The 2003-2004 basketball season, so far, has shown that the WAC conference is the most balanced and wide opened conference in the country.
The run for conference champ is truly up for grabs. With the preseason winding down; no team has established itself as the team to beat; conversely, no team has really stunk it up.
Even my home team, the SJSU Spartans, has played incredibly well. Only 3-3; but they had a chance to (and probably should of) win all of their games. Other former "bottom feeders," UTEP and Boise State, have done even better. And, just two years ago, Rice was simply terrible. Now they are on top of the conference.
I project only one, maybe two, WAC teams will make the NCAA tourney. Two or three more teams will go to the NIT. Currently, I have Rice as the team to beat, with Nevada pulling up the rear. By March, this could be totally be reversed. But does it matter? With every team going to the WAC tourney, with the exception of Fresno, the team that wins the tourney may be the only going to the Dance. And, with the tourney being in Fresno (ironically enough) the Spartans could have home court advantage. SJSU Spartans at the big Dance after only winning 7 games last year?
Through the magic of the Internet, I was able to listen to games of almost every team in the WAC. Yeah, I know that there are a lot of pay sites and sometimes Yahoo doesn't even have a "listen" link. However, there is a way around this: Go to the home page of the radio station that broadcasts games for a particular school. All of them have a "Click to Listen" button. In the future, this access will be blocked, so enjoy it while you can.
The following is how a Spartan fan ranks of the WAC.
1. Rice (5-2. Projected record at WAC play: 8-3): Strengths: Battle-tested: Played one of toughest non-conference schedule in the WAC. Very deep and athletic; a track team on hardwood. Great inside and outside game. Plays great defense: One of the best scoring defenses in the country. Smart team; limits mistakes and forces errors from opponents. Well coached: After some lean years, Willis Wilson has really put together a solid unit.
Weakness: Rotation is on the short side; they start three guards. No true center. Not a great shooting team. Free throw shooting needs to improve.
Ugly loss: None
Game to Watch: Jan 2nd versus UConn (Happy New Year?). Rice gets the current number one team in the country at home. They match up well with the Huskies, and if they pull off an upset, it will send shockwaves throughout the conference and the country.
Potential Spartans headache: Mamadou Diene (6-9, 230). Dieane is the type of player that gives the Spartans trouble. The senior from Senegal is long and athletic, but has some weight on him. He's active on the boards, blocks shot, and works hard. He keeps the ball alive allowing the scorers second and third shots.
2. UTEP (6-1. Projected record at WAC play: 8-1): Strengths: The best 3-point shooting team in the nation. However, played a very, very soft non-conference schedule, so that might be a misleading stat. Getting your shot off against Uconn is a lot tougher than getting it off on, say, Sul Ross State (?). But they took care of business: None of their wins were close, with a 60-point blowout win against Texas-Permian Basin (who?). Another track team on hardwood, but with some bulk in Bay Area product John Tofi. A young team, but they start two really good point guards (Craig and Rivera) to steady the ship. Limits mistakes. Well coached and deep tradition. Best home court advantage: Roughest and toughest place to play in the WAC. Plays tough defense. Values every possession.
Weakness: Not tested.
Probably should have mixed in a MWC or PAC 10 team. Not a great rebounding or shot blocking team.
Ugly loss: None, really. Only lost to Texas Tech. After beating up on the Sister's of the Poor, maybe should have put up a better fight. Game to Watch: Dec. 27th versus Miss. Valley St. Unlike Rice, who will get a boast with a win against UConn: This game could put a dent in the Miner's psyche if they lose. And the Delta Devils are not that bad, they feature SWAC player of the year candidate Attarrius Norwood (6-8 230). The Miners should win…
Potential Spartans headache: John Tofi. He is an unmovable force. And, he'll bring a lot of fans to the Event Center.
3. Boise State (7-1. Projected record at WAC play: 8-2):
Strengths: Soft non-conference schedule, but they took care of business, too. In fact, same type of schedule as the Spartans (mid-level WCC, Big West, and Big Sky opponents). One of the best scoring teams in the nation and one of the most experienced squads in the WAC. However, their best player is probably a freshman (Coby Karl). Good inside/outside offense. Disciplined and fundamentally sound team. Won't beat themselves. Weakness: Not tested. Plus, despite having two 7-footers on the roster, the rotation of players is on the small size and not much bulk. Ugly loss: None. Only loss came against a good BYU team at home, and the Broncos actually led for most of the game.
Game to Watch: Dec. 28th versus Portland State: They already beat the Pilots pretty handily in Portland earlier this season, but if the Pilots can muster up a win; it could really be damaging to the team's confidence (one step forward, two steps back). Probably should have scheduled another opponent: I think Sul Ross State and Texas-Permian Basin were available.
