Western Athletic Conference 2007-08 Preview
by Phil Kasiecki
Although perceived as a mid-major by many, the WAC had a solid season in 2006-07 by any standard. New Mexico State and Nevada went to the NCAA Tournament, while Utah State and Fresno State had strong teams that didn’t quite make it. Four teams reached 20 or more wins, the most in the conference since 2003-04, and all four teams that participated in the BracketBusters won their game.
While this season shapes up to be a nice one for the conference, the times will only get better if recent recruiting efforts are any indicator. Conference schools have long been able to pick up transfers from high-major schools and some junior college stars, but several schools have hauled in excellent players from the prep ranks this year as well. Several freshmen could easily have played in BCS conferences, and others are solid pickups that might be a slight notch below that level but should be excellent players in this conference. The best freshman in the conference, Herb Pope, could have played in any BCS conference, and players like Louisiana Tech’s Olu Ashaolu and D.J. Wright also come in with nice reputations.
This recruiting is important in the immediate because while a majority of the teams return three starters, no team returns more than that and a couple of teams return just one. That means there is playing time available, particularly in the form of starting jobs, and a good number of them could go to talented newcomers.
One interesting note with newcomers is that a half of the teams could see a new starter at the point guard spot. In most cases, the starter from last season has departed, and in a couple a newcomer looks like a good bet to supplant last year’s starter. As the point guard spot is notoriously difficult to adjust to in Division I, this could have a sizeable effect on how their teams live up to their potential.
Three teams had a coaching change since the end of last season. Louisiana Tech saw the end of Keith Richards’ tenure after some recent struggles, although he had his share of success. Kerry Rupp was hired to take his place, and while the Bulldogs will be young, Rupp’s presence is already being felt with the work he did on the recruiting trail late in the spring and summer. Hawai’i did not renew the contract of Riley Wallace, replacing him with long-time assistant and former player Bob Nash. In June, Reggie Theus left New Mexico State for the Sacramento Kings in the NBA, replacing him with Marvin Menzies. Like Theus, Menzies was an assistant at Louisville before taking this job.
Player of the Year: Marcelus Kemp, Nevada
Top Newcomer: Herb Pope, New Mexico State
Defensive Player of the Year: Fred Peete, New Mexico State
Best NBA Prospect: Herb Pope, New Mexico State
Kevin Bell, Sr. G, Fresno State
Jaycee Carroll, Sr. G, Utah State
Justin Hawkins, Jr. G-F, New Mexico State
Marcelus Kemp, Sr. G, Nevada
Reggie Larry, Sr. F, Boise State
New Mexico State Aggies (25-9, 11-5 WAC)
So. G Jonathan Gibson (2.6 ppg)
Jr. G Fred Peete (9.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.5 spg)
Jr. G-F Justin Hawkins (15.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 spg)
Fr. F Herb Pope
Jr. C Hatila Passos (8.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: Nine home games highlight a challenging non-conference schedule, with half of them coming in two in-season events. After early trips to Ohio and Duke, the Aggies are in the Legends Classic at home and then go to Newark, NJ to play Texas and either Tennessee or West Virginia. They later host the Lou Henson Classic, then have New Mexico to start three more in a row at home, and they close it out at New Mexico (completing the in-season home-and-home) and at Louisville. They also host a BracketBusters game in February. WAC play begins with three of four on the road, but a three-game homestand that ends with Nevada and Utah State follows it.
Outlook: There may be a new man leading the way, but the Aggies still have the most talent in the conference and plenty of depth. There isn’t a senior on the roster, but Hawkins and Peete were big keys to last season’s championship and Passos was a solid role player inside who did some dirty work, and Martin Iti is another presence in the middle. Late signee Wendell McKines will also get some minutes right away. Pope instantly becomes this team’s most talented player, and along with Hawkins will form a deadly duo and Hartford transfer Paris Carter will be in the mix as well. The big question is at the point guard spot, and not just because they turned the ball over nearly 17 times per game last season. The Aggies will need someone to take over between Gibson, who played limited minutes last year, and newcomers Chris Cole (Hartford transfer) and JayDee Luster. The Aggies host the WAC Tournament, and that along with the talent should add up to a formula for another NCAA Tournament bid.
