Many stars return in the WAC
It only seemed like yesterday that Nevada’s basketball team shocked Gonzaga and Michigan State to make the school’s first-ever Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
As the start of November looms, teams around the Western Athletic Conference, including Nevada, are busily preparing for the start of what promises to be an exciting WAC season.
The Wolf Pack have slated two home exhibition games – Nov. 4 against Dominican University, a Division II NAIA school from California, and Nov. 13 against Seattle Pacific University, a Division II school. Save for Louisiana Tech, which starts Nov. 1, most of the other WAC schools begin around Nov. 4.
Five WAC teams made post-season play last year. Nevada and UTEP, the regular-season co-champions, made the NCAA tourney and Boise State, Rice and Hawai’i reached the NIT. Judging by comments made at the recent WAC Media Day, coaches are expecting teams to have just as much success.
“I think this will be the best year in WAC history,” UTEP’s first-year coach Doc Sadler said. “Basketball has always been good (in this conference). I look at the schools and anybody can win this. You’ve got to be able to bring it every night.”
There are stars galore around the league. Nevada returns Kevinn Pinkney (9.4 points, 5.7 rebounds per game) and Nick Fazekas (12.6, 7.6). Boise State returns forward Jermaine Blackburn (13.7, 3.3), Fresno State returns Mustafa Al-Sayyad (8.4, 7.3), Hawai’i returns Julian Sensley (12.3, 7.3), Louisiana Tech returns Paul Millsap (15.6, 12.5), while Rice returns Michael Harris (17.5, 8.9), the WAC’s Preseason Player of the Year, and Jason McKrieth (15.8, 4.9). SMU returns Bryan Hopkins (17.7, 3.7) and Patrick Simpson (11.3, 6.0), UTEP returns Fili Rivera (11.2, 3.1) and Omar Thomas (15.5, 4.8) and Tulsa has Jarius Glenn (12.6, 6.1) back in the fold.
Here’s a look at the WAC teams minus Nevada with last year’s records in parenthesis:
BOISE STATE (23-10, 12-6)
The Broncos closed fast, winning their last six games of the season to finish 23-10, including two NIT wins, but Greg Graham & Co. face a big challenge with just five players returning and nine newcomers.
“We’re a little deeper and we should be more skilled,” Graham said.
The Broncos do return Blackburn, who suffered a shoulder injury late in the season. Blackburn has added 10 or 12 pounds to his slender frame, and that should enable him to bang down low more.
Two other starters – sophomore guard Coby Karl (9.4, 3.2) and senior swingman Jason Ellis (8.7, 9.0) – return. Also returning are guard Franco Harris (4.8, 0.8) and point guard Eric Lane (4.8, 0.6). Graham is hoping for immediate help from JC transfers Tezarray Banks (6-9, 230), Seth Robinson (6-6, 195), Robert Pankowski (6-8, 230) and Kareem Lloyd (6-7, 195).
FRESNO STATE (14-15, 10-8)
The Bulldogs were ravaged by on and off-court problems in Ray Lopes’ first season at the helm, and the young coach has already indicated this will be a rebuilding year. He recruited six freshmen, several of which he expects to contribute immediately.
Terry Pettis didn’t finish the season after starting seven of 10 games and scoring at a 12.9 clip. He was arrested on murder charges and wasn’t invited back.
Seniors Neither Renaldo Major (5.8) and Jonathan Woods (8.4) were booted off the team in February.
“Last year was a tough year,” Lopes said. “I think I’m going to enjoy coaching this group. I don’t know how many games we’ll win. We’ve got to play together as a team.
“Scoring will be an issue,” Lopes said. “We lost some good scorers.”
Fresno State does have three proven starters in senior guard Marcus West (10.3, 3.5), senior center Al-Sayyad (8.4, 7.3) and senior guard Dreike Bouldin (4.5, 4.7).
Forward Francis Koffi (4.4, 2.6) and 6-9 330-pound Jack Marlow (2.1, 2.4) also are back. Al-Sayyad can be dominant at times, and only needs to refine some of his offensive moves in the paint to be a force.
What the Bulldogs don’t have right now is a point guard to replace Shantay Legans (15.0, 2.8), who was one of the top two or three point guards in the conference. True freshman Dominique White (5-11, 185) and true freshman Dwight O’Neill (6-3, 180) figure to get plenty of time at point guard.
“Dominique is a tremendous point guard,” Lopes said. “O’Neill will get some minutes. We may do it by committee.”
HAWAI’I (21-12, 11-7)
Veteran coach Riley Wallace’s squad was hit hard by graduation, losing guard Michael Kuebler (18.7), forward Phil Martin (9.5) and Haim Shimonovich (7.0).