Potential Spartans headache: Spartans actually match up well against the Broncos. One player that might give the Spartans problems is Jermaine Blackburn (6-6 205). Team's leading scorer can really do it all.
4. SMU (3-3. Projected record at WAC play: 5-5): Strengths: Battle-tested: Also, played one of the toughest non-conference schedule in the WAC. Probably the most athletic team in the conference. Another track team on hardwood. Players are interchangeable: all are wings. No really inside threat, but has some big bodies who are quite skilled. A very streaky 3-point shooting team, but when they are hitting: Look out! A "pack-attack" team: They just keep coming.
Weakness: A Jekyl and Hyde team. When doing well, can play with anyone in the nation. But they can be beat. Suspect defense, especially against the three. Turnover prone. Does not know how to close out teams: Lets inferior teams hang around.
Ugly loss: Two, really ugly losses. Played terrible against San Diego U (2-7). Toreros made only 8 of 23 threes, but still won?! What happened to USD in their next game? A 40-point loss to Utah. The Ponies also lost against Appalachian St. at home? What makes it so bad was that SMU had a lot of motivation to win, since ASU clobbered them a year before in Carolina. Had the lead for almost the entire game (I think 17 points at one point) and they let it slip away. An analogy for a season to come?
Game to Watch: Jan 3rd at Oklahoma St. Like Rice, the Ponies get a chance to enter WAC play with more than a little swagger and to get back on track. But I think SMU will have tougher time against the Cowboys. OSU and SMU are similar size and ability, but the Cowboys are much too deep and experienced.
Potential Spartans headache: Bryan Hopkins (6-0 195). The returning WAC rookie of the year is in a terrible slump and really is not a factor. But he can catch fire any game. Spartans have horses to keep up with B-Hop, but have been burned by players like him in the past.
5. San Jose State (3-3. Projected record at WAC play: 6-4):
Strengths: Soft non-conference schedule; did not completely take care of business. However, starting to put it together. Had one defection of a non-starter frontcourt player, but that only means Eric Walton gets more minutes. Brett Lilly is one of the top 3-point shooters in the conference.
One of the best defensive team in the conference. Every shot is contested. Will not get out-hustled or out-worked. Well coached: Coach Johnson pushes his players hard, but each man is given reachable goals and is put in a position to succeed. Team will get stronger with two, true point guards joining in mid-season.
Weakness: Smallest team in the WAC. Does not know who to put teams away. Confidence will always be an issue: Still learning to win. Worst home court advantage: Teams don't fear coming into the Event Center.
Ugly loss: All of them, since they "should" have won them all.
Heartbreak Spartan: Eric Walton. A legitimate first team all-WAC candidate, but will he? Has the skills and ability to carry the Spartans. And, with the lack of team height, he will get plenty of minutes. However, he has been inconsistent throughout his career. If Walton can continue the current effort, the Spartans will surprise a lot of teams. Plus, he will certainly get an invitation to an NBA summer camp. Game to Watch: Jan 3rd versus Nevada. The Spartans get the under-achieving Wolf Pack at home. Game can go either way. A win can really launch the Spartans.
6. LA Tech (3-3. Projected record at WAC play: 6-4):
Strengths: Soft non-conference schedule; did not care of business, either. This year will be a learning experience for the Bulldogs. However, next year, they should be challenging the WAC. Had on of the best recruiting class in the nation. Freshman Paul Millsap is the top prospect in the WAC right now and possibly the best frontcourt player. Could be playing and getting serious minutes for any team in the nation. Unreal skills. Guards Donell Allick and Corey Dean are interchangeable and provide leadership for the young team.
Weakness: Second Smallest team in the WAC. Very inexperienced: makes a lot of mental mistakes. Worst turn-over to assist ratio in the WAC. Not a good shooting team.
Ugly loss: Northern Iowa. Fought the Panthers all the way and almost came away with a win. But, still: the Panthers are a very average team in a below average conference.
Potential Spartans headache: Millsap. A match up between Walton and Millsap will be worth the price of admission. Millsap could be wearing down by the time they meet, but don't count on it. Game to Watch: Montevallo (AL) Dec. 30th. Wow. How did this game get so far out in the schedule? This is a November match up. It's not really a tune-up before WAC play starts, it's more like a tire rotation. A loss or even a close game could be devastating to the team.
6. Hawaii (3-2. Projected record at WAC play: 5-3):
Strengths: Not necessarily a soft non-conference schedule, but they never left the Island? However, has the WAC's leading scorer: Michael Kuebler, doing his best "Carl English" impersonation. Features the tallest and probably best frontcourt in the WAC. Plays tough defense: very hard to score on. Second best recruiting class in the WAC, but an experienced squad. Weakness: Not terribly quick. Carl English's defection really hurt this team. No proven go-to player. Despite playing a decent schedule, has yet to play a game in front of a hostile crowd. This could be devastating to a team that didn't play too terribly well on the road last year. Ugly loss: None, really. Dayton is a super team and so is Santa Barbara. But the fact that they lost at home isn't very encouraging.