Nevada Wolf Pack (29-5, 14-2 WAC)
So. G Brandon Fields (2.1 ppg)
Sr. G Marcelus Kemp (18.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.4 apg)
Sr. F Demarshay Johnson (redshirt)
So. F JaVale McGee (3.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg)
Sr. C David Ellis (2.2 ppg, 1.8 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: A four-game homestand in December highlights a challenging non-conference schedule. Included is part of an in-season home-and-home with Central Florida, while they also host West Coast contender Santa Clara and California. Among the road dates are UNLV, improved Pacific, Northern Iowa and North Carolina, as well as a BracketBusters game.
Outlook: The Wolf Pack lost a lot with the graduation of Nick Fazekas and the early departure of Ramon Sessions, along with two underrated starters, but don’t count them out yet. Not helping matters is that the fall hasn’t been good to them in terms of player turnover. The big blow among the holdovers is that Lyndale Burleson, who might have been the incumbent at the point, is academically ineligible for the fall semester. That means someone like Fields or freshman Armon Johnson will need to run the team in the early going. Kemp’s return gives them three senior starters, with Johnson a capable player as long as he can keep up the work in the classroom and Ellis needing to get better now that he’ll be the man in the middle. McGee showed some promise last year, and there is talent among the newcomers, including junior college transfer Roy Kraemer on the wing. Tyrone Hanson figured to get some time there, but he was kicked off the team in October, and Richie Phillips suffered a knee injury that will keep him out through most of non-conference play. Don’t expect the Wolf Pack to be near the top of the conference in scoring again with their personnel losses; instead, they key will be reproducing last season’s defensive effort as opponents shot less than 41 percent against them, third-best in the conference.
Utah State Aggies (23-12, 9-7 WAC)
Sr. G Kris Clark (3.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 4.2 apg)
Sr. G Jaycee Carroll (21.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.8 apg)
Sr. F Nick Hammer (3.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.2 apg)
Sr. F Stephen Ducharme (10.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
Jr. F-C Gary Wilkinson (junior college transfer)
Schedule Highlights: The Aggies have nine home games in non-conference play, including two in the Gossner Foods Holiday Classic and a BracketBusters game. The home slate is highlighted by Ohio Valley favorite Austin Peay, West Coast contender Santa Clara and Summit League contender Oral Roberts. Road games include Big West contender Cal Poly and dark horse UC-Irvine, Utah, and two games in the South Padre Island Invitational against Vanderbilt and either Bradley or Iowa. They get a chance to begin WAC play with some momentum, as four of the first five games are in Logan, though the one road game is at Nevada and New Mexico State is one of the home opponents.
Outlook: Stew Morrill’s team continues to be a consistent winner, and this year should be no different as four seniors return and are joined by a talented group of newcomers. Carroll leads the way as one of the best players in the conference, having led the conference in scoring last season with his sweet stroke from long range. Clark is an underrated floor leader who had a 2.2 assist/turnover ratio last season, and he’ll have a few other options to get the ball to this year. There isn’t great experience behind them in the backcourt, but there is talent. Wilkinson should start right away and make an impact inside with Ducharme, and there is good depth here as talented newcomers Brayden Bell and Muduo Niang are available on the bench, while Hammer should move into the starting lineup. Although their offense can win them some games, the Aggies will need to improve defensively if they are to be a championship team. Opponents shot over 45 percent from the field against them last season, which was better than just one team.
Fresno State Bulldogs (22-10, 10-6 WAC)
Sr. G Kevin Bell (9.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.3 spg)
Sr. G Eddie Miller (10.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg)
So. G-F Bryan Harvey (transfer from Louisville)
Sr. F Hector Hernandez (11.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
Sr. F Rekalin Sims (transfer from Kentucky)
Schedule Highlights: The first five games in non-conference play will be at home, including three in three days as they host the Pape Slam. They have five more home games in the non-conference slate, including Big West contender Pacific and a BracketBusters game. The most challenging road games will be at Southland contender Sam Houston State, UNLV, Arizona and Stanford.
