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WAC Preview

December 22, 2001 Conference Notes No Comments

2001-02 WAC Preview

by Jason Drucker

This conference is totally WAC, literally. After just one season as a nine-team league, the Western Athletic Conference has expanded to ten teams this season, despite the loss of the TCU Horned Frogs. The two newcomers are the Boise State Broncos and the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs. Boise State, a former member of the Big West, went 17-14 last season, while Louisiana Tech managed a 17-12 record as part of the Sun Belt Conference.

Coming off a strong season, the WAC conference is again looking to send more than one team to the NCAA Tournament. Last year, Fresno State earned a berth to the field of 65 with a 25-6 regular season record, while the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors, at 17-14, earned a spot by winning the WAC tournament. Tulsa won its second NIT championship, twenty years after claiming its first. The conference looks to repeat its postseason success this season with the continued strength of each of these teams, as well as the potential of the other 7 conference teams, namely UTEP and SMU.

1. Fresno State: Jerry Tarkanian says that this is the best team he has coached since returning to his alma mater seven years ago. Since his return, the Bulldogs have won at least 20 games each season, while advancing to either the NIT or NCAA Tournament. Last year, the team earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament as a result of winning its first WAC regular season championship.

Fresno’s most dominant player and the 2001 WAC Player of the Year, Melvin Ely, opted to return as a fifth-year senior, rather than enter the NBA Draft. Chris Jefferies, a junior playing in his hometown of Fresno, CA, is coming off a breakthrough season in which he earned first-team All-WAC honors, as well as spots on the All-WAC Defensive and Newcomer Teams. With these two players at the helm, Fresno State not only has the potential to finish atop the WAC standings, but may also fulfill Tarkanian’s goal of advancing past the first weekend of the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

2. Hawai’i: The Rainbow Warriors clearly have a theme for the 2001-2002 season: change. Now known as the Rainbow Warriors (They were just the “Warriors” for a few seasons – the football team still is), Hawai’i has taken it one step further to add an apostrophe to its school name. The apostrophe is actually an okina, a letter of the Hawaiian alphabet signifying a pause. Last season’s WAC Tournament champions, the Rainbow Warriors will try to continue climbing the ladder of respect.

For the first time in its history, Hawai’i was ranked nationally at the beginning of the season (25th by CollegeInsider.com), which is sure to shine the spotlight on the team. Senior guard, Predrag Savovic, was a member of the All WAC first-team last year, as well as the ‘Bows leading scorer averaging 17.6 points per game. Last year, sophomore forward Carl English finished as the WAC Tournament MVP, turning into a scoring threat as the season progressed. He has led his team in scoring 7 out of 10 games this season, proving that last season’s heroics were certainly not a fluke.

3. Tulsa: With only one senior on its roster, Tulsa is a young team, but certainly not inexperienced. With nearly the same nucleus last season, the Golden Hurricane made the best of its situation and won the NIT championship. Though the Hurricane was unable to make it to the NCAA Tournament in 2000-2001, first-year head coach John Phillips thinks this year’s team has what it takes. With a proven scorer in WAC first-team forward Kevin Johnson (13.9 points per game last season), Tulsa has an inside threat to complement its extremely athletic backcourt.

Greg Harrington, the lone senior, set a school record with 201 assists last season, while still managing a double-digit scoring average (10.8 points per game). The other starting guard, Dante Swanson, earned WAC all-defensive team honors last season, while helping the backcourt shoot 42 percent from behind the arc. With the combination of defensive toughness, inside threats, and consistent perimeter shooting, Tulsa has a chance to end the season atop the WAC’s standings, and possibly earn a berth into the NCAA Tournament.

4. Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs are a well-designed team consisting of various players with both scoring and rebounding abilities. The team’s top four scorers differ by less than two points per game, with junior guard Darrian Brown leading the way averaging 14.1 points per game. According to CollegeRPI.com, the Bulldogs have the highest RPI in the WAC. RPI (Rating Percentage Index) is calculated by a combination of winning percentage and opponents’ winning percentage, and is used by the NCAA as one of the factors in deciding which teams to invite to the NCAA tournament.

