Carl English, Nkeruwem Akpan and Mark Campbell will try to lead the Rainbows to another WAC title.

Golden Hurricane
are the class
of the WAC

The 2 teams enter league play
eyeing a return to the Big Dance

By Cindy Luis

Hawaii and Tulsa. Tulsa and Hawaii.

The two have been the class of the Western Athletic Conference the past two years. It appears that nothing will change in 2003.

The Rainbows (7-1) and Golden Hurricane (7-3), who are one spot outside the Associated Press Top 25, are the only two WAC teams currently predicted to make the 65-team NCAA Tournament field.

Hawaii, coming off the huge overtime win over Butler for the Rainbow Classic title, moved up to 51 in the latest Sagarin ratings, while Tulsa, after losing at home to Iowa last Saturday, slipped to No. 61.

The WAC had a positive record against nonconference opponents (51-38) at the end of 2002, and is ranked 12th out of the 31 leagues. But that win-loss mark was boosted by the likes of wins over Cal State Monterey Bay, Millsaps and Albertson.

WAC teams are 1-9 against Top 30 competition, with the lone victory belonging to the Rainbows over the Bulldogs, who are two spots out of the AP poll.

Several marquee WAC players are back, including UH junior guard Carl English, Tulsa senior guard Dante Swanson and Quinton Ross, SMU's senior swingman.

But it's doubtful that the overall strength of the WAC is as good as a year ago, when four teams went to postseason play -- Hawaii and Tulsa to the NCAA Tournament and Louisiana Tech and Fresno State to the NIT.

A look at the teams, based on preseason record:

HAWAII (7-1)

"We're way ahead of where we normally are at this time of year."

That was coach Riley Wallace's assessment during the mid-October media teleconference. Nothing much has changed since then, other than Hawaii got the big win it had hoped for when beating Butler on Monday.

With four starters back, including preseason WAC Player of the Year English, and talented newcomers in Michael Kuebler and Jason Carter, it's no surprise that Hawaii is again leading the WAC in scoring (78 ppg).

English has been the most consistent scorer for the Rainbows (19.4 ppg), finishing as the high scorer in four of the eight games. But Kuebler (29 points against Butler), Nkeruwem Akpan (25 against Bradley), Haim Shimonovich (20 vs. Bradley) and Phil Martin (19 vs. Tennessee Tech) have shown they are capable of big nights.

Hawaii also has an unreal assist-to-basket percentage with 151 assists on 227 field goals (67 percent). UH's assist-to-turnover ratio is a WAC best 1.18, led by senior guard Mark Campbell (52 assists/14 turnovers).

Hawaii opens WAC play today at UTEP, where UH is one of two teams to defeat the Miners in their WAC home opener in the past eight seasons; the other was San Diego State in 1997.

Fresno State (8-2)

"We don't have the talent like last year, but that's no excuse not to be a good basketball team."

First-year coach Ray Lopes has made few excuses for the Bulldogs, who opened WAC play by beating Tulsa last night. The former Oklahoma assistant has Fresno State playing better than many expected.

The Bulldogs' losses have been on the road -- at Oklahoma State by 10 and at Washington State by three. Fresno State has the WAC's stingiest defense, yielding just 62.9 ppg, and is No. 1 in rebound margin at plus 8.1.

Jonathan Woods (13.4 ppg) and Damon Jackson (12.6 ppg) haven't made the Red Wave forget Melvin Ely or Chris Jefferies, but the Selland Arena faithful should learn to appreciate how well the Bulldogs are playing as a team.

Rice (7-2)

"It's hard to tell how good we'll be, but I'm cautiously optimistic."

Willis Wilson had reason to believe in his team, even during preseason workouts. He's since been rewarded by his Owls, who made him the school's all-time winningest coach (134-157) in winning their last five.

Wilson has had only one winning season in the past four years. But thanks to three players scoring in double figures, led by Omar-Seli Mance (15.8 ppg), the Owls are on their way.

Their losses have been to good teams, at Stanford and at BYU. They also picked up a good win over Colorado on Dec. 21.

Rice leads the WAC in steals (10.22 spg) with Mance, Jason McKrieth and Jamaal Moore in the top 12 in the league. The Owls host Nevada today and could steal a victory then.

Tulsa (7-3)

"Being ranked is important in terms of exposure for the conference, but it doesn't get you any extra points on the scoreboard."

That was second-year head coach John Phillips' comment three months ago. His Golden Hurricane stayed in the Top 25 until this past Monday following the loss to unranked Iowa at the Reynolds Center.

Tulsa took three of the top scorers in the WAC in Kevin Johnson (17.7 ppg), Jason Parker (17.2) and Dante Swanson (14.2) into last night's conference opener at Fresno State, which the Golden Hurricane lost 74-65.

Tulsa's other loss was to Kansas a month ago. The Hurricane shouldn't be seriously challenged again until traveling to Honolulu on Feb. 1.

