WAC MEN'S BASKETBALL PREVIEW
Conference features new faces, places
UH and the rest of the league, including the three newcomers, try to dethrone Nevada
ANOTHER YEAR, another new look for the Western Athletic Conference.
As dean of the league's basketball coaches, Riley Wallace has seen schools come and go in his 19 seasons at Hawaii. In fact, of the schools that made up the WAC when he was hired at Hawaii in 1987, only the Rainbow Warriors remain.
This season, the conference welcomes three new members -- Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State -- to replace four that departed for Conference USA last summer. In all, 13 schools have joined the list of former WAC members during Wallace's tenure in Manoa.
"You just have to go with it, get scouting reports on them. It's a new look," Wallace said. "It's not all bad. You have new faces and new places to go.
"I like the idea of the new ones, going in and seeing what it's like."
Hawaii assumed the role as the league's senior member when UTEP, last year's WAC tournament champion, bolted along with Rice, SMU and Tulsa.
Hawaii has already initiated one of the newcomers, defeating Utah State at the Stan Sheriff Center on Dec. 17. But the WAC race truly gets started with four games Thursday, including the Rainbow Warriors' matchup with defending regular-season champion Nevada.
Hawaii hobbled into the new year weakened by injuries, but anxious to build on its head start in the conference.
The Rainbows, who began the season with a stirring victory over Michigan State, enter the WAC season at 7-4 overall and 1-0 in league play.
Their game against the Wolf Pack on Thursday ends a seven-game homestand, which included a grueling 10-day run through the Rainbow Classic and nonconference games against North Carolina A&T and Penn.
Wallace gave the 'Bows two days off before resuming practice on Sunday to prepare for a Nevada team favored to win the WAC title.
"It was good to get their legs back, get their minds clear --
and they came back with a good practice," he said.
Various ailments have reduced the Rainbows' rotation over the past few weeks. The shooting guard trio expected to provide firepower from the perimeter has been reduced to one, junior Matt Lojeski, as Bobby Nash and Matt Gibson have been sidelined recently.
Senior forward Julian Sensley continues to lead the Rainbows at 15.4 points per game and is second in assists with 33. Lojeski cooled off a bit after a blistering start, but is still shooting 52 percent from the field and is 23-for-50 from 3-point range.
Forward Ahmet Gueye is shooting a WAC-best 63.4 percent and ranks third in the league in rebounding at 8.5 boards per game. His 29 blocked shots also lead the conference.
With tight games expected in league play, UH's title hopes could hinge on its performance at the free-throw line, where the Rainbows are shooting a league-low 59.8 percent.
Along the way to this year's WAC tournament in Reno, the nine teams will jockey for positioning in a league featuring new names in the standings and fresh faces on the benches as well.
Along with preparing for the league's newest members, the UH coaching staff must also familiarize themselves with the tendencies of first-year coaches at Fresno State (Steve Cleveland) and San Jose State (George Nessman).
"We've got a lot of new systems going," Wallace said.
Although treks to Texas and Oklahoma have been replaced by trips to Moscow, Las Cruces and Logan, winning on the road remains the key to conquering the conference.
Last season, Nevada swept its nine WAC road games en route to winning a league-record 16 games.
Coming off a 25-7 season and a second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wolf Pack topped both the coaches and media preseason polls.
Utah State is expected to contend immediately, having won at least 23 games each of the last six years as a member of the Big West. Winning the regular-season championship is Fresno State's primary goal due to a self-imposed ban on postseason play this season.
Wallace also sees Louisiana Tech, led by forward Paul Millsap, as a possible contender, and Boise State could be a sleeper following an improbable run to the finals of the WAC tournament last March.
Below is a look at the rest of the WAC entering the conference season (in order of their appearance on UH's schedule).
The WAC -- Team by Team
Mark Fox (35-9, second year)
2005 WAC record: 16-2
Players to watch: Junior forward Nick Fazekas, sophomore guard Ramon Sessions
Outlook: The Wolf Pack dropped out of the AP Top 25 following a loss at St. Mary's on Saturday, but remain the team to beat in the WAC. Fazekas, the preseason WAC Player of the Year, leads the Pack with 20.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. His 35 points in a win at Kansas is the WAC's top single-game performance so far. Marcelus Kemp, sidelined by a knee injury in 2004-05, has contributed 14.8 points off the bench.
