Philadelphia, PA –
Stew Morrill, who has enjoyed a number of very successful Utah State teams in recent years, is the dean of head coaches in the WAC as he heads into his 14th season in Logan, but this year might also prove to be one of the most challenging for him and the Aggies because the team is in re-building mode after losing several crucial pieces that pushed them to the NCAA Tournament last season. Except for his first year when the Aggies went 15-13 and finished fourth in the Eastern Division of the Big West Conference, Morrill has guided the program to the postseason, even though they've been booted out rather early almost every time.
Expected to finish ahead of Utah State in the final standings are Nevada and the New Mexico State version of the Aggies, the former having a full complement of returning starters from last season. NMSU lost its top player from a year ago, but in return the Aggies get back someone who missed all of last season with an injury and while that might not be an equitable trade, it is certainly better than finding the cupboard completely bare.
Both Fresno State and Louisiana Tech are kicking off new eras with new coaches on the bench, which is enough of a reason to think those two squads will be wrestling with each other to remain out of the basement in the standings.
As for the other three programs (Idaho, Hawaii and San Jose State), they've all had too many changes to their rosters already to truly be a threat to a team like Nevada which should be running away with the WAC regular season title given the amount of experience and talent that head coach David Carter currently enjoys.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Nevada
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Nevada; 2. New Mexico State; 3. Utah State; 4. Idaho; 5. Hawaii; 6. San Jose State ; 7. Fresno State; 8. Louisiana Tech
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NEVADA: Above everything else, the Wolf Pack have the luxury of bringing back all five starters from a season ago, not an easy trick these days in college basketball, but coach Carter has made it happen for the folks in Reno. Of those five starters, four of them averaged double-digit scoring a season ago and that too will go a long way in making this group far stronger than it was in 2010-11 when, after defeating Montana in the season opener, it dropped seven consecutive decisions. Senior forward Dario Hunt could be one of the most dominating inside performers in the league again for the Pack, after putting up 12.4 points and collecting 9.7 rebounds per contest. One of three to have started all 32 games a year ago, Hunt led the team with 54 blocked shots and didn't fool himself into thinking he could actually be a threat out on the perimeter from time to time, refusing to take even one shot from three- point range. The other senior for a group that finished an even 8-8 in WAC play, but just 13-19 overall, is Olek Czyz who in addition to his 12.3 ppg, also played a major role in the paint for Nevada with close to six rebounds per game as well. Malik Story, a 38.6 percent shooter from beyond the arc, comes back after posting an impressive 14.5 ppg to pace the Pack, playing more than 32 minutes per game to provide a steady hand in the backcourt. But the real star of the show has to be sophomore guard Deonte Burton who became the fourth Nevada player to earn WAC Freshman of the Year honors and was joined by Czyz on the All-Newcomer team. To go along with his 12.4 ppg, Burton also helped out his new teammates by delivering a team-best 113 assists, adding 41 steals along the way as well. However, a tighter defense is something the Pack has to give even more attention to this season after the program ranked 308th in the country with just 4.8 thefts per contest and was 290th with a turnover margin of minus-1.9 per game.
NEW MEXICO STATE: Head coach Marvin Menzies had an up-and-down season with the Aggies last year, starting out slow against some tough non-conference foes and then getting into the swing of things once the squad began to gel, but still the team finished a game under .500 (16-17) and failed to make it to a postseason tournament (outside of the WAC), even while tying for second place in the regular season at 9-7. The biggest hurdle for the Aggies is filling the void left by Troy Gillenwater who, even though he missed six games, was easily one of the top scorers in the conference with his 18.9 ppg and also banged around on the inside for close to six and a half rebounds per contest. Senior guard Hernst Laroche is the lone double-digit scorer from last year other than Gillenwater, so at least NMSU can build around his scoring ability until a better option comes along. Laroche, while playing almost 35 minutes per game, not only generated 11.5 ppg, he also paced the program with 152 assists and 62 steals as he ran his streak of consecutive starts to 99 in a row. Laroche, who is second on the school's all-time assist list with 416, might be needed more for his scoring leadership if the rest of his teammates are not up to the task of creating shots of their own. Losing reserve Gordo Castillo is another major hit for this group because he was the one who knocked down a team-best 66 three-pointers in 2010-11, and even with those conversions the Aggies ranked last in the league with only 5.6 three-pointers per game. Now a junior, forward Bandja Sy showed that he could make some long-distance shots here and there, but he'll have to step up his efforts if the Aggies hope to avoid being the weakest team in the WAC in that department again. With a year under his belt, expect Christian Kabongo to be even more productive than his 8.9 ppg and 2.9 rpg from a year ago and the same should go for Hamidu Rahman (7.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg) who will have to steal some time from Tshilidzi Nephawe at the center position to be heard from. The return of senior forward Wendell McKines, who missed last year due to injury, should also give the program a lift, only if he can reproduce the sort of numbers (10.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg) that made him such a menace in the paint in the first place.
