Star-Bulletin Sports


Hawaii leading scorer and WAC first-teamer Predrag Savovic didn't practice yesterday and is listed as day-to-day.

’Bows look to repeat

Hawaii hopes to avoid being
the victim of an inspired underdog

With or without Savo

By Cindy Luis

TULSA, Okla. >> The carousel ride began today at the Reynolds Center.

And it's not your ordinary merry-go-round. History shows that, come tournament time, WAC stands for Wild And Crazy.

Ten basketball teams are looking to grab that brass ring known as the Western Athletic Conference tournament championship. Given the lack of respect for the conference -- 10th in most national ratings -- winning the title Saturday is the only guarantee for an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

Host Tulsa had the steadiest run through the regular season but still could only manage to tie Hawaii for first at 15-3. The Golden Hurricane lost to the Rainbows twice, thereby losing this week's top seed on the head-to-head tie-breaker.

The Rainbows had unexpected losses at San Jose State and Nevada only to follow those with unlikely wins at Tulsa and Fresno State, respectively.

Most expect Saturday's final to be a rematch of last year's championship between Tulsa and Hawaii. That's how it's seeded.

But the rest of the field has hope, encouraged by the 2001 Rainbows, who ran the table as the No. 5 seed. Particularly dangerous are No. 3 Louisiana Tech, No. 4 SMU and No. 5 Nevada, all of which picked up momentum in the latter part of the year, much the way Hawaii did last year when it finished the regular season with a 4-1 run.

But, just like those carousel horses, it's hard to predict which teams will be up and which ones will be down when the music stops. Who knows ... there may even be more than one brass ring to grab.

A look at the teams, by seeding:

1. HAWAII (24-5)

Coach Riley Wallace breathed a huge sigh of relief after the win at Fresno State on Saturday gave the Rainbows the top seed. He wanted no part of the other bracket, which has Tulsa, Louisiana Tech and Fresno State in it.

The toughest job for Wallace will be to keep his team from overlooking Thursday's quarterfinal game against either Rice or San Jose State. In 1998, the Rainbows came into the WAC tournament off a big win at Fresno, only to get whacked by host Nevada-Las Vegas.

Hawaii played well Saturday without its leading scorer Predrag Savovic, who is expected to be back in the lineup Thursday. Savovic did not practice yesterday and is still receiving treatments for a sore lower back he tweaked at Nevada last Thursday.

The NCAA may have done Hawaii a favor when suspending Savovic for the first seven games of the season. The Rainbows learned to win without their senior guard, going 6-1 before he returned, and they didn't panic when they had to do without him against the Bulldogs.

Hawaii is very comfortable in the Reynolds Center, and is 4-0 dating back to last year's tournament. They also have a three-game winning streak vs. the Golden Hurricane, and scored their most points (90) of the season against Tulsa here Jan. 26.

Most observers feel Hawaii is already a lock for an at-large berth. But, as the Rainbows know from past experience, few things are certain in life ... and an NCAA bid is not one of them.

Hawaii should make it to the final Saturday. The keys will be good defense and even better 3-point shooting.

2. TULSA (24-5)

The Golden Hurricane and their fans are looking forward to seeing the Rainbows again. But Tulsa does not have an easy road to the final.

Thursday's game against Boise State or UTEP will be no problem but the semifinal contest will be against either Louisiana Tech, which went 8-1 in the second round of the WAC season, or Fresno State, which may be seeing coach Jerry Tarkanian's final days.

Tulsa is well-balanced with a multi-faceted offense that leads the WAC in all three shooting categories: 48.6 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from 3-point range and 75.4 percent from the free-throw line.

Junior guard Dante Swanson continues to lead the nation in 3-point shooting at 55.1 percent (70 of 127). Junior forward Kevin Johnson has scored in double figures in all 18 conference games, averaging 16.9 points a game.

Tulsa has won 20 games or more for four straight years and eight of the last nine, despite having five different head coaches since 1991. The defending NIT champs should get into the NCAA Tournament without winning at all this week; Tulsa has an RPI of 33 and a Sagarin rating of 26.

The key will be to not look ahead to Hawaii.


The Bulldogs have been very impressive in their inaugural WAC season. Their only stumble in the second round of the WAC was a 73-63 loss here to Tulsa.

LaTech has won 11 of its last 12 conference games, using a stingy defense that is tops in WAC-only contests (64.0 ppg). The Bulldogs are 17-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 70 points.

The Bulldogs also have an amazing plus-7.5 rebounding margin over conference opponents, with four players among the top 18 in rebounds. Many consider this tournament a three-team race with Louisiana Tech a close third. The Bulldogs have shown they can win on the road, going 7-2 in the WAC to tie Tulsa for the best record.

The team has the size and the athleticism to win it all this week. Key to the success will be strong outings by senior guard Gerrod Henderson, who passed Karl Malone for fifth on the school's all-time scoring list last week, and junior forward Antonio Meeking, who is 35 points shy of 1,000.

For the Bulldogs to win the title, they will have to cut down on their turnovers and hit more 3-point shots.

4. SMU (15-13)

The Mustangs did not get the luck of the draw. If they can get past Nevada -- and that's a big if -- they're likely to face Hawaii, a team they've lost to twice.

SMU comes in off a disappointing 80-63 loss at Boise State, its second defeat in three games. They avoided going 0-3 last Thursday by eking out a 63-61 victory at UTEP.

