title, their second in the past two seasons. For Utah State however, they’re looking to make their first NCAA tournament appearance since the 2005-06 season, that year they received an at-large bid after finishing second in the regular season and losing to Nevada in the title game of the conference tournament. The UtAgs, despite a record of 25-3 don’t want to leave anything to chance as they still feel the sting of finishing 25-3, being ranked 21st but not receiving an at large bid after losing in the Big West semifinal to Cal State-Northridge 63-62.
As for the rest of the league, the race for second place is on as Nevada (8-4), New Mexico State (8-5), Boise State (7-5) and Idaho (6-6) can all finish as high as 2nd.
And not to be left out, the bottom four teams, Hawai’i (5-8), San Jose State (4-8), Louisiana Tech (4-9) and Fresno State (2-10) are all playing to stay out of the league’s 8/9-seed play-in game (with the winner having to face likely 1-seed Utah State) in the quarterfinal round.
Random Thoughts: The rest of the league can thank us for putting the serious jinx on the UtAgs with our mention of potential undefeatedness in last week’s WAC Check-In. That being said, Utah State (12-1) will not be caught — a wise man told us — in the race for the league championship despite falling to Boise State Saturday night … Nevada has managed a solid 8-4 WAC record to date despite a young team and some returning players positioned in new roles … Boise State Coach Greg Graham and his Broncos stand at 7-4 with these games remaining until tourney time: Idaho, @ Portland State (BracketBuster), @ Louisiana Tech, @ New Mexico State, Fresno State and Nevada. That same wise man refused to offer who was going to be the second place finisher in the WAC and then told us to get off his lawn.
Playing for second. The Utah State Aggies can wrap up a share of the regular season WAC title this week with a win over Idaho. And if they are to do it, they’ll have to do it on the road. Utah State is 11-0 in league play and is looking to complete the first undefeated season since TCU turned the trick in the 1997-98 season at 14-0 and then a year later when Utah also completed the feat going 14-0. In both cases the teams were playing in the then (and first) 16 team league and won their division. The race for the league’s 2-seed in the conference tournament is heating up as five teams are within two games of each other with anywhere from five (NM State) to seven (Idaho) league games remaining.
#17/21 Utah State (11-0, 23-1)
Boise State (6-4, 16-7)
Nevada (6-4, 13-10)
New Mexico State (6-5, 12-12)
Idaho (4-5, 10-12)
San Jose State (4-7, 12-11)
Hawai’i (4-7, 12-11)
Louisiana Tech (3-8, 9-15)
Fresno State (2-7, 10-14)
Official Player of the Week: For the third time this season, Utah State’s Gary Wilkinson has been named the Western Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week. Versus New Mexico State, he scored 18 points and nabbed 11 boards. He didn’t miss all night — going 5-5 from the floor and 8-8 at the foul line. Wilkinson then added 16 points against Louisiana Tech.
Current Standings (Updated through games played on 02/05/09):
Utah State (10-0, 22-1)
Nevada (6-6, 13-9)
Boise State (5-3, 15-6)
New Mexico State (5-5, 11-12)
Idaho (4-4, 10-11)
San Jose State (4-5, 10-10)
Hawai’i (3-7, 11-11)
Louisiana Tech (3-7, 9-14)
Fresno State (1-7, 9-14)
Official WAC Player of the Week — Jahmar Young
The sophomore Young did just about everything but pop the popcorn and take tickets at the Pan-American Center last week and rightly came away with the WAC Player of the Week award. Young averaged 28.5 points per game on 72.7% shooting from the floor in wins against San Jose State and Hawaii. He was ‘en fuego’ from three-point range — seven for ten — and sank 18 of 20 free throws. Young also grabbed 10 rebounds and made four steals.
Home Cookin’. Order was restored last week as after the first two weeks of conference play the road teams had jumped out to a 10-5 record against the hosts. However last week the home teams regained that home court advantage, going 6-1. Of the road losers, Fresno State could probably be declared the winner after two close losses to conference leaders Utah State and Nevada, falling by five points and four points respectively. Boise State probably had the toughest time as they went into the week undefeated in league play but came out nursing two double-digit defeats.
Official WAC Player of the Week. Nevada freshman frontcourter Luke Babbitt has been selected the Western Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week for the second straight week. In Wolf Pack wins over Boise State and Fresno State. Babbitt notched 18 points, 10 boards and two shot blocks in the former and 22 points along with 13 rebounds, against the latter.