UTAH STATE: A dominant force in the WAC for a number of years now, the Aggies are now seeing some excessive turnover on the roster and while the incoming personnel might have talent, they'll need some time to feel their way around. In fact, Utah State has just one returning starter from a team that blitzed the rest of the WAC with 15 wins in 16 opportunities last season, that being senior guard Brockeith Pane. The top returning scorer after putting up 11.8 ppg, Pane was someone who was capable of filling a number of roles for the Aggies as he also contributed 3.4 apg and 3.1 rpg, but now he might not be available to add to those areas if he's going to be asked to handle more of the scoring burden. USU has to be careful about Pane and putting too much on his plate because, even when he was considered a role player last season, his appetite for perimeter shooting was never fully quenched, even as he made a feeble 21.1 percent (16-of-76) of his chances. In conference play, Pane's efforts were even more dismal as he connected on just 5-of-38 (.132) beyond the arc. What made the Aggies so tough last year was having a scoring defense that was tops in the conference and fifth in the nation with just 58.7 ppg allowed, but a new collection of performers won't be able to live up to that lofty standard immediately. Now a senior, forward Brady Jardine (7.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) could be a significant player in the paint again for the Aggies, no longer playing in the shadow of Tai Wesley who was a brut down low for the program. Jardine was second on the unit with 34 blocked shots, a number that should swell seeing as how he is expected to start more than just seven games this year. Morgan Grim (2.6 ppg) and E.J. Farris (1.9 ppg) are the only other returning letterwinners for the Aggies, which means this will be a work in progress for the group over the first couple of months. Hopefully, once the conference schedule gets serious, so will Utah State.
IDAHO: Last season, the Vandals were one of the least experienced programs in the nation, yet the group still appeared in the postseason nonetheless, which means head coach Don Verlin has shown his players that it can be done. Twice the team registered four-game win streaks in 2010-11, one of those stretches coming just after the start of the WAC schedule, so even then the Vandals had convinced themselves that they could handle the pressure. However, this year might be a little different because coach Verlin has lost four of his starters from a year ago, a quartet of performers who accounted for about 39 ppg and close to 17 rpg as well. While trying to find players to fill available holes in the lineup, what Idaho can be sure of is that the team will have one of the better centers in the league in junior Kyle Barone, who placed second on the team in scoring a year ago with 10.5 ppg and was tops on the glass with almost six boards per contest. Standing at 6-10, Barone could be a huge figure in the paint if he got more comfortable challenging shots, but as it were last season, he managed just 26 blocks and that's something that needs to be impressed upon him in order to make the interior defense stronger. Barone, an All-WAC honorable mention selection a year ago who is a preseason All-WAC Second Team choice this time around, shot a league-best 61.1 percent from the floor as he lifted the entire program to 46.1 percent accuracy, compared to just 41.9 percent shooting for the opposition. The only other returnee of note for the Vandals is senior guard Deremy Geiger, who was responsible for 8.7 ppg and 2.6 assists per outing a year ago, but those potential helpers will be going to an entirely new cast of characters now that the roster is split with seven additions.
HAWAII: Even though the league coaches see the Warriors finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack this season, the team finishing in a tie for fifth place in the WAC a year ago at 8-8, Hawaii does have two of the top performers in the WAC according to those same coaches. Senior guard Zane Johnson has rarely seen a shot that he doesn't like, which is why he led the team a year ago with 15.8 ppg. Johnson was adequate enough from the field overall at 43.7 percent accuracy, but it was his three-point shooting (98-of-241) that set him apart from the rest of the crew as he accounted for more than half the program's three-point conversions in 2010-11 and set a new single-season record for the Warriors in the process. Johnson was also third on the team in assists (58) and managed to clear slightly more than three rebounds per game as well, but now he'll be drawing more attention to himself now that he's the focal point on offense and there isn't another returning double-digit scorer to be found in Honolulu. However, the cupboard is not completely bare for the Warriors, not with junior center Vander Joaquim able to handle the action in the paint and give the squad a presence on the glass which resulted in more than eight rebounds per game a season ago. Joaquim, a 51.8 percent shooter from the floor who was also 70.6 percent accurate at the free-throw line, gives the islanders a presence in the paint that is something second-year head coach Gib Arnold desperately needs right about now. Junior forward Joston Thomas will help out in the lane as well and hopefully he'll give up on his attempt at becoming a perimeter threat which yielded just five conversions on 32 tries (.156) a year ago. The team will also utilize the talents of transfers Jace Tavita, Davis Rozitis and Pi'i Minns after they sat out a year, so now it is just a matter of finding the right combination of players to put on the floor.