Potential Spartans headache: Haim Shimonovich (6-10 265): Probably the only true center in the league. Nice player. Fundamentally sound, but won't blow you away. Seems to play down to the competition (however).
Game to Watch: Jan 10rd at San Jose State. Their first game off the island. A pivotal game for both squads and it could go either way. A win by the ‘Bows will give them confidence going into conference play.
7. Tulsa (3-3. Projected record at WAC play: 4-5):
Strengths: Solid non-conference schedule but floundered. They have some great, individual talent. Jason Parker will be first team all-WAC and is their best player. Terrific shooting team, including 3-pointers. A very quick and well-coached team. Can run with anyone. Great fan support. Could turn it on any game now and charge to the top.
Weakness: Lost some really good coaches and players in recent years, and it has finally taken its toll. Not deep. Had one nice recruit, but didn't compensate well enough for the loss of some key players. On the short side, no real pivot player.
Ugly loss: Two (Georgia State was one). Oral Roberts was embarrassing. Cross-town rivals and the G'Canes did make a frantic comeback, but they shouldn't have lost to an average team in a below-average conference. It would be like if SJSU beat Stanford. Yes, it is possible, but the winning tradition in recent years has been the Cardinal and the G'Canes.
Potential Spartans headache: Guiherme Teichmann (6-9 215). The Brazilian is not much of a factor, but he could be. Like Marraker of Pacific: fundamentally sound, tall and whippet-quick. He can really shoot the ball, too. The current Spartan wings: Brown and Lilly (sounds like a lawyer firm) are quick enough, but will give away 4 inches to the Brazilian.
Game to Watch: December 30th versus Arkansas. They'll be going into that game after facing a tough Wichita State team and a decent North Texas squad. If the G'Canes are struggling, they can really turn things around with a win against the Razorbacks.
9. Nevada (3-3. Projected record at WAC play: 5-4):
Strengths: Has the best player in the WAC in Kirk Snyder. A lottery pick at the beginning of the season, if he does not look out, his stock could drop to the second round. Snyder is a man: a complete player who can do it all. However, I think he is trying to do too much. The Pack is a very experienced team, they returned a lot of nice players and they had a decent recruiting year. Great fan support and a really tough home to play in. They are a sleeping giant. They are floundering now, but, in March, we could be crowning them WAC champs.
Weakness: So far, probably the most disappointing team in the WAC, and maybe in the country. The scary thing (if you are a Pack fan) is that they are losing, but they can't figure out why (outside the fact that the other team is scoring more points). They simply have too much talent to be in their current position.
Ugly loss: A loss at home to Humboldt State could be THE ugliest loss of the season for the conference.
Potential Spartans headache: Garry Hill-Thomas (6-4 200). I can't believe this guy is still in college. Shouldn't he have graduated already? It seems like every year this guy puts a dagger in my heart. Hill-Thomas is simply a Spartan killer.
Game to Watch: December 27th versus UC Davis. By the time the Pack reaches this game, they should have beaten Alabama St, but lost to Kansas. A home game against Davis, a member of the CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association), should tell a lot about this squad.
A blow out win is expected. But a loss or close game could put this team in funk by not answering the one question that has been haunting them the entire season: Was Humboldt State game a fluke?
(Unranked) Fresno St. (2-4. Projected record at WAC play: 4-6):
Strengths: Another solid non-conference schedule but they floundered too. Has a chance to make up for it though, with tough, but winnable games. Probably the most talented starting five in the WAC. A sharp-shooting team that does not rely on the three. Very athletic and quick. Shantay Legans is arguably the best point guard in the WAC. New playground (Nice).
Weakness: "What's my motivation" seems to be the team's mantra. FSU is on probation, so individual efforts seem to have out-weighed the team's goal. Team is in a funk. Last year, Coach Lopes was able to convince the team to finish strong after the probation was handed down late in the season. Now, he's having a hard time keeping the spirits up. But it is a solid program and a solid team. Playing with anyone is not a problem, getting going is. But through it all, if the Dawgs wake up, they could really be a spoiler in the WAC.
Better let these sleeping Dawgs lie.
Ugly loss: None, really. The Princton loss was no good, especially since it was at home.
Potential Spartans headache: Mustafa Al-Sayyad (6-9 225), Only true big man on the squad, but he is a good one. Very active and long. He'll be hard to keep off the boards.
Game to Watch: December 27th versus USF. The Dawgs should just crush the Dons at home.
USF is a good squad, but they are no match for FSU. However, a close game or a loss could really show where this team's head is at…
Merry Christmas to all WAC teams, and to all a good season (Except when they play SJSU of course!).