Outlook: Even with the departures of Quinton Hosley and Dominic McGuire, the Bulldogs might have more talent than anyone in the WAC except New Mexico State, and there is some good experience, albeit not among some of their more talented players. That all adds up to them being a dark horse. Bell and Miller are a solid backcourt, with Bell posting a 1.15 assist/turnover ratio last season and leading the conference in assists. Harvey should give them a boost now that he’s back in his home state, and Dwight O’Neil is back after missing last season with an injury. In the frontcourt, Hernandez won’t get much pub but will produce, while Sims injects more talent into the group. There are plenty of options up front, from seniors Shawn Taylor and Alex Blair to junior James Tchana, who only played in six games due to injury last season and freshman Brandon Webster, who might be a redshirt candidate given the depth. The Bulldogs were the best defensive team in the conference last season, but they were out-rebounded. The latter is something they hope the frontcourt will improve upon.
Boise State Broncos (17-14, 8-8 WAC)
So. G Anthony Thomas (5.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.2 spg)
Sr. G Matt Bauscher (4.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.6 apg)
Sr. F Reggie Larry (14.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg)
Sr. F Tyler Tiedeman (4.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.2 apg)
Sr. F Matt Nelson (13.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.5 apg)
Schedule Highlights: The Broncos open the season with two of their eight non-conference home games, the second of which is against Washington State. They will also host Brigham Young and a BracketBusters game. Notable road games include West Coast contender San Francisco and Albany in a return of last year’s BracketBusters game. Early on in WAC play, they have a chance to get some momentum going, as the toughest of the first four games is against New Mexico State, and that game is at home. Right after that is a tough trip with games at Utah State and Nevada two days apart.
Outlook: Larry and Nelson form the top returning forward duo in the conference and will carry this team often. Both can score and rebound, and if they get help from Tiedeman or someone like junior college transfer Mark Sanchez, little-used sophomore Kurt Cunningham or freshman Zack Moritz, there won’t be any concerns at all up front. The real concern is in the backcourt with the departures of Coby Karl and Eric Lane. Thomas was the WAC’s top freshman last season, and he’ll likely be joined by Bauscher in the starting lineup. Bauscher should be pushed by late junior college addition Jamar Greene. The backcourt question marks are even more concerning since the Broncos turned the ball over more than all but two WAC teams last season.
Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (18-13, 8-8 WAC)
Sr. G Matt Gibson (10.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.7 spg)
Sr. G Bobby Nash (11.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.1 apg)
Sr. F Riley Luettgerodt (6.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.3 apg)
Sr. F P.J. Owsley (6.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.3 apg)
Sr. C Stephen Verwers (2.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.0 apg)
Schedule Highlights: The Rainbow Warriors won’t be heading to the mainland much in non-conference play, as they’re at home for all but three games. They’ll hit the road for games at New Mexico and San Diego as well as a BracketBusters game. Highlights on the home slate include Illinois, hosting the Rainbow Classic, and they’ll also play New Mexico and San Diego at home. In WAC play, they have an early three-game homestand.
Outlook: A new era begins in Honolulu with Bob Nash now at the helm, although there’s probably not anyone in the college game who knows the program as well as he does since he played there and spent 24 years as an assistant before getting this job. He inherits a team with plenty of seniors and some good talent despite a couple of key personnel losses, and it starts with the backcourt of Gibson and son Bobby. Both will be expected to score more, while Luettgerodt is capable of scoring more and should be better in his second season. He could also be pushed out of the starting lineup to let talented freshman Kareem Nitoto run the team and push Gibson off the ball. Inside is where the question marks lie, as Owsley and Verwers are serviceable but don’t have much behind them. With their frontcourt questions, the Rainbow Warriors will need to replicate last season’s excellent defense as opponents shot just 40 percent from the floor against them. It wouldn’t hurt if they cut down on their league-leading turnover total at the offensive end as well.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (10-20, 7-9 WAC)
Jr. G Drew Washington (4.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2.1 apg)
So. G Kyle Gibson (4.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg)
Fr. G-F D.J. Wright
Fr. F Olu Ashaolu
Sr. F Keith Smith (4.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The non-conference schedule includes five home games with an in-season home-and-home with Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Southland contender McNeese State and a BracketBusters game are the highlights at home. Among the road games are trips to Mississippi State and Texas Tech, as well as three games in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic. WAC play gets difficult right away: after opening with Fresno State at home, they play three straight on the road and come home for Utah State and Nevada, then go on the road for Hawai’i and Fresno State.
