Star-Bulletin Sports

Wednesday, December 26, 2001


Mindaugas Burneika, fresh off an MVP performance at last week's Rainbow Classic, leads Hawaii into WAC play.

Top 2 teams to
start WAC schedule

Hawaii starts its conference
schedule by hosting preseason
No. 1 Fresno State

By Cindy Luis

The new year starts early for the Western Athletic Conference men's basketball teams with league play beginning for the first time prior to New Year's Day.

The marquee matchup is early as well, coming in tomorrow's opening night. Preseason favorite Fresno State travels to Hawaii, which was picked to finish second in the coaches' poll.

For some, the preseason was for fine-tuning. For others, it was finding the right tune.

Either way, the slate is clean. And, as WAC coaches know all too well, anything can happen, especially on the road. And it usually does.

W-A-C? It stands for Wild And Crazy.

The WAC is currently ranked 10th nationally among conferences in terms of overall toughness. But the rest of the country also knows that there is no easy place to play in the WAC.

This conference was playing "Survivor" long before it became a television hit. The key was always to win at home and steal some on the road.

A look at the teams, as ranked in the preseason coaches poll:

1. Fresno State (8-4)

The Bulldogs lost three games they likely would have won had senior All-American center Melvin Ely been eligible. The WAC Player of the Year has missed five games because of NCAA suspension regarding an extra benefit.

Ely could be back for tomorrow's game with Hawaii, pending a successful appeal by Fresno State. In seven games, Ely averaged a team-leading 19.9 points and 9.3 rebounds, with 25 blocked shots. He also is moving up on several WAC career lists. Ely is ninth in field-goal percentage (.580) and fourth in blocked shots (301).

Fresno State's lone loss with Ely on the floor came in the Preseason NIT semifinals, when the Bulldogs fell to Wake Forest 62-61. They rebounded in the third-place game against then-No. 13 Michigan State 63-58.

The three consecutive losses came during a week-long road trip where the Bulldogs lost to Gonzaga, San Diego State and Cal. The defeats knocked the Bulldogs out of the AP Top 25 and they didn't receive any votes in this week's poll.

Junior forward Chris Jefferies has had to pick up the slack, and is second in team scoring with a 17.4 average. Sophomore guard Damon Jackson is tied for the national lead in free-throw shooting; he is 13 of 13 from the line this season.

Chris Sandy is expected to make his Bulldog debut against the Rainbows. The point guard was suspended by the NCAA for the first semester when the organization did not accept his summer school credits.

2. Hawaii (9-2)

The Rainbows won their seventh Rainbow Classic title last Saturday with a hard-fought 54-44 win over Georgia. It was the second straight game Hawaii kept its opponent under 60 points, and the sixth time this season.

The Rainbows, leading the WAC in defense with a 58.2-point average, have held seven opponents under 40 percent shooting from the floor. The season low was 29.3 percent by Georgia on Saturday.

Hawaii received its first vote in the AP Top 25 Monday and moved up to No. 99 in the Sagarin rankings. In the RPI, the Rainbows are 78th.

Sophomore guard Carl English has scored in double figures in all but one game. He is second on the team in scoring with a 15.1 average.

Senior guard Predrag Savovic, who regained his eligibility four games ago, leads the team with a 16.3-point average. Also scoring in double figures for Hawaii are sophomore center Haim Shimonovich, the Rainbow Classic MVP, at 10.5 ppg, and sophomore forward Phil Martin at 10.0.

Shimonovich is tops in the WAC in blocks with 22.

Hawaii made it on the "Rising" list by's Andy Katz on Monday. The former Fresno Bee writer said that the Rainbows could pull off the upset of Fresno State to start the WAC week.

The Rainbows' two losses were games they should have won. They had double-digit leads early in the second half before falling to former WAC foes Colorado State and San Diego State.

3. Tulsa (9-1)

No one is surprised that the Golden Hurricane have done as well as they have this season. Tulsa returns three starters who finished 1-2-3 in scoring last season in junior forward Kevin Johnson, senior guard Greg Harrington and junior guard Dante Swanson.