Not-so-happy WAC Happenings. A “one horse town” is usually offered as a disparaging comment towards a podunk community out in the hinterlands. The same applies with the term a “one bid league” in reference to Big Dance invites. Like it or not — accept it or not — the WAC basketball programs are inexorably moving towards solely sending the conference tournament champion to the NCAAs, period. Sure, there are a number of WAC teams that will get better as the season progresses but a spate of unexpected early season defeats have already placed the league into ‘getting one invite’ standing.
11:45pm ET — Greetings, fellow hoop lovers, and welcome to the ESPN 24-hour Marathon of Hoops Rush The Court live blog. John Stevens, here, ready to truly kick off the college hoops season in freakin’ insane style. I’ll be live-blogging the entire way — that’s right, baby, the WHOLE WAY! — so if you’re out there watching the games, by all means leave a comment.
Of course, I don’t mean to imply any connection between ESPN and RTC with the title of this post. But a while back it was posted here that ESPN really had a great idea when they came up with this, and I for one definitely appreciate that they’re kicking off their coverage in this way. So the title merely refers to the fact that…well, if they’re gonna broadcast it, I’m gonna watch it, and what the heck, I might as well live-blog it.
Why, you ask? Several reasons. First and foremost, my love for college basketball. This off-season has seemed especially long and I’m happy that my favorite sport is finally back. I’ve also got the next 6.5 days off from my real job, an occupation that sometimes has me up overnight anyway. So what better way to kick off my leisure time. I also assume that the more teams I familiarize myself with, the better served I’ll be when the annual mid-March (read: first-and-second rounds) Rush The Court field trip to Las Vegas happens. We go for the museums, but in case we happen to catch an early-round game on a gigantic TV (or six), well, I’ll know more about who I’m watching.
When RTMSF and I first talked about me live-blogging during this offering by ESPN, as usual he was worried about liability; he suggested I go have a quick physical to make sure I could make it through the next 24 hours intact. The address he gave me, though, turned out to be a guy working out of the trunk of his car behind the local movie theatre. I called RTMSF to verify that I had gone to the right place, and he said, “Yeah, the guy in the beret? Yep. That’s him. He’ll take care of you.” Naturally I fled, so let me just say that even though I haven’t been medically cleared for this, I’m doing it of my own accord.
So let’s do this thing. I’ve got 24 hours of college hoops ahead of me. I’ve retired to the cushy environs of the Rush The Court Eastern Compound and assumed a spot in one of our beautiful leather home theatre reclining chairs that would make Turtle from Entourage proud. I’ve got the three LCD HD’s going. I’ve got a fridge stocked with energy drinks. I’ve got a remote control the size of a law school textbook in my hands. I’ve got snow falling outside. And did I mention the 6.5 days off??? It’s time for some serious hoops. We’ll kick things off with UMass-Memphis in about 15 minutes.
12:09 am — We’re off. Two big pieces of news have already come down today, so let me mention them now. The biggest is the death of Pete Newell, a name that sounds strange to say without the words “Big Man Camp” coming directly after. His influence on the game of basketball is immeasurable. As you’ve seen already, not only did he achieve that rare (as in three people, ever) basketball trifecta of coaching an Olympic gold medal squad (1960), an NIT champion (1949), and an NCAA champion (1959)…he only worked with some of the biggest names in the history of the game via his Big Man Camp, like Abdul-Jabbar, Olajuwan, Walton, O’Neal, and countless others. He might not be one of the names that immediately comes to mind if you were to sit down and come up with a “Mt. Rushmore” of American basketball, but he sure makes a strong case.
The other bit of far-less-important news is that Tyler Hansbrough is a no-go against Kentucky on Tuesday night. Not surprised at this. It wasn’t discussed much last year, but quite frankly Kentucky’s Patrick Patterson outplayed Hansbrough; hoops fans who wanted to see how Hansbrough would respond will have to wait a while, unless UNC and UK end up meeting in the tournament somehow. It’ll have to happen in the NBA — and Kentucky fans hope it won’t be next year.