Outlook: The Bulldogs are basically starting over all around, as they have just one senior who has played significant minutes, five freshmen and a new head coach in Kerry Rupp. There is some promise, however, and the Bulldogs could pull off a win or two that no one expects along the way. Washington is the lone returning starter, and along with Gibson and talented freshman Wright will form the perimeter unit. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gibson pushed out by a newcomer like freshmen Orren Tims and Dwayne Lathan. Ashaolu is the team’s most talented player and was a steal for this program to pick up late, as he’s capable of putting up double-doubles. Smith is the only senior to play significant minutes in his career. They don’t project to be contenders, but the Bulldogs are starting to rebuild already under Rupp.
San Jose State Spartans (5-25, 4-12 WAC)
Sr. G Jamon Hill (9.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.6 apg, 1.2 spg)
So. G Darion Goins (3.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg)
Jr. F DeVonte Thomas (4.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Jr. F Tim Pierce (8.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Sr. F Lance Holloway (3.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Spartans open the season in the First Shot Exempt Tournament at Middle Tennessee State. They won’t play their first of four home games until December, when they host West Coast contender Santa Clara and Big Sky contender Northern Arizona. A trip to Michigan State highlights the road games, while they also travel to Santa Clara to complete an in-season home-and-home and for a BracketBusters game. In WAC play, February begins with a tough five-game stretch: home against New Mexico State, at Nevada and Utah State, then Utah State at home two games later.
Outlook: The third season of coach George Nessman’s tenure may be where the Spartans begin to turn the corner after 11 wins the first two years and some roster turnover that leaves them with only Hill and Holloway as returning starters and neither being a sure bet to start this season. Hill is the incumbent to run the show, but either he or Goins could be supplanted by redshirt freshman Justin Graham, a 6’4″ combo guard. Pierce showed signs that he could be a good scorer last season, while Thomas and Holloway could be supplanted by newcomers like freshman Oliver Caballero or Pepperdine transfer Chris Oakes. The Spartans have plenty of room for improvement, but it is perhaps most pronounced at the offensive end as they were next-to-last in both scoring and field goal percentage last season.
Idaho Vandals (4-27, 1-15 WAC)
Jr. G Terrence Simmons (junior college transfer)
Jr. G Trevor Morris (6.5 ppg)
Sr. F Clyde Johnson (4.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Sr. F Michael Cromwell (3.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.1 apg)
Sr. F Darin Nagle (9.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg)
Schedule Highlights: The Vandals have five home games in non-conference play, including half of their in-season home-and-home with South Dakota State. They have two early road tests at Gonzaga and Washington State, and later play at Arizona State and are on the road in a BracketBusters game. To start WAC play, the Vandals trade three-game stretches at home and then on the road, with the latter being a difficult one: Fresno State, Nevada and Utah State.
Outlook: Only five letterwinners return for the Vandals, making this another transition year as personnel goes. There are five junior college transfers among their nine newcomers, and each could start at some point in the season as only Nagle looks to be safe in the starting lineup among holdovers. Johnson and Cromwell figure to at least be key reserves if they don’t start, pushed by Jordan Brooks and Luis Augusto and freshman Phillip Thomas. Morris started three games last year, but will be pushed strongly by Brandon Brown and Mike Hall, as well as Washington State transfer Mac Hopson. The great deal of turnover will make winning this season exceedingly difficult, but if newcomers can come in and make a difference, it will be a step in the right direction for the program.
Another good year is shaping up for the WAC, with New Mexico State and Fresno State having the most talent. Neither team also boasts the most experience, which will open the door for teams with more experience like Nevada and Utah State, both of whom have excellent established coaches leading the way. Hawai’i will be a factor, if only from their ability to defend their home court, as they enter a new era, and don’t be surprised if Louisiana Tech wins a couple of games no one expects with their newcomers as Kerry Rupp already has that program moving forward.
The conference has a mix of holdovers and talented newcomers that will challenge coaches to meld together to win games. The challenge is a little higher since the recruiting of late has been so good that a number of the newcomers could easily come in and start right away. In the long run, that bodes well for the conference while it has challenges to manage egos in the short run.