Put Nevada at the top.
|Nevada's Mark Fox won't be able to rely on Fazekas or Sessions. (Getty Images)|
That has been the thought process the past two years in predicting the Western Athletic Conference, making it similar to the WCC (Gonzaga) and C-USA (Memphis) in terms of being top-heavy. Credit Mark Fox, Nick Fazekas and a solid supporting cast as the reasons. But those days are now over -- at least until Nevada's Class of 2008 prospects arrive -- and the result should be one of the nation's more wide-open races, evidence being how four different schools got a first-place vote in the official preseason coaches poll.
In other words, there is no dominant team.
But that also means this is not a dominant conference.
And that's why the 10th-best league in the nation this season is ... the Western Athletic Conference.
The good: Four of the top six scorers, including reigning WAC Tournament MVP Justin Hawkins, return from the team that lost to Texas in the first round of last season's NCAA Tournament. Also on board is Herb Pope, the often-troubled/undeniably talented freshman from Pennsylvania who is capable of being a dominant figure.
The bad: Reggie Theus bolted for the NBA after helping NMSU return to prominence, off to Sacramento to coach Ron Artest. That will be more lucrative than fun. But then again, perhaps Theus is the perfect man for the job considering he spent last year coaching another questionable character -- namely Tyrone Nelson -- who was dismissed from New Mexico State this offseason after pleading no contest to charges stemming from the robbery of a pizza man. That means the Aggies will be without Nelson's 11.5 points per game, and they'll have to actually purchase all food going forward. So this is a big loss in multiple ways.
The bottom line: If Theus was still around, the Aggies would have been an easy pick to take the league. But the WAC coaches did not vote NMSU first in the preseason poll, instead going with Utah State in an act that suggests they are unsure whether first-year coach Marvin Menzies can continue what Theus started. As for me, I'm inclined to err on the side of talent. So NMSU gets the nod, and Menzies had better not make me look silly.
2. Utah State
The good: Jaycee Carroll is back for his senior year and primed to become Utah State's all-time leading scorer. Two other starters join him, meaning another 23-win season is possible for the Aggies.
The bad: I like Carroll, think he's just fabulous. But I hate that he, at 6-feet-2, led Utah State in rebounding last season and is primed to do it again. Seriously, how far can a team go with a combo guard being its best rebounder? Not too far, I say. That is why Utah State didn't fair well when it played its only BCS opponent last season, losing 68-58 to Michigan in the NIT while being outrebounded by a 39-30 margin. Here's hoping Brayden Bell, a 6-9, 240-pound center, can fix that problem. He's a transfer from Ohio State, one who averaged 10 boards per game as a high school senior.
The bottom line: Even if the Aggies match their total of 23 wins from last season they probably will not be in position to earn an at-large bid. The league lacks a dominant team to beat and the non-conference schedule provides few tests other than Vanderbilt and, perhaps, Bradley in the South Padre Island Invitational. Consequently, Utah State's hopes for an NCAA Tournament berth might hinge on earning the automatic bid via winning the WAC Tournament, and I'm not sure that's smart considering the event will be hosted by New Mexico State.
The good: Fox has won 81 games the past three years, tying him with Gonzaga's Mark Few for the most ever through the first three years as a head coach. So the man has done well, and the return of Marcelus Kemp should keep the trend going at some rate, even if it's not at 27 wins per season.
The bad: Fazekas, the three-time WAC Player of the Year, is now in the NBA, as is point guard Ramon Sessions. So if Fox somehow wins 81.8 percent of his games again this season I'll be happy to present him for early nomination into the Hall of Fame.
|1. New Mexico State||NCAA|
|2. Utah State||NIT|
|4. Fresno State||NIT|
|5. Boise State||none|
|7. Louisiana Tech||none|
|8. San Jose State||none|
The bottom line: It appears Nevada is going to be solid as long as Fox is in Reno given how well recruiting is going. But Luke Babbitt and Mark McLaughlin -- a pair of top 100 prospects in the Class of 2008 -- won't be on campus until next year, meaning this is likely the season between seasons for the Wolf Pack, though a postseason berth remains possible.
4. Fresno State
The good: Kevin Bell is back after leading the WAC in assists the past two seasons. When the senior point guard finds himself in a half-court set, he will have two transfers to feed: Rekalin Sims and Bryan Harvey. One (Sims) came from Kentucky, the other (Harvey) from Louisville. And if you're going to pluck players, those are two pretty good programs from which to pluck.
The bad: Had Dominic McGuire returned, the Bulldogs would likely be the preseason favorite. But Fresno State took a hit when the 6-8 forward opted for early entry to the NBA Draft, and it doesn't help that Quinton Hosley happened to exhaust his eligibility at the same time. That means Fresno State is looking to replace 27.4 points and 18.7 rebounds in just those two players.
The bottom line: The Bulldogs are probably the most intriguing team in the WAC, and much of what they do will rely on how Sims and Harvey adjust to playing on the opposite side of the country. If they're good, Fresno State can be good, perhaps good enough to make a run at the league title. If not, then Steve Cleveland's team will struggle to approach the 10-6 WAC record it achieved last season.
5. Boise State
The good: Two of the top returning scorers and rebounders in the league -- Reggie Larry (14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds) and Matt Nelson (13.5 and 8.9) -- return from the BSU team that finished .500 in the league last season. Also back is point guard Anthony Thomas, the reigning WAC Freshman of the Year.