And, to top that off, senior point guard Logan Lee decided to transfer to Texas A&M.
Not to worry. The Rainbow Warriors return Sensley (12.3, 7.3), senior forward Jeff Blackett (7.9, 3.3) and shooting guard Bobby Nash, and Wallace had a great recruiting class, led by 6-9 Matt Gipson, 6-4 Matt Gibson and 6-11 Chris Botez, all JC transfers.
“Matt Gipson is a talent,” Wallace said. “He’s really aggressive and I think he can be a great player.
“Botez has a nice little jump hook. He’s got stamina problems. He needs to get stronger physically. He has a good upside.”
Gibson averaged 26 points a game at Three Rivers (Missouri) Community College and has tremendous range not to mention an interesting hair-do and tattoos, according to Wallace.
Wallace needs Sensley to step it up, and Nash certainly will have to be more productive.
“He has two years left and I expect him to play to his ability,” Wallace said. “He has to turn up the intensity level. He has to get tough on the boards.”
Also back are swingman Vaidotas Peciukas (3.6, 0.9), guard Jake Sottos (3.1, 1.0) and 6-11 center Milos Zivanovic (0.9, 1.4).
Wallace is expecting DeAndre Tatum to replace Lee at point guard. Tatum is a good ball-handler and defender, and once he learns the system, will be an improvement over Lee.
LOUISIANA TECH (15-15, 8-10)
The Bulldogs return four starters – Millsap (15.6, 12.5), guard Corey Dean (12.7, 4.1), guard Donnell Allick (11.2, 3.3) and forward Wayne Powell (9.2, 5.5). Senior swingman Barry Thompson (5.7, 3.3), junior guard Eric Woods (2.8, 1.5) and junior forward Jeremy Johnston (2.1, 2.0) are also back. All that experience is a big reason the coach’s tabbed Louisiana Tech to finish third this year.
“I was excited to start practice; excited about the opportunities this season,” said Bulldog head coach Keith Richard. “I think we have a chance to be a good basketball team. We have to improve in some areas. We’ll be a much better offensive basketball team.”
The reason for that is the addition of Daevon Haskins, a 6-4 point guard from South Plains Junior College, the same school that produced Nevada’s Jermaine Washington.
“We’re relying on him to help us be a better basketball team,” Richard said. “He’ll have an immediate impact. He’s going to be in there to run the attack. If you saw us play last year, point guard was a weakness.”
Millsap, who led the nation in rebounding last year, is expected to play even better this season.
“We asked him to lift weights and improve his body,” Richard said. “He was 6-7 and 220 last year. Now he’s 6-8 and 245. He really has done some work. I wasn’t sure his body could take it.”
Besides Haskins, 6-5 shooting guard Jason Bray and 6-8 forward Michael Wilds are the newcomers expected to produce immediately.
RICE (22-11, 12-6)
The Owls, coached by Willis Wilson finished in a tie for second place last year, and should be even better because they have three starters returning in Harris (17.5), McKrieth (15.8) and Brock Gillespie (9.2).
They have nine other returning players, including junior forward J.R. Harrison (5.5, 4.1), sophomore forward Morris Almond (4.8, 1.0), junior forward Jamaal Moore (3.9, 1.7) and sophomore guard Lorenzo Williams (2.6, 0.7).
Wilson has been around the block a few times. He knows a wealth of returning players doesn’t always translate into success.
“One thing I’ve learned is that it’s a long journey in this league,” he said “You have to be a little lucky. You have to stay healthy. It’s a slugfest night in and night out.
“We have a great nucleus with those three (Harris, McKrieth and Gillespie),” Wilson said. “They’ve been working hard at their games.”
The hard-nosed Wilson is stressing defense when it comes to Harris, who pretty much scored at will.
Wilson said Harris can’t be a team leader if he doesn’t improve defensively. Wilson recruited four freshmen – forward Patrick Britton (6-8, 240), guard Rodney Foster, center Matt Hagen (6-9, 245) and forward Paulius Packevicius (6-9, 240). How much they will play is uncertain.
SAN JOSE STATE (6-23, 1-17)
Coach Phil Johnson brought in seven newcomers and believes his squad is bigger and tougher than it was a year ago. He’s not sure if the new bodies meshed with last year’s players will produce more wins immediately.
Senior forward Marquin Chandler (9.8, 4.1) and senior guard Kareem Guilbeaux (3.9, 2.6) are the only returning starters. Chandler scored 20 or more points in seven games last year.
