The membership of the Western Athletic Conference has to hope that the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century resembles the beginning of the first decade, and not its end. You see, the WAC skidded at the end of the "aughts," only qualifying the league champion to the 2008 and 2009 tournaments, with both teams falling at the first hurdle. (Though Utah State, conveniently placed in a Boise pod, gave Marquette a battle last season, falling by one.)
Really, the last four years of the decade saw the WAC on a bit of a downswing. Between 2006 and 2009, the conference only won one tournament game, Nevada's win over Creighton in a 7/10 matchup in 2007. Compare that to the first six years of the decade, when a league member won at least one tournament game each tournament. And in that 2000-2005 span, the only year the WAC received a single bid was 2003, when now former member Tulsa won their first round game..as a 13 seed!
The conference's two main standard bearers in the early part of this century, Utah State and Nevada, are poised to bring the WAC back to prominence this time around, but they'll be challenged by the other seven schools, particularly New Mexico State and an Idaho team that made big strides last year. More on all nine teams after the jump.
Let's start with a look at the final WAC standings for 2008-09.
Western Athletic Conference Standings
(updated 3.24.2009 at 12:09 AM EDT)
Now here are my picks for the 2009-10 season, presented in reverse order.
Fresno State (last NCAA: 2001) Steve Cleveland continues to rebuild the Fresno State program, and this team should improve on the three conference wins they earned last season, even if their place in the standings doesn't change. The overall talent, led by swingman Paul George (14.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 44.7% 3-pointers) and the team's only senior, forward Sylvester Seay (15.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), is good, but Cleveland needs a new point guard to replace Dwight O'Neil. JC transfer Steven Shepp, a 6-2 junior from Virginia, could be the answer. There is a lot of excitement in Fresno about 6-9 freshman Greg Smith, who will join Seay and 6-8 Nedeljko Golubovic (7.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg) in the frontcourt. The Bulldogs will participate in the West Coast Classic, a unique round-robin event in which they'll host Pacific and San Diego State and visit Northern Arizona and Santa Clara.
Hawai'i (last NCAA: 2002) The Warriors return just about everyone from last year's 8th place team, including 6-7 F Roderick Flemings (16.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), who will be a serious contender for WAC Player of the Year. The only significant loss is that of G Kareem Nitoto, one of coach Bob Nash's primary stoppers, who transferred to UC Riverside. His departure could hurt the conference's third-ranked defense. Flemings will get some help on the offensive end, as JC transfer Jeremy Lay arrives to help carry the load at point guard, as returning starter Hiram Thompson battled injuries in '08-09. Providence transfer Dwain Williams will also be eligible. He averaged 11 points and 2 assists a game as a Friar and was the team's best foul and three-point shooter. 7-0 Brazilian JC transfer Douglas Kurtz woll help bolster a frontline that returns 6-9 senior Bill Amis, who averaged nearly 11 points and 7 boards a game last year, and 6-8 Lithuanian senior Petras Balocka (8.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg). The Warriors will anchor the Christmastime Diamond Head Classic, where they will face Southern Conference favorite College of Charleston before facing either SMU or UNLV, both former conference-mates in their second game. The Rainbow Classic has been converted to a four-team round-robin. UH will face McNeese State, Northern Colorado, and Southern Utah in that event.
Louisiana Tech (last NCAA: 1991) Kerry Rupp's team actually finished the year ranked only behind Utah State in the WAC's total defense table, giving up abour 63 points a game. Unfortunately, they only managed to score about 63 points per game, despite featuring three players who averaged in double-figures. That meant the Bulldogs finished rock bottom in the league in scoring and with a 6-10 league mark. As all three of their leading scorers--senior sharpshooter Kyle Gibson (16.1 ppg), 603 senior Jamel Guyton (11.8 ppg), and former LSU standout Magnum Rolle (12.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) are all back, Tech has an excellent shot at improving their scoring totals. Rupp just needs some of his other players, such as sophomore guard Olu Ashaolu (5.3 ppg) and senior forward David Jackson (5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), to step up their production. 5-11 JC transfer DeAndre Brown, who was named the top junior college player in Texas last season, is another possible answer. If La Tech can find some more points from somewhere, they could really surprise.
San Jose State (last NCAA: 1996) Like La Tech, the Spartans won 6 WAC games last year. They should win a few more this year if their star, Washington transfer Adrian Oliver, can stay healthy. The 6-4 guard averaged over 17 points a game in the 18 games he was able to appear in when healthy. Coach George Nessman will have to find a replacement for his team's third leading scorer of a year ago, senior forward Tim Pierce (11.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg). The frontline returnees, 6-9 C.J. Webster (12 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who earned an extra year of eligibility, and 6-10 Chris Oakes (8.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg), are a formidable unit. They'll be joined by 6-8 JC transfer Moses Omolade. Junior Justin Graham, who averaged more than 8 points and nearly 5 assists a game, will partner with Oliver in the backcourt. 6-3 senior Robert Owens (7 ppg), a 38 percent three-point shooter will also see plenty of time this year. In an interesting scheduling quirk, Oliver will get to play on his former homecourt on November 20. The game in Seattle is the Spartans only one scheduled against a Pac-10 opponent this season.