SAN JOSE STATE: Now heading into his seventh season with the Spartans, head coach George Nessman has major issues when it comes to filling some very big shoes. Adrian Oliver, one of the nation's top scorers a season ago with his 24.0 ppg, is no longer on the roster and neither is Justin Graham (14.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.5 apg) who was someone who helped fill up the basket and was the sort of player who was willing and able to do anything asked of him in order to get the Spartans heading into the right direction. With those two players, SJSU nearly stunned Utah State in the conference tournament, losing by just a single point before being invited to take part in the College Basketball Invitational from which they made an early exit. The top returning scorer for the Spartans is guard Keith Shamburger who is just a sophomore. Putting up 12.4 ppg a season ago, Shamburger set a school record for scoring average by a freshman and played more minutes (1,034) than any other conference freshman in 2010-11, so he's capable of being on the floor for extended periods of time, but the question now is whether or not he can also be the focal point of the offense at the same time? Taking some of the pressure off Shamburger will be senior forward Wil Carter, an accomplished interior performer who put up 9.8 ppg and also led the program in rebounding with eight per game as he started all 33 games. Carter led SJSU with 22 blocked shots as well, which isn't saying much because the team averaged just 2.5 bpg which ranked them 278th nationally. On a positive note, the Spartans did take great care of the ball a season ago, better than every other team in the WAC as they averaged just 11.0 miscues per contest. Senior guard Calvin Douglas (6.1 ppg) should be able to help Shamburger navigate through a season in which he is seen as one of the leaders on the squad.
FRESNO STATE: First things first with the Bulldogs; they now have a new head coach in Rodney Terry, his first opportunity to hold such a position at the collegiate level. Even though Terry might be inexperienced, he does have help close at hand in associate head coach Jerry Wainwright, who previously led the likes of Richmond and UNC-Wilmington to the NCAA Tournament. Now, Wainwright's most recent coaching stop at DePaul failed to bear much fruit, but still he maintains a wealth of knowledge that will go a long way in helping Terry and the Bulldogs attempt to rebound from a 14-17 record a season ago. The first priority for Terry will be to find new starters along the front line after the departures of Greg Smith and Tim Steed, two players who both averaged better than 10 ppg in 2010-11. Expected to get the ball even more this season is sophomore guard Kevin Olekaibe after he led the squad with 12.0 ppg a year ago. Olekaibe, who started 19 of the 30 games in which he appeared, could stand to improve his field goal shooting which he was hitting at a mere 38.6 percent clip. Fellow guard Garrett Johnson (8.1 ppg) is also someone who needs to focus more on his field goal accuracy (.370), but because he and Olekaibe will be controlling the offense they might not have much choice other than to shoot the ball themselves. The other three returning lettermen for the Bulldogs are also guards, which means some youngsters will have to grow up rather fast and assert themselves in the paint for FSU. Junior college transfer Daquan Brown (Barstow College) could be such a player, but it remains to be seen who will set themselves apart from the rest of the pack. Getting off to a strong start will also be crucial for this group, seeing as how they lost all but one of their first six games in 2010-11, and that lone victory came against little known Vanguard.
LOUISIANA TECH: A new era of basketball is about to begin in Ruston under first-year head coach Michael White, but chances are the immediate returns will be quite similar to what the squad experienced last year when it was eight games under .500 overall and won just two of 16 league bouts. White, who many considered to be a top-flight assistant at Ole Miss, doesn't have a lot of hype to live up to right out of the gate because the Bulldogs figure to be near or at the bottom of the conference standings again in 2011-12. The biggest task for coach White will be filling the gaps created by Olu Ashaolu and DeAndre Brown, who last year combined to average 30 ppg, the former also standing as one of the most aggressive rebounders in the WAC with 9.4 rpg as well. Brandon Gibson, who appeared in just 15 games a season ago and averaged 9.2 ppg, is actually the top returning rebounder for the squad after clearing 5.1 boards per contest, but the Bulldogs cannot expect guards to do all the dirty work on the glass. Along with Gibson, sophomore guard Kenyon McNeaill will be an important piece of the puzzle for the Bulldogs moving forward. McNeaill, the only returner for this season who started more than half the team's a year ago, shot just 35.5 percent from the floor in 2010-11, but considering it was his first year and he was trying to find where he fit into the plan, that's not something that can't be improved. McNeaill was also first in assists (76) and steals (38) his first year, but this is a team that had 204 more turnovers than it did assists, so coach White will have to find the right people to handle the ball in order to turn that stat around. Senior forward Romario Souza is the last of the returning starters for the Bulldogs, but he contributed very little in the grand scheme and could easily be coming off the bench this year if one of the newcomers, of which there are seven, make a strong enough play for more time on the floor.