Forward D.J. Brown (7.5, 4 .0) and senior swingman Michael McFadden ( 7.0, 2.1) saw significant action a year ago, and will compete for starting spots this year.
All of Johnson’s recruits are JC transfers. At 6-11, Matt Misko is expected to challenge for the starting center spot with 6-9 Mark Fresby and 6-9 Menelik Barbary. Alex Elam (6-4), Donta Watson (5-10), Kenny Smith (6-4) and Eric Bloom will challenge for minutes at guard. Elam and Smith also can play forward. Watson and Bloom were JC All-American selections.
SMU (12-18, 5-13)
The Mustangs were truly an underachieving squad last season, which led to coach Mike Dement’s firing late in the season. It was SMU’s first losing season in eight years.
Jimmy Tubbs, who spent 12 years as an SMU assistant before going to Oklahoma the past two years, is the new head coach. Robert Lineburg, who took over when Dement was fired, was retained by Tubbs.
Tubbs inherits a pretty good team – at least on paper. The Mustangs return Simpson (11.3), Hopkins (17.7), center-forward Eric Castro (9.9, 5.6) and shooting guard Justin Isham (7.8, 3.4). Five other players, including junior guard Brian Miller (3.4, 0.8) and sophomore Devon Pearson (3.1, 2.7).
“We expected to do a lot better,” Simpson said. “We had kind of a disastrous second half of the season (lost six of last eight).”
Simpson said the atmosphere has been better since Tubbs, who actually recruited many of the players, came aboard.
“I’m really excited about this job,” Tubbs said. “We need Bryan to make some shots and to show great leadership, and thus far he’s done that. I like Castro and Simpson, and hopefully we can get the ball inside to them. I want to attack inside.
“We have to play better. Our transition defense was very poor. I’d like us to play good half-court man-to-man defense. Right now, I’m not sure that we can. Hopefully we can make defense a strong point of this team.”
Hopkins is one of the deadliest 3-point shooters in the WAC, knocking down 84 last year (40.4 percent). No doubt Tubbs would like to see him distribute the ball more efficiently because his assist average was less than four per game. Hopkins ended the season averaging 24.4 per game over SMU’s last five games.
The Mustangs’ best recruit is 6-4 freshman guard Derrick Roberts, who led the state of Texas in scoring with a 29-point average at Nimitz High School in Houston.
UTEP (24-8, 13-5)
Doc Sadler takes the reins of last year’s regular-season co-champs from Billy Gillespie, who bolted for Texas A&M just days after the Miners lost to Maryland in the first round of the NCAAs.
The Miners, who return three starters – junior swingman Jason Williams (11.6, 6.1), senior guard Rivera (11.2, 3.1) and junior center John Tofi (10.8, 5.9) were picked by the media and coaches to win the WAC.
Also back is Thomas, who was used off the bench yet still led the team in scoring. Other returnees are junior guard Giovanni St. Amant (5.9, 1.4), junior forward Brent Murphy (2.7, 1.2), senior forward Thomas Gehrke (1.5, 1.4) and sophomore guard Josh Gutierrez (0.4, 0.1).
Vernon Carr, one of UTEP’s top guard recruits has a stress fracture in his shin. Kelvin Davis, Miguel Ayala and Colt Tharpe are the other guard recruits.
The frontline players are Will Kimball (6-9, 245) and freshman Stanley Branch.
“We do have plenty of returning players, eight, that had a chance to taste a little bit of success,” Sadler said. “This (coaching) is not rocket science. I’ve been doing this for 23 years. We have good players. If they come through we have a chance to be competitive.
“If Omar and Fili have strong seasons, we should be competitive.”
Tofi broke his foot in the off-season and had to have surgery. Sadler said he expects to get Tofi back sometime next month.
The key to the Miners’ success is Rivera, who played so brilliantly late in the season.
“Fili brings real passion to playing basketball,” Sadler said. “He’s one of the hardest-working kids. He needs to get stronger.”
TULSA (9-20, 5-13)
The Golden Hurricanes, who had won three of the last five WAC regular-season titles, were young last year and it showed on the court.
Tulsa returns four starters from last year – senior forward Jarius Glenn (12.6, 6.1), junior forward Anthony Price (10.5, 4.8). Junior guard Seneca Collins (7.5, 2.3) and senior Guilherme Teichmann (6.1, 6.0).
Five other reserves played 10 or more minutes per game.
“At the conclusion of last season, everyone on this team vowed that we’d do everything humanly possible to prevent a losing season from happening again,” coach John Phillips said. “At that point, we collaborated on things that needed work, not only as a team but individually as well.
“We really found out what character is all about. We want to establish what character is all about.”
Contact Darrell Moody at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1281.