12:20am — We’re through two TV timeouts and this has been a YMCA game. More turnovers than field goals. Lots of threes gettin’ jacked up. UMass has come out in the “sagging man-to-man” which is daring Memphis to bomb away from the outside. They’re more than happy to oblige, which is why they find themselves only up one point almost midway through the half. This will probably be the trend in a lot of these games in the next 24 hours — sloppy Y-ball for the first half, then guys relaxing into their roles in the second and things becoming a little more organized.
12:45am — Memphis’ athletes are starting to assume control with about 5 minutes left in the first half. Tyreke Evans is an absolute pest on defense and despite the strange anatomy of his jump shot, it’s kind of nice to watch. UMass is relying on the drive-and-kickout right now, and Ricky Harris is keeping them in it. Memphis’ turnovers are helping, too. UMass only down 6 right now…
12:58am — Memphis with a 33-25 lead at the half. UMass is still in this game for two reasons: 1) Memphis’ shot selection, or lack of desire to work inside the paint. Robert Dozier is indeed the Tigers’ leading scorer with 12, but he’s 0/3 from the 3-pt line, and he has zero attempts from the line. 2) As soon as Memphis expanded the lead to double-digits and looked like they were about to out-athleticize the Minutemen, UMass showed an ability to grab a loose ball or force a Memphis turnover and capitalize on it. If UMass can calm themselves (no small feat in this environment), they can stay close and may find themselves within striking distance late. If Memphis calms down and plays to their strengths (size and athleticism), they could put this one away rather easily.
1:01am — We have a Tom Brennan sighting! He is very subtly giving a nod to his past at the University of Vermont, with the dark green blazer and yellow tie. He agrees with me in his assessment of the game so far — “It’s a mess.” Amen, sir.
1:15am — Shooting stats for the first half: From 3pt range…UMass 3/13 (23.1%), Memphis 1/12 (8.3%!!!). Egad.
1:22am — The second half starts with not much new…hectic pace, lots of bad shots. UMass is actually outhustling Memphis to every loose ball but they’re giving up some easy points off of turnovers. Memphis has decided to exploit their athleticism by picking up full court, but UMass seems ready; props to Coach Kellogg for prepping his team for this. Unfortunately for the Minutemen, on their last four possessions, Memphis has gone inside (a couple of ill-advised threes led to offensive boards) and the lead is now 11.
1:31am — Tony Gaffney is playing his butt off for UMass with 9 points and 12 boards, but Memphis is starting to look a little too long and quick. Tyreke Evans got an earful from Coach Calipari after a terrible three-point attempt, has gone inside on his last two touches, and scored twice. He’s got 17 now. Still…UMass continues to frustrate Memphis on defense…it’s still only 11 at the under-12 TV timeout.
1:42am — RTMSF just called me to tell me he’s going to the St. Mary’s game. Jackass.
1:46am — Memphis is starting to wear down the Minutemen and are getting some easy layups, and the lead is 61-44. The UMass players are standing straight up on defense. Coach Kellogg calls a timeout 2 seconds before the under-8 TV timeout — definitely a testimonial to the fatigue of his squad.
Calipari is begging his team not to chuck threes. It’s hilarious. Every time one of his players goes up for a long-range jumper, Calipari assumes the expression of someone who has just had his face farted on. His players have gotten the message, though.
1:56am — I’m not sure I’m on board with the Memphis home uniforms. The front is a clean white, and the back is a slightly darker beige/grey. UMass is of course wearing their away maroons, so at times, on the hi-def, it looks like there are three different teams on the floor. Maybe I’m getting a little chippy because it’s a 21-pt bulge (70-49) with five minutes left. And because RTMSF is going to the freakin’ St. Mary’s-Fresno State game.
2:04am — 76-49. Tony Gaffney’s played his tail off for UMass (14p 20r) but Memphis’ seemingly interchangable parts have put a lid on this one.
WYN2K. The most unusual aspect about the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in the fast-approaching season is that there is no league favorite. Yes, the usual suspects Nevada, Utah State and possibly New Mexico State could very well finish at or around the top but there’s no bet-the-house team that will run roughshod over the other squads. Adding some spice to the recipe, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State are now ready to complicate matters and join the big brothers of the league, making it a five-dom vying for the top spot in 2008-2009. The WAC should be affixed with a ‘high degree of parity’ label but this new season also offers a definite divide: a schism of the five most competitive teams and then the four remaining and re-tooling squads.