Boise State (6-4)

"We'll be a work in progress as we just try to get better."

It's not an easy task for first-year coach Greg Graham, who had quite a bit of success as an assistant at Oregon the past 10 years. With Graham as the offensive coordinator, the Ducks finished third in scoring behind Kansas and Duke last season.

It's going to be awhile for the Broncos to get there. They didn't have much last year, going 6-12, and Graham has tried a quick fix with junior college and international players.

Boise State is small but pesky, with a roster full of guards and good free throw shooters (71 percent as a team). The Broncos lead the WAC in turnover margin (+2.5).

Carrying the load so far for the Broncos is Bryan Defares (13.1). BSU's losses have been to Eastern Illinois and Eastern Washington at home, and on the road at Wyoming and Idaho.

The Broncos should get their first WAC win today when San Jose State comes to the BSU Pavilion.

Nevada (5-5)

"I think we're better offensively, but we're pretty much still trying to develop our consistency."

The Wolf Pack was a win away from getting into the NIT and may be able to muscle an invite this season. They had a tough preseason road schedule -- losing at San Diego, Weber State, Arizona State and Santa Clara -- but are a 4-1 at home.

Back for his farewell tour is senior guard Terrance Green, who led Nevada in scoring the past three seasons. He is averaging 11.5 points this year and is second to sophomore forward Kirk Snyder (16.0 ppg).

The two have the Pack second behind Hawaii in scoring at 75.5. But Nevada's defense has been suspect, yielding 71.9 a game.

Nevada has a tough opening game at Rice today, but if the Pack can put it together on both ends of the floor, they could leave with a win.

SMU (4-5)

"We've gone to a tough preseason schedule because we need to attract fan support. But I worry that it's too much, too soon for a young team."

Coach Mike Dement was ambitious and got some good home wins over Texas Christian and Baylor. The hard part was the road, where the Mustangs fell at Texas Tech, Oral Roberts, Wake Forest and UNLV.

Senior guard Quinton Ross is back to add to his 1,000-point career. The WAC's leading returning scorer is second this season behind English at 19.2 ppg. Eric Castro has kept SMU in games with his rebounding (6.4 rpg) and Brandon Hopkins is back for another season at point guard.

Dement knew at the outset that his team was going to have to improve in two areas: rebounding and defense. So far, he's 0-for-2; the Mustangs are second to last in defense (74.6 ppg) and last in rebounding defense (37.9 rpg).

SMU hosts San Diego today, then opens WAC play at Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

Louisiana Tech (3-4)

"It will take two players to have all-league seasons in order for us to battle Tulsa and Hawaii."

Keith Richard has senior forward Antonio Meeking back for the Bulldogs' second year in the WAC. Louisiana Tech won 22 games last season, including 14 in the WAC, but is struggling this year, shooting about 40 percent from the field.

The Bulldogs lost at No. 7 Texas on Monday, 58-50, one of four road losses to Top 25 teams. They also lost at Florida in the Preseason NIT, were blown out by 40 at Mississippi State, and fell at Arkansas. It was a schedule designed to help offset the low RPI teams such as Millsaps and Harding.

Louisiana Tech is back in the Thomas Assembly Center for Saturday's WAC opener with SMU. The Bulldogs were 14-0 in nonconference games at home last year, 7-2 in the WAC.

San Jose State (3-6)

"The goal is to get better every day and be better at the end of the year than when we started."

Phil Johnson was optimistic about his return to San Jose State after two years with the Chicago Bulls. He was 12-16 his last time around with the Spartans and may not be able to improve much on that mark.

The good news is not many are coming to watch. The Spartans are averaging a dismal 700 at home, but with Menlo, Cal State Monterey Bay and Brown coming to town, no one is surprised.

San Jose State is giving up a WAC-worst 76 ppg, can't hit free throws (56 percent) and is last in blocked shots (1 bpg). Johnson has his work cut out for him and hopes that someone besides junior transfer Oudie Baker (16.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg) will come to play. Senior guard Brandon Hawkins may wish he never transferred from Iowa State.

San Jose State is at Boise State today, which should be another cold loss for the Spartans.

UTEP (2-7)

"I'm still trying to learn about my players and they're still trying to learn about me."

New coach Billy Gillespie had five days with his team before starting practice. Three months later, he and the Miners are still working on that steep learning curve.

UTEP had one returning starter in senior Roy Smallwood. The Miners now have none with the forward lost for the year with an ACL.

UTEP is averaging a WAC-low 60.9 ppg and is at the bottom of most other categories. The bright spot has been the play of freshmen John Tofi (13.9) and Giovanni St. Amant (11.8), and senior forward Justino Victoriano, the WAC rebound leader at 9.4 rpg.

The Haskins Center has been a tough place to play for visiting teams. This year, it may be tougher for the Miners.

They host the Rainbows today. They'll likely lose again.

UH Athletics

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