Western Athletic Conference Preview
by Phil Dailey
The Western Athletic Conference is in the process of undergoing a
makeover at four of its ten basketball programs.
Coaching changes are taking center stage this season at Boise State,
Fresno State, San Jose State and UTEP.
Ray Lopes takes over for basketball legend Jerry Tarkanian, at Fresno
State. Lopes brings a totally different style of no-nonsense hoops to the
Bulldogs. Many critics of Tarkanian said he was unable to discipline his
players. How the Bulldogs respond to Lopes’ new structure will determine
the success of the team. Last season, Fresno State underachieved
immensely with Marvin Ely and Chris Jefferies, missing the NCAA tourney.
Both Ely and Jefferies were NBA first-round draft picks earlier this year.
Boise State lost out to Fresno State in the Ray Lopes sweepstakes, but
managed to find a replacement for Rod Jenson elsewhere.
Greg Graham comes to the Broncos by way of the run-and-gun Oregon
offense that made it all the way to the regional finals last season.
The Broncos could excel in this offense as they have eight guards on their
team. The Broncos enter their second year in the WAC under Graham.
Phil Johnson returns to the San Jose State basketball team after
spending the last two seasons as an assistant coach for the Chicago
Bulls. Johnson coached the Spartans to a 12-16 record during the
1998-1999 season. Johnson takes over a team that went 10-22 a year
Texas-El Paso is a team that not only is undergoing a coaching change,
but a change that is only a week old. On Oct. 7 Jason Rabedeaux stepped down as the Miners head coach. Rabedeaux cited personal reasons for leaving UTEP just a month prior to
the beginning of the season. Former Arkansas coach, Nolan Richardson, who is an alumnus of UTEP, turned down the job in mid-October. Richardson said if he were asked
next year his answer might be yes. Former Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd (also an alum) was under consideration as well.
Just last week, Billy Gillispie was named UTEP’s men’s basketball coach.
Gillispie, 42, comes to UTEP after a successful eight-year stint as an
assistant coach at Baylor, Tulsa and Illinois. A Texas native, he also brings a reputation as
being one of the top recruiters in the Southwest. Most recently, Gillispie was an assistant coach at Tulsa and at Illinois for the last two seasons. Illinois had a record of 51-16 over the last two years, winning back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time in 50 years.
Many questions will be answered about these coaching changes over the
next five months. If any of these programs or their coaches’ need advice,
they should look no further than John Phillips, and the job he has done at
Tulsa. Last season, Phillips was in the same position as Graham, Lopes
and Johnson, taking the Golden Hurricane to a 27-7 record, losing to
Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tourney.
1. Tulsa Golden Hurricane (Last year 27-7, 15-3, T-1st WAC)
The Golden Hurricane went 27-7 last season under first-year head coach
John Phillips. Tulsa not only tied for the WAC title, but also knocked off
Marquette in the tournament before falling to Kentucky in the second
The bottom line for Tulsa is that they are a Top 25 team. Anything
short of another NCAA tourney bid would make for a disappointing
season for Tulsa. Tulsa has real shot of doing some serious damage
this season and no one will want to play this team in the first round come
next March. Watch for the Golden Hurricane to make the Sweet 16.
2. Hawai’i Warriors (Last season 27-6, 15-3, T-1st WAC)
Last season the Warriors tied for the conference title with Tulsa, but lost in
the first round of the tournament to a tough Xavier team. Going 15-3 in the
WAC last season set the benchmark for the Warriors. Riley Wallace
returns for his fifteenth season as the head coach at Hawai’i.
Much like Tulsa, anything short of another NCAA tourney bid
would make for a lost season. Hawai’i should meet up with Tulsa in the
WAC championship game. A good run in the WAC will get the Warriors in
the “Big Dance” once again. Carl English will prove that he is the man this
year in the WAC.
3. Fresno State Bulldogs (19-15, 9-9, T-5th WAC)
The Jerry Tarkanian era is over for the Bulldogs. Former Oklahoma
assistant Ray Lopes is the new coach for Fresno State. The difference in
these two coaches is night and day. Last season, Fresno State tied for
fifth, with a 9-9 record in the
Under the strict leadership of Lopes, the Bulldogs should make
a run at the NCAA tournament. Fresno State has not won a WAC title since
1997; with some help this might be a possibility in 2003. JC Transfer
Rolando Todd said he is the best college point guard in the nation. Only
time will tell, Rolando.
4. Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (22-10, 14-4, 3rd in WAC)
Like Boise State, the Bulldogs made their first tour in the WAC last
season. Unlike the Broncos, La. Tech had a much more successful
season going 14-4 in conference play. La. Tech fell short of the
tournament but did get an invite to the NIT, only to lose to Villanova in the
This year’s team is just as good, if not better than they were last
season. Starting five seniors is unheard of in this day and age, and might
be enough to get the Bulldogs to the next level. It’s been 12 years since
La. Tech last made the NCAA tourney. If La. Tech can win on the road in
the WAC, they will do just fine.
5. Nevada Wolf Pack (17-13, 9-9 T-5th in WAC)
Nevada ended their season last year tied for fifth with Fresno State and
17-13 record overall. Head coach Trent Johnson enters his third year for
the Wolf Pack with a 36-51 overall record.
Nevada is a decent team, if their two starting sophomore guards
can step it up, they will beat many of their opponents in the friendly
confides of the Lawler Events Center. Look out for sophomore forward
Kirk Snyder, who is considered to have NBA potential. NIT anyone?
6. Boise State Broncos (13-17, 6-12 7th in WAC)
The Broncos are coming off a disappointing year. Beating
tournament-bound Wyoming early in the season at home was their only
bright spot. The Broncos went 6-12 in their first season as a member of
The Broncos have not been in the “Big Dance” since 1994, and
more than likely won’t make it there this year either. With a new coach and
an up-tempo style, the Broncos should win more than 13 games this
season. An NIT post-season appearance would make a successful
season at Boise State
7. Southern Methodist Mustangs (15-14, 10-8 4th in WAC)
The Mustangs finished last year in the top half of the conference with a
record of 10-8. Head coach Mike Dement brings back his 111-92 record
and seven years of experience to SMU.
The success of this year’s Mustang team could rest on the
shoulders of freshman Bryon Hopkins. If is as good as Coach Dement
says he is, than they should finish higher than seventh in the WAC.
8. Rice Owls (10-19, 5-13 8th in WAC)
Last season Rice went 10-19, 5-13 for a eighth place WAC finish. Head
Coach Willis Wilson enters his tenth season for the Owls with a record of
Rice can’t be worst than they were last year, but at the same time,
they won’t be much better either. They might not have lost much since last
year, and that could be good for the Owls.
9. San Jose State Spartans (10-22, 4-14 9th in WAC)
Much like Rice, SJSU had a rough go last year in the WAC, finishing ninth
with a 4-14 record, 10-22 overall. Head Coach Phil Johnson returns to the
Spartans after being an assistant with the Chicago Bulls the last two
Just like SMU, the Spartans season depends on the play of a
freshman. If Lawrence he is what he is supposed to be, the future might
have some bright spots for San Jose State.
10. Texas-El Paso Miners (10-22, 3-15 10th in WAC)
Last season, the outlook was bright for the Miners. After going 10-22
including 3-15 in the WAC, disappointment might be an understatement,
going 0-12 on the road last season and losing 10 games by five or less
Since UTEP’s coach has been on the clock for just under a week at this point, there is no reason to consider them a threat to beat anyone in the WAC.
Predictions on where they’ll be in March:
1. Tulsa – NCAA tourney pick
2. Hawai’i – NCAA tourney pick
3. Fresno State – NIT
4. Louisiana Tech – NIT
5. Nevada – NIT
6. Boise State
7. Southern Methodist
9. San Jose State
All-WAC Pre-season Team
G – Dante Swanson – Tulsa
G – Antonio Reed – Tulsa
F – Carl English – Hawai’i
F – Antonio Meeking – Louisiana Tech
F – Kevin Johnson -Tulsa
G/F Quinton Ross – SMU
F Kirk Snyder – Nevada
G Booker Nabors – Boise State
Player of the Year
F Carl English – Hawai’i
Newcomer of the Year (JC Transfer)
G Rolando Todd – Fresno State
Freshman of the Year
G Bryon Hopkins – SMU