Louisiana Tech has the ability to play with some of the nation’s strongest teams, as the nearly defeated Oklahoma on the road. Losing by 4 points in overtime was not a fairy tale ending, but the Bulldogs received national attention for their performance. The Bulldogs will be a team to watch down the stretch, as they could certainly earn themselves a berth to the NCAA Tournament by capturing the WAC Tournament title.

5. Nevada: Nevada has undergone a facelift over the past few seasons, and coach Trent Johnson is expecting results. Returning four starters, including leading scorer Terrance Green (11.8 points per game) should help offset the loss of leading rebounder Richard Stirgus. The Wolf Pack has a well-balanced team of big men, scorers passers, and superior defenders.

Junior college transfer Jerry Petty averaged nearly 4 steals per game last year at North Idaho College, while freshman recruit Kevin Pinkney averaged 21 points, 13 boards, and 5 blocks per contest his senior year of high school. Sophomore Andre Hazel will be the key to Nevada’s success. As a member of the WAC’s All-Newcomer Team last season, the 5-11 point guard led the Wolf Pack in assists last season with just under 4 per game. Nevada’s talent, if honed well, could make it a true contender for the postseason.

6. Texas-El Paso: Advancing to postseason play for the first time in six years was a big step. Returning eight of its top nine players is going to help the Miners as they will try to uproot the favorites in the WAC. However, losing the school’s all-time leading scorer, Brandon Wolfram, will be a difficult obstacle to overcome. With five seniors and two juniors expected to see significant minutes, UTEP will rely on its experience when facing possibly the toughest non-conference schedule in a decade. The Miners will also have to rely on teamwork to succeed this season, as each player seems to have a specific role that appears more important on this team than any other in the conference.

Junior forward Roy Smallwood and senior center Brian Stewart are the only Miners who are averaging double-digits in scoring so far this season. UTEP’s top five scorers are only separated by five points per game, which means each player will have to do his part if the team is going to win with this strategy. Head coach Jason Rabedeaux likes to keep his opponent’s – and players-guessing, as he has started eight different players so far this season. This writer thinks the Miners should find their scorers and let them do that job. Role playing is an overlooked part of college basketball, when in fact it is probably what separates the bad from the good.

7. Boise State: Boise State’s success relies almost solely on the shoulders of its senior forward Abe Jackson. Jackson is averaging 19.3 points per game, 10 points higher than the Broncos’ second leading scorer, senior center Richard Morgan. An All-America candidate, Jackson is Boise State’s offense, having attempted nearly twice as many shots as any other player. Although the Broncos possess good size all over the court, no player is pulling down even 6 rebounds per game. If Boise State can manage to control the boards, they could find themselves playing after the WAC Championship Tournament.

8. Southern Methodist:
Senior guard Damon Hancock, after receiving WAC second-team honors last season, has started off in a strong way this season. Averaging over 20 points per game, Hancock also leads the Mustangs in assists, with over 4 per contest. With a quality supporting cast including Ross Quinton and Eric Castro, SMU shows great potential. Quinton is shooting over 40 percent behind the arc so far this season, while Castro is sinking 62 percent of his field goals. The Mustangs’ problem area is their free-throw shooting. Have lost two games by 3 points or less, SMU needs to convert more than 63 percent.

9. Rice: With the loss of first-team All-WAC guard Mike Wilks, Rice fans should not expect too much from their Owls this season. Despite having three players averaging double-digits in scoring so far, Rice must iron out the kinks that will be pertinent to the team’s success. Turning the ball over 18 times per contest is not going to help win games, but their shooting has been stellar (46 percent). Head coach Willis Wilson is still trying to find the best combinations, as he has started 9 different players this season. With freshman guard Jason McKrieth leading the team in scoring (just under 16 points per game), and freshman forward Michael Harris averaging 11 points and 8 rebounds a contest, Owl fans have good reason to look forward to the next few seasons.

10. San Jose State: The big news for the Spartans is that junior forward Brandon Hawkins recently recorded the first triple-double in school history. Unfortunately, San Jose State looks unlikely to climb out of the cellar this season. They turn the ball over 3 more times per game than their opponents, and are averaging only 60 points per game through mid-December. The Spartans are going to have to find their chemistry with Hawkins who only returned to action recently. This team is unlikely to advance to the postseason, and with tough conference play ahead, might be considered the easy victory for those looking to play into late March.

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