Tuesday, March 11, 2008

WAC Tournament Preview

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The Western Athletic Conference had a disappointing year overall this season, finishing just 20th in the conference RPI rankings. No team was overly dominant, unlike the past few seasons when Nevada was one of the best teams in the country. However, the WAC featured quite possibly the best league race in the nation – four teams finished tied for first, at 12-4. Utah State won its last four games to forge a tie; Nevada seven of its last eight league games; Boise State had a chance to clinch the league title, but lost at home to USU in the season finale; and New Mexico State bounced back from early-season struggles to win eight of its last nine. No other team finished above .500 in either conference play or overall.

Favorites and Contenders: Instead of breaking the four teams who tied for the championship into two categories, I’ve decided to group them all as the favorites and contenders for the automatic bid. Utah State is playing some of the best basketball in the league, and is coming into the conference tournament off of back-to-back road wins by a combined 39 points over Boise State and Idaho. The Aggies are led by All-American candidate Jaycee Carroll, arguably the best shooter in college basketball. He has really stepped up his game of late. Kris Clark is a very solid distributor next to him. Up front, Gary Wilkinson is a very good scorer and rebounder, while Tai Wesley is extremely efficient and can finish. Perennial power Nevada was expected to compete for the league title this year, but struggled early before finishing strong to forge a tie for the crown. The Wolf Pack are led by standout wing Marcelus Kemp, one of the best perimeter scorers in the country. He can carry them to the NCAA Tournament. JaVale McGee has emerged as a future star down low with his dominant showings at both ends of the floor. Brandon Fields and Armon Johnson are double-figure scorers in the backcourt. New Mexico State reached the NCAA Tournament last season, and had some of the most talent in the league this year. However, it had some off-court problems early on, one of the main reasons for its 4-9 start. However, the Aggies righted the ship and are playing well. Six players average in double-figures, with another two putting up at least six points per game. Justin Hawkins is one of the best all-around players in the conference, while Fred Peete and Jonathan Gibson form a very good backcourt. Hatila Passos is a force at both ends of the floor and Herb Pope is supremely talented. Jahmar Young might be the best sixth man in the league. Boise State went from first to fourth in the matter of one game, as it dropped the season finale at home by 19 to Utah State. Still, the Broncos have the weapons to win the conference tournament. They have, by far, the best frontcourt in the conference, and quite possibly one of the best in the nation. Reggie Larry is an outstanding scorer and rebounder, and a 20-10 threat every night out. Matt Nelson is extremely efficient from the field and is a great second option, while Tyler Tiedeman can do everything on the court and is an inside-outside threat. Shooter Matt Bauscher leads the way from the perimeter.

Sleeper: Outside of the aforementioned quartet, the pickings are very slim in the WAC. However, one team to keep an eye on could be Fresno State. Sure, the Bulldogs lost their last three games and 10 of their last 13 conference contests, but they have the ability to potentially pull an upset. Kevin Bell is one of the best guards in the conference and one of the most underrated on the West Coast, while Eddie Miller is a very good scorer and shooter. Hector Hernandez provides inside balance.

Prediction: Although the WAC had a down year overall, this might be one of the most competitive conference tournaments in the country. The four teams that finished tied for the league championship all have a good shot at winning the title. Both Utah State and Nevada are carried by two of the better players in the country, while Boise State has a loaded frontcourt and New Mexico State may have the most overall weapons. In the end, I’m going with New Mexico State – the Aggies are playing the tourney on their homecourt and are playing some of the best basketball in the conference. They have experience after last year’s postseason run and have the inside-outside options to counter whatever a team throws at them. It should be an exciting and wide-open tourney, but I expect NMSU to come away with the automatic bid.

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