If senior guard Damon Hancock gets hot, watch out. The No. 2 scorer in the WAC (21.8 ppg) has a chance to become the first Mustang since Ira Terrell in 1975-76 to finish a season with more than a 20-point average.

Hancock has scored in double figures in his last 28 games, the longest such streak in the WAC. He and junior guard Quinton Ross average 39.3 points a game, accounting for 54 percent of the team's offense.

If the game is close, SMU has the edge. The Mustangs are a WAC-best 5-1 in games decided by five points or less.

If SMU has a weakness, it's in sharing the ball. The Mustangs are last in team assists in the WAC.

If the Ponies get running, they could make a run for the championship. Getting past Nevada will not be easy.

5. NEVADA (16-12)

The young Wolf Pack strung together three straight wins before finishing out the regular season at 1-3. But the one win was a big one, over a cold-shooting Hawaii.

Nevada has learned to win on the road. They won six outside of Reno, more road wins than in the last three years combined.

Senior forward Corey Jackson has the ability to take over a game. He is the only player in the WAC averaging in double figures in both points (10.4 ppg) and rebounds (I1.3 rpg).

Pack coach Trent Johnson is being mentioned as one of the hottest young coaches in the business. A WAC title would be an impressive addition to his resume.

For Nevada to go far this week, the Wolf Pack will have to continue their aggressive penetration. Nevada leads the WAC in free throws with a school-record 537, 110 more than second-place UTEP.

The game with SMU should be a battle. The Mustangs won both meetings during the regular season, but Nevada could change the outcome with a solid overall game. But don't count on this No. 5 seed to win it all.

6. FRESNO STATE (18-13)

The Bulldogs weathered so many storms this season and are very capable of sending Tarkanian out with a championship. But it will take more than Melvin Ely and his Player of the Year statistics to do it.

If Fresno State doesn't win at least two here, it would mark only the second time in Tarkanian's 31 years of coaching that his team failed to win at least 20 games. The prognosticators already have the Bulldogs in the NIT.

It is unclear if senior guard Chris Sandy will be ruled eligible for play this week. The point guard has missed the past six games after FSU determined he had received an improper benefit. Definitely out is forward Chris Jefferies, who had knee surgery two weeks ago.

Fresno State is 3-0 against Top 25 teams but has struggled in the WAC. The Bulldogs had a 25-game home winning streak snapped by Louisiana Tech on Jan. 26 and then lost three more at home, including Saturday to Hawaii.

The Bulldogs were the overwhelming choice to win the league. They have the talent but maybe not the right mindset to outmuscle their first opponent Thursday in Louisiana Tech.

7. BOISE STATE (12-16)

The Broncos' debut hasn't been stellar, but they have won four of their last six. A flurry of last-minute 3-pointers lifted them over Fresno State three weeks ago.

BSU's patient half-court offense has frustrated a number of the WAC teams, as has a pesky defense which ranks second to Hawaii at 65.3 ppg.

Senior forward Abe Jackson leads the WAC in 3-point field goals (3.21 per game) and is third in scoring with a 19.2-point average. Jackson is only the second Bronco to record 1,500 points and 500 rebounds in a career.

The Broncos should get past UTEP today but then they'll pack their bags. Thursday's game is against a rested Tulsa team which has been home for nearly a week.

8. Rice (10-18)

The Owls have the freshman of the year in Michael Harris, who is averaging 12.6 points. But Rice doesn't have much else. The Owls played visiting Tulsa tough last week, losing 67-62.

The highlight of the year was a stunning upset of Fresno State on Feb. 2. It is the Owls' only win over a team that didn't finish lower in the standings than themselves.

Rice beat San Jose State twice during the regular season but may be hard-pressed to make it three in a row.

9. SAN JOSE STATE (9-21)

The Spartans flew in yesterday afternoon, hoping not to have a quick turnaround back to Silicon Valley. They snapped a six-game losing skid at Nevada on Saturday and are feeling pretty good about themselves after winning their first WAC road game of the season.

San Jose State's only other road win was at Iowa State where the Spartans ended the Cyclones' 39-game home winning streak. Iowa State transfer Brandon Hawkins, the Spartans' junior guard, was named to the WAC All-Newcomer team, the only Spartan earning conference honors.

Look for San Jose State to top Rice today to gain the rubber-match with Hawaii. The Rainbows won by 25 on Feb. 16 in a game that wasn't that close.

A No. 9 seed has only knocked off a No. 1 seed once in the tournament's history, when Air Force shocked Colorado State in 1990. Don't look for it to happen Thursday.

10. UTEP (10-21)

The Miners are concluding a very disappointing season, and it should mercifully be over today against Boise State. UTEP has had a hard-luck season where the Miners have lost six games by five points or less.

It would be no surprise if it's the last game also for third-year coach Jason Rabedeaux. The 21 losses are the most in school history since the 1952-53 team also lost 21.

The Miners returned four starters from a team that went 23-6 last season and played two NIT games. But UTEP couldn't put it together, particularly on the road; the Miners are 0-12 this year and have lost 15 straight dating back to last season.

If the Miners were playing the "Weakest Link" they would hear just one thing: "Good-bye."


With or without Savo

UH With Predrag savovic

Record: 17-4

Winning percentage: .810
Points per game: 72.0

Without savo

Record: 7-1

Winning percentage: .875
Points per game: 80.9

UH Athletics

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