The bad: Coby Karl is gone, now in camp with the Lakers fighting for a roster spot. That's good for Karl (who had six points in a Sunday night loss to the Clippers) but bad for Boise State, which is now looking for a new leading scorer, leading 3-point shooter, leading free throw shooter and leading assist-man.
The bottom line: Greg Graham needs 17 victories to earn his 100th win at Boise State. The guess here is that he'll approach (and possibly reach) the milestone thanks to a non-league schedule with just one BCS-affiliated opponent (Washington State), but a postseason berth remains doubtful unless somebody emerges on the perimeter, and to an unexpected degree.
The good: Three starters are back, including Matt Gibson and his 10.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game averages. And the football team is doing pretty well, in case you hadn't heard.
The bad: Dominic Waters was supposed to be another quality returning player, but he transferred to Portland State. Todd Follmer, a 7-foot center, also left the program, and that's not good because there just aren't a bunch of 7-footers walking the streets in Hawaii.
|G - Jaycee Carroll, Utah State|
|G - Marcelus Kemp, Nevada|
|F - Reggie Larry, Boise State|
|F - Justin Hawkins, New Mexico St.|
|F - Matt Nelson, Boise State|
|G - Kevin Bell, Fresno State|
|G - Fred Peete, New Mexico St.|
|G - Matt Gibson, Hawaii|
|F - Herb Pope, New Mexico State|
|F - Stephen DuCharme, Utah St.|
| Player of the Year |
Marcelus Kemp, Nevada
| Newcomer of the Year |
Herb Pope, New Mexico State
| Breakthrough Player |
Rekalin Sims, Fresno State
The bottom line: Bob Nash is finally taking over after 28 seasons with the program, 23 as a full-time assistant. Good for him. It's a nice story. But at the moment he's short on nice players, meaning a finish in the bottom half of the league is almost certain.
The good: Karl Malone is back on campus, listed as the director of basketball promotions and assistant strength and conditioning coach. The Mailman could also be listed as mascot and recruiting coordinator, because he's going to be everything to everybody and an immense help to new coach Kerry Rupp, Malone's close friend who has been connected to big-time basketball through the years, at both Utah and Indiana.
The bad: Though Rupp has already lured some impressive recruits in Olu Ashaolu and D.J. Wright, Malone could probably still dominate practices with one hand tied behind his back and the other steering an 18-wheeler, even at the age of 44. Problem is, his eligibility is exhausted. Talk about your tough breaks.
The bottom line: Louisiana Tech's hiring of Rupp was one of the offseason's better moves, if only because it guaranteed Malone would play a greater, more high-profile role at his alma mater. The result is that more people will take notice, and because some of those people are recruits, the Bulldogs will be competitive in the WAC in a couple of years, though this season is very much the beginning of the rebuilding phase.
The good: The schedule is agreeable thanks to only one game against a BCS opponent (Dec. 19 at Michigan State). Consequently, San Jose State could conceivably notch some wins before league play begins, which would be good for third-year coach George Nessman and the WAC in general.
The bad: San Jose State was outrebounded as a team last season en route to losing 25 games. Now, Menelik Barbary is gone, and he's the only Spartan who averaged more than 5.1 boards in 2006-07.
The bottom line: The Spartans haven't had a .500 record since 2000-2001, and even that "successful" season featured four wins over non-Division I opponents. So things are difficult at San Jose State and will continue to be so this season, though improvement is expected because the talent level is better.
The good: Most everybody from the roster that lost 27 games last season is gone. So yeah, the Vandals are starting over, but starting over can't be totally bad after a 4-27 campaign.
The bad: Sometimes when teams lose you can look back at the schedule and point to some games here or there that could've ended differently if the ball had bounced another way. Not so with Idaho. The Vandals lost 17 times by 15 or more points last season, so a little adjusting isn't going to get this mess turned around.
The bottom line: There's no reason to think Idaho will be significantly better this season, but there is some good news. South Dakota State, which lost to Idaho twice last season, is back on the schedule twice again. So that's two probable wins, and if the Vandals can find three more, then 2007-08 will be chalked up as an improvement, sad as that might seem.
|2007-08 Season Preview/Conference Countdown Schedule|
|Monday, Oct. 15||Preseason Top 25 (and one)||Thursday, Oct. 25||No. 7: Missouri Valley|
|Tuesday, Oct. 16||Preseason All-Amercia Team||Friday, Oct. 26||No. 6: Big 12|
|Wednesday, Oct. 17||No. 13: West Coast||Monday, Oct. 29||No. 5: Big Ten|
|Thursday, Oct. 18||No. 12: Colonial||Tuesday, Oct. 30||No. 4: SEC|
|Friday, Oct. 19||No. 11: Mountain West||Wednesday, Oct. 31||No. 3: ACC|
|Monday, Oct. 22||No. 10: Western Athletic||Thursday, Nov. 1||No. 2: Big East|
|Tuesday, Oct. 23||No. 9: Conference USA||Friday, Nov. 2||No. 1: Pac-10|
|Wednesday, Oct. 24||No. 8: Atlantic 10||Monday, Nov. 5||Preseason Projecting the Field|