Boise State (last NCAA: 2008) The Broncos followed up on their 2008 WAC title and NCAA appearance with 19 wins and an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational. To make the postseason for a third straight season, coach Greg Graham will have to replace three key performers. most notably Mark Sanchez, the Broncos' leading scorer (13 ppg) and rebounder (7.2 rpg) last time out. The frontcourt will still be strong without Sanchez, as 6-9 C Kurt Cunningham (10.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg), 6-9 F Ike Okoye (8.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg), and 6-7 Paul Noonan (10 ppg, 3.6 rpg) return. They'll be joined by 6-7 JC transfer Daequon Montreal, who averaged nearly 16 points and 9 boards a game at the College of Southern Idaho. The offense is in good hands with PG Anthony Thomas at the helm. He averaged 9 points a contest last year while setting the Broncos' single-season record for assists. BSU could use another backcourt scorer, however, with returnees Justin Salzwedel and La'Shard Anderson being the best hopes. The Broncos travel to Illinois this season and play in a round-robin event at Montana, which also features North Dakota and Loyola Marymount.
Idaho (last NCAA: 1990) First-year coach Don Verlin led the Vandals to 17 wins last year (they won only 38 total games in the previous five years), a sweep of archrivals Boise State, and a win over Pacific in the College Insider Tournament. Thanks to the eligibility of a player who left that very Tiger program, Idaho could very well improve on their 9-7 league finish this season. Steffan Johnson, who was last seen earning a spot on the all-Big West first team during his junior year in Stockton, will team with 6-2 senior Mac Hopson (16.4 ppg, 5.9 apg) and 6-4 Kashif Watson (10.3 ppg) to form perhaps the best backcourt in the league. The frontcourt, led by 6-9 Marvin Jefferson (9.1 ppg), 6-6 Brandon Wiley (8.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and 6-7 Luciano de Souza (8.5 ppg) is solid, but could stand to increase its scoring. 6-8 Luiz Toledo, who averaged 13.6 ppg at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada, could end up being another inside scoring option for Idaho.
Nevada (last NCAA: 2007) Assistant David Carter takes over for Mark Fox, who left for a BCS conference gig (Georgia). The Wolf Pack underwent some roster changes in the offseason. Most notably, 6-6 F Malik Cooke (9.6 ppg. 6.2 rpg) transferred and 6-8 F Ahyaro Phillips got kicked off the team, but the two leaders of the team, 6-9 Luke Babbitt (16.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and 6-3 Armon Johnson (15.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg) are back. The two Reno products can't do it all by themselves, though. Carter expects to get more out of returnees Brandon Fields, who averaged 9.4 points per contest coming off the bench last year, Jerry Shaw (7.4 ppg, 4 rpg), and Dario Hunt (3.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg). The fact that two recruits, highly-regarded Devonte Elliott and Jerry Evans, Jr., couldn't get eligible hurts. 6-9 Serbian F Marko Cukic is eligible, though, and he'll see plenty of action. Nevada has another tough schedule lined up, with games atUNLV, VCU, Pacific, and North Carolina lined up, to go along with home tilts against Houston, Portland, and games at the Christmas week Las Vegas Classic against BYU and either Nebraska or Tulsa.
New Mexico State (last NCAA: 2007) Coach Marvin Menzies brings everyone back from a team that led the WAC in scoring last season. Unfortunately, the Aggies were the bizarro Louisiana Tech, finishing dead last in defense. Still, NMSU won 9 games last time out, and if they can get more stops they'll be a serious postseason threat. Four Aggies averaged in double-figures last year, starters Jahmar Young (17.9 ppg, 4 rpg), 3-point specialist Jonathan Gibson (14.1 ppg), and inside force Wendell McKines (12.1 ppg, 10 rpg), and reserve Troy Gillenwater (12.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg). Pass-first PG Hernst Laroche (5.8 ppg, 4.3 apg) will lead the offense.
Utah State (last NCAA: 2009) Despite losing WAC Player of the Year Gary Wilkinson (17.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and marksman Stavon Williams (6 ppg), the Aggies are again the favorite thanks to who returns. Stew Morrill's backcourt is led by two players who can do a little of everything, Jared Quayle (13.1 ppg, 6 rpg, 3.7 apg) and Tyler Newbold (9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.2 apg). Jaxon Myaer may see more time this year with the departure of Williams, especially as he's also an effective three-point shooter. In the frontcourt, 6-7 Tai Wesley (12 ppg, 6 rpg) is back while JC transfer Nate Bendall, a 6-8 forward who averaged over 14 points and 6 boards a game for last year's NJCAA champions, Salt Lake CC, is expected to replace Wilkinson. 6-6 freshman Tyrone White may see some time on the wing to help stretch defenses. As usual, the Aggies will be challenged by their in-state rivals, as they visit Utah and host BYU. They also travel to Northeastern and host a four-team round-robin that features Cal State-Fullerton, Morehead State, and Weber State, three teams who will challenge for their respective league crowns.
Utah State is my pick, and they'll hold the WAC's auto bid in my 2009-10 Final Preseason Bracket, which I will release on November 9. Of course, the big question is whether the conference can manage multiple bids this season. The talent is certainly there at the top.
To wrap up this preview, here is my preseason All-WAC team, featuring the best returning players from last season.
Preseason All-WAC Team
Player of the Year: Luke Babbitt, 6-9 F, So. (Nevada)
Remainder of the Team
Roderick Flemings, 6-7 F, Sr. (Hawai'i)
Mac Hopson, 6-2 G, Sr. (Idaho)
Adrian Oliver, 6-4 G, Jr. (San Jose State)
Jahmar Young, 6-5 G, Jr. (New Mexico State)