RAINBOW WARRIOR BASKETBALL
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii forward Ahmet Gueye will miss the WAC tournament after having season-ending knee surgery this week.
'Bows' job is to endure
Aggies coach Reggie Theus says the team that controls the tempo will win the UH-NMSU game
RENO, Nev. » Survive and advance.
The mantra of college basketball teams pushing toward the postseason has taken on added meaning for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors this week.
The Rainbows arrived in Nevada late Monday night down to nine available players after a key injury and a tough loss last week threw their late-season momentum into reverse.
Now as the Western Athletic Conference tournament opens, the team is looking to regroup and refocus with its postseason hopes at stake.
"It's a new beginning for us," UH senior Julian Sensley said after the Rainbows' practice yesterday at Reno's Bishop Monague High School. "We're starting from scratch and we have to look at it like we're playing Michigan State again."
Whether the 'Bows can extend a season that began with their landmark upset of Michigan State in November will depend on how long a patchwork rotation can survive.
Hawaii, the tournament's fourth seed, faces fifth-seeded New Mexico State tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. Hawaii time, at the Lawlor Events Center in the opening round of the WAC tournament. The winner takes on No. 1 Nevada or No. 8 Idaho in the semifinals on Friday.
The championship and the WAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will be awarded on Saturday.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Utah State plays No. 7 San Jose State and No. 3 Louisiana Tech faces No. 6 Boise State in tomorrow's afternoon session. Notably absent is Fresno State, which is serving a self-imposed ban on postseason play.
Just a few blocks away from the casinos of downtown Reno, perhaps the only safe bet this week is that the tournament will have a new champion. UTEP, last year's winner, now plays in Conference USA.
Host Nevada enters the tournament as the favorite, having reeled off 11 straight wins to claim the regular-season title. But the Wolf Pack's stunning
quarterfinal loss last year serves as a reminder of the unpredictable nature of postseason play.
"It's a new season for everyone," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "So I think every team will be refreshed and ready to go to try to win their way into the (NCAA) tournament."
Hawaii was eliminated in the quarterfinals in the last two tournaments, and advancing deep into this year's event will require an iron-man effort from a UH team down to four reserves, none taller than 6-foot-3.
Forward Ahmet Gueye (12.2 points, 7.7 rebounds) is back in Honolulu recovering from a season-ending knee injury suffered prior to the Rainbows' 51-48 loss to Louisiana Tech last Saturday.
With no backups in the post, the Rainbows will have to mix and match their combinations when UH coach Riley Wallace goes to the bench to keep fresh legs on the court.
"There's a lot going through your mind now in how we want to do it," Wallace said. "The system's there, we've got guys in different places. We'll try to give them as many minutes as we can (in practice) and build up their confidence."
Center Chris Botez returned to the starting lineup in the regular-season finale, and the UH big men will have to find that delicate balance of playing solid defense down low while avoiding fouls.
"We're going to have to play hard but stay out of foul trouble," said Botez, UH's top reserve for the first 26 games of the season. "We have to play smart and aggressive."
Hawaii and NMSU played each other last Thursday with the Rainbows coming back from a double-digit deficit to edge the Aggies 61-56 at the Stan Sheriff Center.
With NMSU guard Elijah Ingram on the bench with a sore hamstring, the Rainbows were able to slow the Aggies' transition attack and turn the game into a halfcourt battle.
The team that dictates the pace of the game tomorrow will again have the edge in advancing to the semifinals.
"They're a team that wants to slow the game down and we want the game to be as fast as possible," said NMSU coach Reggie Theus, who will have Ingram back in the lineup tomorrow. "So it's going to be a matter of who can get the tempo going their way."
Nevada is playing at home, but the host team has won just once in the last five years (Tulsa in 2003). Utah State and Louisiana Tech kept pace with the Wolf Pack throughout the season and are poised to make a run at the title as well.
"I've always believed that tournament week is all about who gets hot," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "You get on a roll, play good basketball and it kind of carries one game to the next."
A team-by-team breakdown, in order of seeding
1. NEVADA (24-5, 13-3)
Coach: Mark Fox
The Wolf Pack staggered to a 3-3 start in WAC play before reeling off 11 straight victories to win the regular-season title and return to the national rankings. Nevada figures to be in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens this week, but it doesn't want a repeat of last year's quarterfinal exit. WAC Player of the Year Nick Fazekas (21.9 points per game) remains the centerpiece of the Wolf Pack lineup, but has firepower around him as well. Guard Marcellus Kemp gives Nevada a shooting threat to go along with Fazekas' inside-outside game.
2. UTAH STATE (21-7, 11-5)
Coach: Stew Morrill
As expected, the Aggies emerged as contenders in their first season removed from the Big West. USU ranks among the nation's top shooting teams at 50 percent from the field. Forward Nate Harris led the league in shooting (62 percent) and guard Jaycee Carroll was the WAC's top 3-point shooter. Point guard David Pak (4.86 assists per game) doesn't get as much ink as his teammates but plays a vital role in getting the USU offense rolling.
3. LOUISIANA TECH (19-11, 11-5)
Coach: Keith Richard
Forward Paul Millsap is an exceptional rebounder and his presence in the middle makes the Bulldogs one of the toughest defensive teams in the WAC. LaTech led the WAC in scoring defense (62.7 ppg) and held opponents to 40 percent shooting. The Bulldogs haven't shot the ball well from outside, but Millsap routinely recycles missed shots into putbacks to fuel his 19.7 point average.
4. HAWAII (17-10, 10-6)
Coach: Riley Wallace
The outlook for the already short-handed Rainbow Warriors changed drastically when forward Ahmet Gueye tore his ACL last week. Julian Sensley (17.7 ppg) picked up his production on his way to All-WAC honors, and with Gueye's 12.2 points out of the rotation, even more of the scoring burden will fall to Sensley and guards Matt Lojeski and Deonte Tatum. UH still has an experienced center in Chris Botez, but the lack of depth works against the 'Bows in their effort to make a run deep into the tournament.
5. NEW MEXICO STATE (15-13, 10-6)
Coach: Reggie Theus
The Aggies ended their regular season last Thursday, giving them some extra time to recharge and allow Elijah Ingram's tight hamstring to heal. Ingram's ability to slash to the basket helps open up athletic forward Tyrone Nelson (18.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg). NMSU ran off six straight wins before falling to UH last week and wants to turn the game into a track meet with their guard-oriented attack.
6. BOISE STATE (14-14, 6-10)
Coach: Greg Graham
The Broncos were a prime example of the "anything can happen" aspect of tournament play. The Broncos reached last year's title game after starting the week in the play-in game, upsetting host Nevada in the quarterfinals. BSU, ranked second in the WAC with 228 3-pointers, can again be a scary matchup if they get hot from the perimeter. Guard Coby Karl (17.3 ppg) is among the conference's premier shooters.
7. SAN JOSE STATE (6-24, 2-14)
Coach: George Nessman
The Spartans might have moved up in the standings if some of the close games had tilted their way. They lost to UH on a last-second 3-pointer last month and nearly upset Utah State on the road last Saturday. Alex Elam averaged a team-high 13.1 points for a Spartans team that finished last in the WAC in shooting at 41 percent.
8. IDAHO (4-24, 1-15)
Coach: Leonard Perry
The Vandals enter their first WAC tournament on an eight-game losing streak, the latest a double-overtime loss at Boise State last Saturday. The Vandals face extremely long odds against Nevada tomorrow, but lost by only six to the Wolf Pack at home on Feb. 20. Guard Tanoris Shepard (15.4 ppg) is the team's top threat.