Tulsa leads the WAC in 10 team categories, including: offense (86.2 ppg), scoring margin (plus 18.6), free-throw percentage (.789), field-goal percentage (.484), 3-point goal percentage (.394), assists (18.50 apg) and steals (8.0 spg). Harrington leads the conference in assists (6.2 apg) while Swanson leads in 3-point percentage (.509).

The Golden Hurricane have won seven straight since falling 79-75 to Arkansas on Nov. 28. Tulsa is coming off an 88-67 victory over host Brigham Young-Hawaii on Saturday in the Yahoo! Sports Invitational. Swanson scored a game-high 25 points in the win over the Seasiders, and was named the tournament's MVP.

Harrington has 437 career assists and is 20 shy of becoming the school's all-time leader.

Tulsa also received one point in this week's AP Top 25. The Golden Hurricane are at No. 2 Kansas on Saturday before opening WAC play Jan. 3 at Nevada.

4. UTEP (5-6)

The Miners struggled midway through the preseason, losing four straight games, all on the road. They fell to TCU and Providence in the Las Vegas Classic then lost at Texas Tech and New Mexico State. UTEP bounced back with wins over Washington and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi but went 1-2 last week, losing at Charlotte and finishing second in their SunClassic with a win over Mississippi Valley State and a loss to Mississippi.

The loss to Ole Miss snapped an 11-game home winning streak. The Miners are 20-3 in their last 23 home games.

UTEP ranks second in free-throw percentage in the WAC (.723), led by Brian Stewart's 78 percent. Roy Smallwood, the 2000 WAC Freshman of the Year, is fourth in steals at 1.7 per game. Stewart and Smallwood are among four starters back but the Miners are dearly missing departed all-WAC forward Brandon Wolfram and his 22.3 points and 7.6 rebounds a game.

A year ago, UTEP was the only team to beat Hawaii twice during conference play and the only WAC team to defeat the Rainbows at the Stan Sheriff Center. The Miners are on the road at Louisiana Tech tomorrow to open the season.

5. SMU (5-5)

The Mustangs are coming off a 74-62 loss to former WAC member TCU. SMU dominated for the first 30 minutes before the Horned Frogs closed out the game with a 33-8 run to win in Fort Worth.

Senior guard Damon Hancock returned to score 17 after missing the win over Oral Roberts with a virus. Hancock, who leads the WAC with a 20.7-point average, has scored in double figures his last 12 games.

SMU gained the athletic services last week of Johnnie Freeman, a wide receiver for the football team.

Hancock, Quinton Ross and Jibran Kelley are returning starters who averaged a combined 24.1 points last year. But the Mustangs are looking to make up the 29 points that four-year starter Jeryl Sasser and stalwart Willie Davis contributed last year.

SMU hosts Boise State tonight to open their WAC seasons.

6. Louisiana Tech (6-3)

As they did in football, the Bulldogs are expected to make an impact in their first year in the WAC. Before losing at Alabama-Birmingham 81-63 last Tuesday, LaTech's only losses had come at then-No. 9 Iowa and current No. 12 Oklahoma.

The Bulldogs lead the WAC in rebounding margin at plus 11.9, thanks to their league-leading offensive rebounding (15.0 rpg) and their third-ranked defensive rebounding (28.89 rpg).

LaTech is averaging 76.7 points, second-best in the WAC. Junior guard Darrian Brown, a 6-5 transfer from Mississippi, leads the team in scoring with a 13.7-point average. Returning starters Marco Cole (13.0 ppg), Gerrod Henderson (12.3) and Antonio Meeking (12.2) are all in the Top 20 in WAC scoring.

Brown is also tied for fifth in rebounding with a 7.7 average, Zach Johnson is seventh at 7.3.

The Bulldogs defeated Jackson State 74-59 on Saturday to begin a four-game home stand. LaTech opens its inaugural WAC season against UTEP.