LOUISIANA TECH (7-6)
Keith Richard (127-90, seventh year)
2005 WAC record: 9-9
Players to watch: Junior forward Paul Millsap, senior guard Corey Dean
Outlook: Millsap, the only player to lead the nation in rebounding as a freshman and sophomore, remains the focal point of the Bulldogs' attack and leads the WAC at 20.9 ppg and 11.5 rpg. But LaTech's title hopes will likely depend on the production of the rest of the lineup, as Millsap is the only Bulldog scoring in double figures. Dean is next at 8.7 ppg. LaTech has beaten Texas Tech this season and lost at Nebraska, Memphis and Wisconsin.
NEW MEXICO STATE (4-7)
Reggie Theus (first year)
2005 Sun Belt record: 1-14
Players to watch: Sophomore forward Tyrone Nelson, senior guard Mike Mitchell
Outlook: The Aggies could be building for big things next year with four Division I transfers sitting out this season. In the meantime, Nelson has assumed a leadership role with 16.5 points and eight rebounds per game and 22 steals in his first year. Mitchell, one of just two returnees, has averaged 13.4 points over five games since becoming academically eligible.
FRESNO STATE (7-3)
Steve Cleveland (first year)
2005 WAC record: 9-9
Players to watch: Junior guard/forward Quinton Hosley, junior guard Ja'Vance Coleman
Outlook: Infractions committed by the previous coaching staff mean Cleveland's first year with the Bulldogs will be limited to the regular-season schedule. Hosley, a first-team JUCO All-American last year, has made an immediate impact with 19.6 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Coleman led the Bulldogs in scoring last season and is hitting for 18.3 ppg. Fresno State games tend to be shootouts, with the Bulldogs averaging 75 points and giving up 74.9, both league highs.
BOISE STATE (7-4)
Greg Graham (59-48, fourth year)
2005 WAC record: 6-12
Players to watch: Junior guard Coby Karl, junior guard Eric Lane
Outlook: The Broncos can be tough to stop when their transition attack and outside shooting are in high gear, evidenced by their WAC tournament run last March, when BSU became the lowest seed to reach the final. Karl tops this year's team in scoring (15.0), rebounding (5.2) and assists (4.5). Lane (11.4 ppg) and Matt Bauscher (11.3 ppg) are also threats from outside. The Broncos are the WAC's top free-throw shooting team at 70 percent.
UTAH STATE (8-3, 0-1)
Stew Morrill (175-57, eighth year)
2005 Big West record: 13-5
Players to watch: Senior forward Nate Harris, sophomore guard Jaycee Carroll
Outlook: The Aggies lost to UH in their WAC debut, but are still expected to contend for the championship. Morrill, who coached in the WAC while at Colorado State from 1991 to '98, built USU into a Big West power and guided the Aggies to six consecutive postseason berths. Nelson (16.2 ppg) and Carroll (18.7 ppg) form one of the WAC's top inside-outside combinations. Carroll has made a league-best 33 3-pointers, and Nelson is shooting 61 percent thanks to a solid post game.
Leonard Perry (47-79, fifth year)
2005 Big West record: 6-12
Players to watch: Senior guard Tanoris Shepard, freshman forward David Dubois
Outlook: Shepard (13.8 ppg) was granted an extra year of eligibility for meeting partial-qualifier requirements and is one of two seniors on a youthful Vandals roster that includes eight freshmen and sophomores. Dubois is second on the team in scoring (9.8 ppg) and first in rebounding (5.0 rpg). The Vandals' 62.5 points per game is the lowest in the WAC. Idaho hasn't finished above .500 since the 1998-99 season.
SAN JOSE STATE (4-9)
George Nessman (first year)
2005 WAC record: 3-15
Players to watch: Senior guard/forward Alex Elam, senior forward Demetrius Brown
Outlook: Nessman takes over a Spartans program that won a total of eight WAC games during three seasons under Phil Johnson. Elam (12.9 ppg) leads a group of three returning starters, and Brown (14.3 ppg) has given the SJSU frontcourt a boost after redshirting last year. Junior transfer Julian Richardson has dished out 45 assists in his first season with the Spartans.