Western Athletic Conference 2003-04 Season Recap
by Joaquin Mesa
When Kirk Snyder was taken in the draft by the Utah Jazz, everyone who supports the WAC conference jumped in joy. A first-rounder! An actual first-rounder! The WAC Player of the Year was probably just as surprised as most of the NBA’s General Managers about the decision by the Jazz head honchos. The Utah Jazz, who have made a living by supporting the likes of good perimeter shooters like John Starks, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek took an unproven shooter with a flare for the flashy. Nevertheless, the WAC conference was vindicated as it constantly claws its way into the upper-echelons of the college basketball’s major conference hierarchy.
The 2004-2005 college basketball season is upon us, and Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut, Arizona and Kansas are all prepared to defend their status as championship contenders. True, only one of these teams will win the title, but not one of these teams is questioned as to the high quality of their basketball program. However, most conferences live like the WAC conference, without a standout team ready to perform each and every year as a championship contender. Utah had a run at it for a while, but it wasn’t long enough to declare anything. Then they bolted for the Mountain West Conference, never to be heard from again. The best player to come out of the conference is Tim Hardaway, which speaks volumes about the quality of players that come to the WAC. They do have skills! It’s just that they don’t come with enough friends with them to make good teams. Keith Van Horn, Danny Ainge, Michael Cage and Melvin Ely round out the recently picked 25 Year All-WAC Team. It is a good team that would challenge any other major conference’s first team, but it took them 25 years to organize it.
Nevada had a spectacular season last year, advancing to the Sweet 16 for only the 23rd time in WAC history. They won their first two NCAA Tournament games after having been to the tournament only two other times, in 1984 and 1985. Kirk Snyder might thank his lucky stars that his team made it as far as they did; otherwise he could have been an easy second rounder, or even worse. Ex-Coach Trent Johnson can thank his lucky stars that his team went as far as they did, otherwise he might not be the coach of perennial powerhouse Stanford. There were a lot of people that benefited from the successful season that Nevada had, except for the Nevada program. They lost their best player and head coach. That is very tough to rebound from, even for an established program. Just ask UCLA.
On the other hand, some other notorious WAC teams might just take this opportunity to establish themselves as contenders again. UTEP, which finished second to Nevada in conference play, is poised to succeed in conference play this year. They have their top four scorers returning, and a freshman class that has the WAC talking. This is a team that played Maryland to the buzzer in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It is a no-brainer to pick these guys as the top team coming out of this conference, especially with all of the change that Nevada will be dealing with. Now, some of you might say that UTEP is changing coaches as well, and you would be right. However, they are returning their key players, which makes a change of coaches that much easier. Also, Coach Doc Sadler also acted as assistant coach for the Athletics during last season’s tournament run. Put two and two together and you have a team that is going to make their home crowd raucous.
However, don’t forget about the miraculous run that the WAC teams had last season. It was a glorious season for WAC hoopsters, so let’s take a look!
Nevada beat UTEP in the final conference game of the season to take the regular season title in the WAC by tie-breaker. It was a tough game that propelled Nevada into its first tournament berth since 1985. The final score, 66-60, showed just how hard fought the game actually was. The lead changed hands seven times in the second half alone, but Nevada’s Kirk Snyder took what seeded like every rebound helping the Miners to the victory. Nevada was playing catch up to the Miners for most of the season, as their early losses taught them valuable lessons that would translate to their successful run in the NCAA tournament. UTEP, though beaten in the final regular season game, was granted an at-large NCAA tournament berth.
The regular season saw some big games won by WAC teams. Nevada started the season against Vermont, which it promptly dispatched of 69-49. You might remember Vermont as the team that almost took out UConn in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Okay, not really. But they did make the tournament, a feat unto itself. It was wins over UNLV and Kansas that really sent the Nevada train chugging down its tournament-bound path. The Kansas game was part of the reason that two teams from the WAC made it into the NCAA tournament at all. If you can beat Kansas, you can beat anyone. Oregon State fell victim to Hawaii and Boise State while Washington State fell to Rice and Fresno State. All in all, the lone victory by the Pac-10 over a WAC team, except for Stanford’s wins over Rice (which we won’t count because it was Stanford), was USC’s win over Fresno State, which wasn’t impressive at all. Thus, the final tally against the Pac-10, the WAC was 4-2. This isn’t half bad against a major conference. Southern Methodist, though lacking in conference wins, had one big win against Texas Tech and Bobby Knight. How this happened, I don’t know, but the Mustangs are looking to improve upon this in the upcoming season.
Nevada has a glorious run in the NCAA Tournament with a Sweet 16 appearance that was promptly ruined by Georgia Tech. The Wolfpack actually took a lead into halftime, and were poised to win with B.J. Elder of the Yellow Jackets on the bench with a bum ankle, a result of a heavy landing Kirk Synder. However, it was not meant to be as the Yellow Jacket’s defense forced too many bad shots in the second half. Nevada did beat upstart Gonzaga, which proved to be worth less than its weight in gold. However, this is a small prize in comparison to the title.