7. San Jose State (5-7)

The Spartans' seesaw preseason is aptly reflected in last week's results: a 78-65 win over the College of Notre Dame, a shocking 72-70 loss to Vanguard, and a 91-72 victory over Mt. St. Mary's.

Prior to last week, San Jose State had not scored more than 65 points in its first 10 games. The Spartans scored fewer than 60 points in five of their seven losses, with a season-low 51 points against Northwestern and St. Mary's.

Senior forward David Granucci (2.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg) is the lone returning starter. The Spartans are second in the WAC in 3-pointers with 79 with three of the top 14 3-point shooters: junior transfers Moises Alvarez (23), Gary Black (20) and Phil Calvert (19).

SJSU, averaging 729 at home, hosts Nevada tomorrow and Fresno State on Saturday.

8. Nevada (7-3)

The Wolf Pack saw its three-game winning streak end last Thursday in an 87-75 loss to UNLV. All three of their losses have been on the road -- at Arkansas State and Montana, as well as UNLV.

Nevada's scoring margin is third-best in the WAC at plus 7.8, behind Tulsa (plus 18.3) and Hawaii (plus 8.4). UN is also fourth in defense, yielding 67.3 points.

The Wolf Pack has four starters back, including junior guard Terrance Green, who has led the team in scoring the past two seasons and is second this year at 14.3. The Pack has no seniors.

Nevada has already won two road games, one more than in all of last season. UN has won all five of its home games, winning those by an average margin of 22.4 points.

The Wolf Pack leads the WAC in free throws made (228) and free throws attempted (328).

Garry Hill-Thomas leads the team with a 19.6 scoring average, second-best in the WAC. Corey Jackson is the only player in the WAC averaging in double figures in rebounding at 10.9.

Kirk Snyder, a highly regarded 6-6 freshman, is expected to be eligible for tomorrow's game at San Jose State after passing the SAT. Nevada then heads to Hawaii for a game Saturday.

9. Rice (4-4)

After a 17-day layoff, the Owls returned to the court last Friday, defeating Centenary 92-82. It was Rice's seventh consecutive win at home.

The Owls have fared much worse on the road and have lost their last 10 away games during the regular season, including losses at Colorado, Stephen F. Austin, Houston and Middle Tennessee State.

Rice lost its two leading scorers from last year's team but has three starters back, including senior Shawn Tyndell.

Newcomers are making the biggest noise for the Owls. Freshman Michael Harris, a 6-6 forward, leads the WAC in field-goal percentage (.642), is second in rebounding (8.6 rpg) and 14th in scoring (14.9 ppg). Freshman guard Jason McKreith is eighth in the WAC with a 14.5 average, while junior transfer Omar-Seli Mance is 11th at 13.6.

Rice has two more games at home before opening WAC play Jan. 3 at Fresno State. The Owls host Texas-Pan American tomorrow and Siena on Saturday.

10. Boise State (6-4)

A la football, the Broncos hope their first-year WAC success continues on the basketball court.

Boise State returns three starters from last year's squad that went 8-8 in the Big West, including leading scorer Abe Jackson (19.3 ppg). Jackson is the school's all-time 3-point field-goal leader and has 31 so far this season.

Also back is All-Big West guard Booker Nabors, who averaged 9.5 points and 3.3 assists as a freshman.

The BSU scoring defense ranked among the Top 25 nationally two of the past three years. The Broncos are second behind Hawaii in the WAC at 59.0 ppg and are No. 1 in 3-point defense, holding opponents to just 31 percent from long range.

The Broncos have won three straight, giving coach Rod Jensen career win Nos. 100, 101 and 102. They are coming off a 55-44 win last Tuesday at Northern Arizona.

BSU holds an interesting distinction. The Broncos are first in defensive rebounding (28.3 rpg) but last in offensive rebounding (31.1). They are also last in assists.

The Broncos open their inaugural WAC season Friday at SMU.

E-mail to Sports Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin