UTEP picked to win the WAC | NevadaAppeal.com

UTEP picked to win the WAC

RENO – UTEP, which returns three starters and Omar

Thomas, the conferenceís best sixth man, was the

preseason pick of both the coaches and the media to

win the WAC menís basketball title this season.

The Miners, who were 24-8 a year ago, received five

first-place votes and finished with 77 points the

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coachesí poll.

Rice, which lost to Nevada in the WAC semifinals last

year, also received five first-place votes and 75

points overall. The remainder of the first division

includes Louisiana Tech (59), defending champion

Nevada (53) and Hawaiíi (51). SMU (45), Boise State

(32), Tulsa (27), Fresno State (21) and San Jose State

(10) occupied the bottom five spots.

In the media poll, UTEP finished with 13 of a possible

20 first-place votes for 186 points. Rice, which

returns forward Michael Harris and guard Jason

McKrieth, was next with 178 points. Nevada got one

first-place vote and 136 points. Hawaiíi was fourth

with one first-place vote and 130 points. Louisiana

Tech (127), Boise State (111), SMU (75), Fresno State

(71), Tulsa (65) and San Jose State (21) were in the

bottom five slots.

ìThis is going to be the best year of WAC basketball

in its history,î said Doc Sadler, UTEPís first-year

coach. ìBasketball has always been good in the WAC.

Anybody can win it. Youíve got to bring it every

night.

ìItís not like I just graduated. Iíve been doing this

for 23 years. Itís not rocket science. We have a good

team because we have good players. If people come

through, we have a chance to be competitive. If Fili

(Filberto Rivera) and Omar (Thomas) stay healthy we

should be competitive.î

While itís easy to pick the Miners, the coaches

believe that four or five teams have the capability of

winning the regular-season title.

ìThe league is certainly one of the best in the

country; at least second on the West Coast,î San Jose

State coach Phil Johnson said. ìTop to bottom itís

pretty good.î

ìItís a great league,î Hawaiíi coach Riley Wallace

said. ìWeíre already better than the Mountain West.

Weíd challenge them right now.î

(insert bullet) Riceís Michael Harris, who averaged

17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, was named the

preseason WAC Player of the Year by the WAC coaches

and media.

The 6-foot-6 240-pound Harris is the WACís current

leader with 33 double-doubles and he led the

conference in field goal shooting, sinking 60.3

percent of his attempts.

Rivera, SMUís Bryan Hopkins, Julian Sensley of Hawaiíi

and Louisiana Techís Paul Millsap joined Harris on the

all-WAC first team as selected by the coaches.

The mediaís selections were almost identical except

that Nevadaís Nick Fazekas was selected ahead of

Sensley for a first-team slot.

(Insert bullet) As expected, three-time conference

champion and perennial powerhouse Louisiana Tech was

selected as the preseason pick to win the conference

in a vote among the 10 coaches.

The Lady Techsters, who were 17-1 in WAC play last

season, received eight first-place votes and finished

with 80 points. Rice, which received the other two

first-place votes, was second with 72 points. Tulsa

(61), SMU (55) and UTEP (47) round out the first

division. Fresno State (44), Boise State (35), Hawaiíi

(27), San Jose State (16) and Nevada (13) occupy the

lower five slots.

Erica Taylor, the Lady Techsters talented 5-10 guard

was named the preseason Player of the Year. Taylor is

currently seven months pregnant, and coach Kurt Budke

is unsure of when Taylor will be able to play in a

game. Taylorís teammates Lakiste Barkus and Tasha

Crain were named to the second-team.

It was no surprise that Nevada, coming off a 3-26

campaign under first-year head coach Kim Gervasoni,

was picked to finish last.

ìWeíll use it as motivation,î said Nevadaís Amber

Young, who averaged 5.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per

contest last year.

(insert bullet) This is the final WAC basketball

season for Tulsa, Rice, SMU and UTEP. The quartet is

leaving the WAC on July 1 for Conference USA, and will

be replaced by Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State.

Hawaiíi, Nevada, Tulsa, Louisiana Tech and Fresno

State have won the most games in the past four years.

The only one of the group leaving is Tulsa.

ìI think weíll be a better basketball league in the

future,î commissioner Karl Benson said. ìIím very

confident weíll be on the national stage. Our goal is

to be one of the top 10 leagues in the country. The

WAC is not a mid-major conference. This conference has

proven itself to be a major basketball conference.î

Utah State just missed being selected to the NCAAs

last season, and has made the big dance three times in

the last five years. New Mexico State looks to be on

the rebound with veteran coach Lou Henson at the helm.

The Aggies, who were 13-14 last season, have won 20 or

more games four times in the last six seasons. Idaho

is the weakest of next yearís newcomers. The Vandals

havenít had a winning season since the 1998-99

campaign.

Next yearís WAC will only have nine teams, and Benson

admitted that some coaches have inquired about the

possibility of adding a non-football member to the

mix.

Rumors swirled last year that the WAC was courting

Gonzaga, a member of the West Coast Conference. Benson

denied it.

ìWe have not talked to Gonzaga,î Benson said. ìThe

only school that has approached us is the University

of Denver. They are in the Sun Belt and they are out

of geography. Weíre not evaluating any schools right

now.î

(insert bullet) Benson also said that the WAC has

extended its agreement with ESPN by six years.

ìWeíre excited about it,î Benson said. ìItís a great

opportunity for the WAC with ESPN in the future.î

Benson pointed out that the Mountain West Conference

is leaving ESPN for College Sports TV, a new cable

outfit. It could mean some national games for the WAC

if ESPN continues its Big Monday format

(tripleheader).

ìThat could be a great opportunity for the WAC to have

increased ESPN coverage,î Benson said. ìRight now,

ESPN doesnít know if it will continue its 9 p.m.

programming slot. If they do, we anticipate we would

fill that. The coaches are more than happy to step in

and play in that time slot.î

Benson also said that ESPN will launch a new station,

ESPN U in the spring. The station would be dedicated

to college sports and compete against the College

Sports TV group. It could mean more exposure for both

menís and womenís basketball next season, according to

Benson.

Darrell Moody can be reached at

dmoody@nevadaappeal.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281.