UTEP was stopped in the first round of the tournament, which was to be expected as they were paired against Maryland. However, it was a tight game that saw Maryland squander an 11 point lead in the second half. In the end, it was the clutch free-throws put in by Maryland that won the game, and sent UTEP back to Texas with a valuable learning experience.
In the NIT Tournament, Boise State, Hawaii and Rice led the WAC to a reasonably successful run in the tournament. Hawaii had one of the most surprising victories over ranked Utah State, a team that was a surprise omission from the NCAA tournament. Their 11 point victory in the first round of the tournament helped NCAA officials make a case for their controversial bubble selections, and it also handed Utah State their fourth loss of the season. Rice bowed out early to an overwhelming Wisconsin-Milwaukee team 91-63, while Boise State beat UNLV and then the very same Wisconsin-Milwaukee team to make it into the round of 16. Hawaii joined them in the round of 16 with a victory over Nebraska.
Kirk Synder, Nevada
Michael Kuebler, Hawaii
Aaron Hayes, Boise St.
Michael Harris, Rice
Omar Thomas, UTEP
Coach of the Year:
Billy Gillispie, UTEP
Player of the Year:
Kirk Synder, Nevada
Defensive Player of the Year:
Paul Millsap, Louisiana Tech
I went with the leading scorers on each of the top five teams in the league. I know some people really liked Filiberto Rivera, but I couldn’t justify the selection of a point guard who couldn’t lead his team past the first round of the NCAA’s. Paul Millsap is only a freshman, but he was a monster on the boards, leading the WAC with 12.5 rebounds per game. Add this to his already league leading 1.7 blocks per game, and it is a no-brainer for Defensive Player of the Year.
Nevada Wolfpack 25-9, 13-5
Team MVP: Kirk Snyder
Top Scorer: Kirk Synder, 18.7 ppg
Top Rebounder: Nick Fazekas, 7.6 rpg
Top Assists: Todd Okeson, 4.0 apg
Starters Leaving: Kirk Synder (NBA draft), Todd Okeson (graduated), Gary Hill-Thomas (graduated), Sean Paul (graduated)
Key Players Returning: Nick Fazekas, Kevin Pinkney, Marcus Kemp
Nevada is losing the core of their team, and that doesn’t bode well for first-year Coach Mark Fox. Fox has spent the last four years as the associate Coach for the Wolfpack, and he is going to have a few rough years before this team becomes a tournament team again. This team lost perhaps the best player to have graced the program in Kirk Snyder. He was a true small forward who was as tenacious as he was skilled. If not for the return of Sophomore standout Nick Fazekas, this team would be at the bottom of the WAC this year.
UTEP Miners 24-8, 13-5
Team MVP: Omar Thomas
Top Scorer: Omar Thomas, 15.5 ppg
Top Rebounder: Jason Williams, 6.1 rpg
Top Assists: Filiberto Rivera, 4.8 apg
Starters Leaving: Chris Craig (graduated), Roy Smallwood (graduated)
Key Players Returning: Omar Thomas, Filiberto Rivera, Jason Williams, John Tofi, Giovanni St. Amant
UTEP is returning most of its key contributers, which will help first year Coach Doc Sadler. It is lucky to retain their point guard position, which many people attribute college basketball success to. I like to think that big men get it done, especially if they are motivated. Jason Williams and John Tofi should be a fun duo to watch under the boards. They both averaged around 6 rebounds a game last year, and look to be getting the ball more. With Filiberto Rivera getting them the ball, this team might be a contender again, even with the coaching change.
Boise State Broncos 23-10, 12-6
Team MVP: Aaron Haynes
Top Scorer: Aaron Haynes, 14.6 ppg
Top Rebounder: Jason Ellis, 9.1 rpg
Top Assists: Bryan DeFares, 3.7 apg
Starters Leaving: Bryan DeFares (graduated), Joe Skiffer (graduated), Aaron Haynes (graduated)
Key Players Returning: Jason Ellis, Coby Karl, Jermaine Blackburn
Though the Broncos lose starting players Aaron Haynes and Bryan DeFares, the team is in good hands in Jason Ellis, Coby Karl and Jermaine Blackburn. Jermaine challenged Haynes for the scoring title for most of the year. Though he doesn’t rebound quite as well as Haynes, he is more accurate from behind the line. Haynes and DeFares were the core of this team for over two years. They shared their team’s MVP honors last year, and Haynes received the award this year. He was drafted by the Florence Flyer of the USBL, and this team will miss him.
