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Star-Bulletin Sports


Friday, January 4, 2002



art
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DEAN SENSUI
The Pacific West Conference, minus 10 teams from last season, is dominated by Hawaii teams, with four. Conference play began last night.



6 teams vie
for PacWest

The winner of the slimmed-down
conference gets a ticket to
the Division II tournament


By Brandon Lee and Jerry Campany
blee@starbulletin.com
jcampany@starbulletin.com

Beginning this season, the Pacific West Conference basketball party is for six teams instead of 16.

Judging from the remaining schools' performances so far this year, however, the conference season that officially kicked off last night shouldn't suffer much, if at all.

Ten former PacWest teams -- including last year's conference champion -- departed to form the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. But all four local Division II teams -- Brigham Young-Hawaii, Chaminade, Hawaii-Hilo and Hawaii Pacific -- plus Montana State-Billings and Western New Mexico remain for what appears to be a competitive and formidable conference.

Plus, the door prize for the PacWest champion at the end of the grueling 15-game schedule is still an automatic trip to the Division II postseason, a benefit the GNAC does not enjoy.

"I'm not a betting man," Chaminade coach Aaron Griess said. "But I like taking my chances, being one out of six (teams), instead of one of 16."

Each team challenges the others in the conference three times each over the course of the schedule. A load of three games a week will be the norm for each PacWest school until conference play finishes at the beginning of March.

The rivalries between island schools have always been intense and should be even more so with higher stakes in each game and parity among the teams.

Hilo is off to its best start in two decades, and Chaminade has also been hot out of the gate. Traditional powers BYUH and HPU are more than keeping pace, sharing three wins between them over Division I opponents this year.

As for the mainland teams, MSU-Billings has the best record entering PacWest play, primarily because the Yellowjackets average over 100 points per contest. Western New Mexico is the only school with a losing record.

MSU-Billings visited Chaminade last night, while Western New Mexico plays at 8 tonight at Hilo. BYUH and HPU have their first PacWest games next Friday.

Here's a closer look at the six PacWest teams:

BRIGHAM YOUNG-HAWAII (9-4)

It's all about getting ready for the conference season, but the Seasiders do it a bit differently than most.

Brigham Young-Hawaii went through the preseason suffering a few hiccups but still put together a 9-4 record and earned a No. 4 ranking in the region. They decided to take a few weeks off to start all over again.

The team usually sets three automatic losses aside each year for their Division I tournament, but came out of that with only one. They made up for it by losing to a pair of California powers and suffering a surprising 1-point defeat at home to Lincoln University.

The Seasiders have the opposite problem of most going into conference play: They have had trouble defending their home turf. Three of their four losses have come in the Cannon Center, while the other one came on a neutral floor against a ranked Humboldt State squad.

Success in the PacWest means the Seasiders will have to make Cannon Center its usual house of horrors rather than just another conference stop. But it's early, and team statistics mean little after 13 games.

The Seasiders have the leading scorer in the conference in preseason, with Alexus Foyle coming from out of nowhere to post a 20.7 scoring average and 7.8 rebounds per contest. His rebounding performance is the second best in the conference but is not the best on his team.

Scott Salisbury has made the double-double a regular occurrence, putting one together in every other game this year while hitting the boards for a conference-best 10.4 per game. He scores 13.8 points per game and is third in the conference in assists with 67 in 13 games.

But Brigham Young-Hawaii does not lay all of its hopes on the two big men, getting 15.6 points per game from Kelii Naihe -- good for fifth best in the conference -- including his 30 against Division I New Mexico State.

New point guard Yuta Tabuse ties it all together, averaging a Hawaii-best 5.62 assists per game and already hitting a pair of game-winners. Tabuse still has room to grow, though. He is averaging only 1.62 steals a game and hitting on only 27 percent of his 3-point attempts.

CHAMINADE (7-4)

The Silverswords have won seven of their last eight games, after dropping their first three to Division I competition at their Maui Invitational. But it was during the one defeat (against Northern Colorado) in its recent stretch of success that Chaminade may have suffered its biggest setback so far, when star forward Leon Ballard broke a foot going for a rebound.

Ballard was the Silverswords' leading scorer (15.9 ppg) and rebounder (6.1 rpg) before the injury and will be out for eight weeks.

"We no longer have somebody who can take control of the game on his own, and we'll need all five guys on the court contributing to be successful," Griess said. "We just have to redefine some roles and we need to have guys step up their level of play."

Guards Albert Powell (14.5 ppg) and Jaborri Thomas (12.4 ppg and 5.3 rpg) have risen to the challenge in Ballard's absence. So, too, has post player Mike Donegan (9.8 ppg and 6.1 rpg). On Monday, Powell became the first Silversword this year to be named PacWest Player of the Week after leading Chaminade to a pair of nonconference wins last weekend.

The Silverswords hosted No. 21 MSU-Billings last night, and the two teams will play again tomorrow. On Monday, Western New Mexico visits McCabe Gym.

The Yellowjackets had reeled off eight straight wins but endured a 46-point pasting by No. 6 Cal State San Bernardino on Sunday before playing the Silverswords last night.