Predicted Champion. The winner can be reached via Highway 80…that’s Nevada(NCAA #12) for the geographically destitute.
Others Considered. Utah State, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State and New Mexico State all offer the possibility of taking the league crown.
RPI Booster Games. If any of these games become victories for The Big Five of the WAC or Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii and Idaho then it’s a boost to the conference power ranking.
@ BYU (10.10.08)
@ San Diego (10.22.08)
@ St. Mary’s (11.17.08)
v. UNLV (12.03.08)
@ Illinois (12.08.08)
@ Michigan State (11.16.08)
@ Gonzaga (11.18.08)
@ Washington State (12.21.08)
@ UCLA (12.28.08)
New Mexico State
@ USC (11.18.08)
@ Kansas (12.03.08)
@ New Mexico (12.23.08)
v. New Mexico (12.30.08)
@ San Diego (11.15.08)
v. UNLV (12.06.08)
v. North Carolina (12.31.08)
San Jose State
@ San Diego (11.08.08)
@ St. Mary’s (11.27-28.08)
@ BYU (12.06.08)
v. Utah (12.22.08)
The Circular Firing Squad. In 2008-2009, leaving town to play league opponents will not have any WAC teams cheerily singing of yellow brick roads, more a frosty recital wishing for roads less taken.
Multiple NCAA Bids. It won’t happen this season due to multiple poor non-conference schedules and also because of intra-conference battles that will hemorrhage league win-loss records.
Possible NCAA Success. Not likely as Nevada will be a year of experience and another solid frontcourter away from nabbing at least one Big Dance victory.
NIT. After the WAC champion heads off to the NCAAs, complete with visions of making it to Ford Field dancing in their heads, look for four NIT invites to be extended to Utah State, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State and New Mexico State respectively. Utah State has a string of nine straight postseason bids while Louisiana Tech and San Jose State will be game to host or head anywhere after the WAC tournament in order to extend their seasons, as will New Mexico State.
The Widest WAC Shoulders aka The MVP.Luke Babbitt. This Nevada freshman will be THE MAN in the frontcourt for Coach Mark Fox. He needs to be as the Wolf Pack has very little firepower at the one and two positions except for him. So how long will it take Reno-ites to label Babbitt as Hot Hand Luke?
WAC All-Leaguers.Gary Wilkinson – Utah State, Brandon Fields – Nevada, Jonathan Gibson – New Mexico State, Magnum Rolle – Louisiana Tech, Adrian Oliver – San Jose State.
Contenders.Kyle Gibson, Louisiana Tech, Roderick Flemings – Hawaii, Armon Johnson – Nevada, Sylvester Seay – Fresno State, Jahmar Young – New Mexico State, C.J. Webster – San Jose State, Mac Hopson – Idaho
Questions to be answered.
Can Utah State’s 6′ 9″ Gary Wilkinson dominate this season?
Who will be the greater contributor for USU, Tai Wesley, Tyler Newbold or will it be equal?
Will 6′ 10″ Brandon Webster step forward this season or remain a ‘tease’ for Fresno State?
Can Roderick Flemings average a double-double for Hawaii?
Will someone step up at the point for Louisiana Tech head coach Kerry Rupp?
Can oft-injured Richie Phillips and necomers Dario Hunt and Ahyaro Phillips provide enough help upfront for Luke Babbitt at Nevada?
How long will it take for San Jose State’s Adrian Oliver to discard his rustiness from sitting out?
Will Johnathan Gibson or Jahmar Young, or both, step up the most for New Mexico State?
How will the roster turnover at New Mexico State roster affect the team’s chemistry. Five seniors graduated and underclassmen Herb Pope, Jaydee Luster, DeAngelo Williams, Chris Cole, Paris Carter, Johnnie Higgins left the program in the offseason while Wendell McKines left briefly but came back. The Aggies also added Mick Durham as assistant coach to replace Matt Grady.
Did You Know. The 2007-08 season saw four teams tie for the regular season title at 12-4 (Nevada, Utah State, Boise State and New Mexico State).
Final Thoughts. Unlike last season, most of the better talents in the WAC should be returning in 2009-2010 as just Gary Wilkinson among the top players completes his eligibility. This bodes well for multi-Big Dance WAC invites down the road, as the league could be a year away from returning to its perch as one of the premier high mid-major conferences.