Rice Owls 22-11, 12-6
Team MVP: Michael Harris
Top Scorer: Michael Harris, 17.5 ppg
Top Rebounder: Michael Harris, 8.9 rpg
Top Assists: Rashid Smith, 4.8 apg
Starters Leaving: Rashid Smith (graduated), Mamadou Yamar Diene (graduated)
Key Players Returning: Michael Harris, Jason McKrieth, Brock Gillespie, J.R. Harrison, Jamaal Moore
Rice will return 4 starters to their rotation this year, two of which have been touring in China with Athletes in Action. Jason McKrieth and Michael Harris will return to the team in good shape and ready to build upon the 20-win season that they put together last year. Rice might be the favorite to win the conference with its depth and experience.
Hawaii Warriors 21-12, 11-7
Team MVP: Michael Kuebler
Top Scorer: Michael Kuebler, 18.4 ppg
Top Rebounder: Julian Sensley, 7.5 rpg
Top Assists: Logan Lee, 3.8 apg
Starters Leaving: Michael Kuebler (graduated), Phil Martin (graduated), Jason Carter (graduated), Haim Shimonovich (graduated), Michael Kuebler (graduated), Paul Jesinskis (graduated)
Key Players Returning: Julian Sensley, Jeff Blackett, Vaidotas Peciukas
Too many players are gone from a team that won 20 games last year. There are three seniors left on the team, with most of the players having only one, two or no years of good experience. Julian Sensley will look to take over the middle with Michael Kuebler gone, but who else will step up as an outside threat? This question will need to be answered in the first few games or Hawaii might be in a bit of trouble.
Fresno State Bulldogs 14-15, 10-8
Team MVP: Shantay Legans
Top Scorer: Shantay Legans, 15.0 ppg
Top Rebounder: Mustafa Al-Sayyad, 7.3
Top Assists: Shantay Legans, 5.6
Starters Leaving: Renaldo Major (graduated), Shantey Legans (graduated), Jonathon Woods (graduated), Marcus West, Terry Pettis, Francis Koffi, Chris Adams
Key Players Returning: Mustafa Al-Sayyad, Dreike Bouldin, Jack Marlow
Now, the key returning players that I have mentioned are nothing spectacular. This team is in complete flux. There will only be three returning players from the team of last year. Coach Ray Lopes is welcoming seven incoming freshman, as well as two redshirt freshman from last year. He got a good Junior College transfer in JaVance Coleman, but other then that, this is going to be a team of the future. Look for the Bulldogs at the bottom of the standings.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs 15-15, 8-10
Team MVP: Paul Millsap
Top Scorer: Paul Millsap, 15.6 ppg
Top Rebounder: Paul Millsap, 12.5 rpg
Top Assists: Donell Allick, 3.6 apg
Starters Leaving: JueMichael Young
Key Players Returning: Paul Millsap, Corey Dean, Donell Allick, Wayne Powell, Barry Thompson
This team did not lose too much. In fact, the core of their team is still sophomore star Paul Millsap. Millsap was a consensus Freshman of the Year in the WAC, and the team will be built around him for the next few years. The starters are still all there, so expect to see this team better their .500 record.
Southern Methodist Mustangs 12-18, 5-13
Team MVP: Brian Hopkins
Top Scorer: Brian Hopkins, 17.7 ppg
Top Rebounder: Patrick Simpson, 6.0 rpg
Top Assists: Brian Hopkins, 3.8 apg
Starters Leaving: Kris Lowe (graduated),
Key Players Returning: Brian Hopkins, Patrick Simpson, Eric Castro, Justin Isham
This is another team that will bring back a lot of its roster. It will only lose two seniors, and only one starter. Their top four scorers return, and their team leader Brian Hopkins is ready to take another step towards Southern Methodist Mustang history.
Tulsa Golden Hurricane 9-20, 5-13
Team MVP: Jason Parker
Top Scorer: Jason Parker, 16.9 ppg
Top Rebounder: Jarius Glenn, 6.1 rpg
Top Assists: Jason Parker, 2.9 apg
Starters Leaving: Jason Parker (graduated), Kenneth Kelley
Key Players Returning: Jarius Glenn, Anthony Price, Seneca Collins, Guilherme Teichmann
All the teams that did not have success last year are returning a lot of experienced players. Despite losing team leader Jason Parker, Tulsa has a chance to regain the glory that it has gotten used to in the last twenty years. In the last twenty-four years, Tulsa has won eight regular season conference championships, five post-season conference championships, gone to the NCAA Tournament thirteen times, the NIT five times, and won the NIT twice. They should be poised to continue that success this year.
San Jose State Spartans 6-23, 1-17
Team MVP: Eric Walton
Top Scorer: Eric Walton, 11.8 ppg
Top Rebounder: Eric Walton, 6.5 rpg
Top Assists: Bim Okunrinboye, 3.2 apg
Starters Leaving: Eric Walton (graduated), Bim Okunrinboye (graduated), Brett Lilly (graduated), Phil Calvert (graduated)
Key Players Returning: Marquin Chandler, Demetrius Brown, Michael McFadden
This team might have the most to prove with only one win in conference play last year. It also might have one of the hardest times doing so, with only one returning starter. Now this might seem like a good thing considering how the team did last year, so lets wait and see before we put the fork in the Spartans.