HAWAII-HILO (10-2)

Hilo again has not played away from the Big Island yet. The Vulcans have built a 10-2 record and a No. 5 regional ranking in the comfort of Afook-Chinen Auditorium. Hilo has not lost a game yet to Division II competition, suffering its only losses to Division I teams.

Whatever the Vulcans bring into PacWest play, one certainty will be the ability of one player going off on any given night.

Point guard Scott Prather put up 37 points on Division I South Carolina State in November, then watched as teammate David Laqua did the same against Lincoln University 20 days later. Laqua's explosion may have been out of character, but Prather's certainly wasn't. The senior from Kula, Maui has turned Hilo into a totally different team in his final year, scoring 18.3 points each game and dishing out 4.17 assists. He also leads the conference in steals with 2.42 a game.

What Prather has done most of all is stay true to his roots, scoring more points than he ever has in his career, but remaining unselfish enough to keep four others scoring in double figures. Laqua and Derek MgBeke have contributed matching 14.8 scoring averages to the cause, tying for eighth in the conference.

The Vulcans came into the year looking like a spotty 3-point shooting squad that would either blow you out or get blown out, but have developed into a more balanced team. A big reason for this has been the play of Kyle Bartholomew in the post.

Bartholomew has blossomed into coach Jeff Law's do-it-all big man, registering double-doubles five times. He is only fourth on the team in scoring with 13.7 points per game but collects 7.4 rebounds each contest. He can step out and hit the 3-pointer as well but is not asked to do so with Prather and Laqua on the floor.

HAWAII PACIFIC (9-3)

In his 14th and final year at the helm of the Sea Warriors, coach Tony Sellitto has guided many successful teams, including the 1993 NAIA national champions.

But he said that this year's squad has so far been able to accomplish two things many of the others haven't --two things that make him feel particularly optimistic about this season.

Entering Wednesday's nonconference win over Olivet Nazarene, HPU led PacWest teams in both field goal percentage defense (.421) and rebounding (40.5 rpg).

"I've always preached this, but we haven't always been successful at it," Sellitto said. "I've always said that the best rebounding and defensive team will be the most successful. Those are two tangibles that don't leave you; they don't go up and down like offense (can)."

Sellitto attributes much of the defensive and rebounding improvement to newcomer Nate Block (7.1 rpg and 11 blocks). The forward stretched a tendon in his right shoulder earlier this year and was initially going to redshirt this season, but has forced himself into the starting lineup with his determination and tenacity for the basketball.

Of course, HPU still has the deadly shooting of Nash Subotic (17.9 ppg) and Nick Spajic (11.5).

The Sea Warriors have won six straight, and were set to tangle with rival BYUH next Monday until a mutual agreement for a schedule change postponed the game likely until the end of February. HPU begins its PacWest schedule next Friday night, when it hosts Chaminade.

According to Sellitto, the path to the PacWest crown hasn't changed one bit: "This conference is the same as any other, including Division I. You absolutely must win all of your home games, then steal a few on the road."

MONTANA STATE-BILLINGS (8-1)

This season looks like it might be a lot like last year's Jeckyll-and-Hyde ride for the Yellowjackets: They kill teams at home, then get killed themselves when they go on the road.

MSU-Billings had coasted to an 8-0 record all in the comfort of its Alterowitz Gym, but got pummeled 111-65 at No. 6 Cal State San Bernardino on Sunday.

Still, based on their strong start, the Yellowjackets are the 21st-ranked team in Division II and No. 10 in the region.

MSU-Billings tops the rest of the PacWest by nearly 20 points with a scoring average of 100.4 points per game (BYUH is second with 83.7) and also leads conference teams with an average of 10.3 3-pointers made per contest. Through mid-December, the Yellowjackets were second-best overall in Division II with 101.3 ppg.

But MSU-Billings runs into problems -- particularly in hostile environments -- because they also allow their opponents to fill it up on the other end. The Yellowjackets surrender the most points in the conference at 85.9 per game, and face a tough start with three games in Hawaii to begin their PacWest schedule.

Predictably, MSU-Billings has five players averaging double figures in points, with guards Danny Phillips (16.8) and David Carse (15.0) leading the way. The Yellowjackets are also solid in the post, paced by Brian Cook's 12.0 ppg and 6.6 rpg.

WESTERN NEW MEXICO (1-5)

The Mustangs have managed just one victory in the preseason and their games at Hilo tonight and tomorrow will be their first game action since Dec. 3. Western New Mexico has been the lone dull spot in the conference, but the slate is now clean again with the start of PacWest play.

In order to improve their fortunes in the conference, the Mustangs will have to elevate basically every facet of their game. Western New Mexico is at or near the bottom of the PacWest in every major statistical category. Particularly bleak are last-place rankings in scoring average (71.7 ppg), point differential (minus 10.2) and rebounding (34 rpg).

The Mustangs have three players scoring over 10 points per contest. Joey Ramirez leads them with 15.3 ppg, good for sixth-best in the conference. Malcolm Connor adds 13.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest, while Brian Jackson averages 10.7 points and 5.0 boards.



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