It’s a broken record, but the Western Athletic Conference keeps proving that, as Kevin McCarthy says, “any team can beat any other team” — in men’s basketball, at least.
The thundering crash of high-ranked teams could be heard across the West on Thursday night. #2 Nevada fell to the conference doormat, #9 Fresno State. #3 New Mexico State was edged by #8 Louisiana Tech. Most painfully, the #5 Idaho Vandals were crushed on the boards and on the scoreboard by the #6 San Jose State Spartans. Only #1 Utah State evaded the trend in their comprehensive deconstruction of the #7 Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.
The midpack muddle we’ve referred to before, is even more unclear now than it was Thursday morning, if that’s even possible. Here’s the way they line up:
#2 Nevada (8-5)
#3 Boise State (7-5)
#4 New Mexico State (7-6)
#5 Idaho (6-7)
#6 San Jose State (5-8)
#7 Hawaii (5-9)
#8 Louisiana Tech (5-9)
Yes, the WAC’s #2 and #8 teams are basically separated by three and a half games. Parity? We gotcha parity right heeeeeeyah.
For the Vandals, a golden opportunity to move onto the inside track for the 3-seed was comprehensively blown, but that disappointment has to be tempered with the realization that this team is light years ahead of any Vandal program in the last decade. It’s easy to get overconfident and think we have things wrapped up, then be crushed by the two things that have plagued the Vandals all year: rebounding and free-throw shooting.
The bottom line is, the WAC is one of the nation’s deepest and most competitive mid-major conferences, and with so many young players on all the teams, next year is going to be even better.
Thursday’s WAC Hoops Night chat experiment was a success, so we’ll do it again, starting at 6:30 p.m. Click here to launch the chat, and set an e-mail reminder.
Today’s games (all times Pacific):
Louisiana Tech is hot — the Bulldogs are on a three-game win streak. Boise State is not — they’ve lost two straight and three of their last four, including a home loss to the hated Vandals and an embarrassing, nationally-televised defeat by Portland State. The Broncos would do well to savor their newfound #3 spot in the conference standings, because if they can’t top Louisiana Tech, they probably won’t stay there.
Other than Hawaii, the trek to Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State is the WAC’s toughest road trip, and Boise State gets to do it with less than a week before tournament time. The Broncos do have the advantage of a couple extra days off, but those can hurt as much as they help. Facing hot-shooting Mark Sanchez and Paul Noonan will be the conference’s second-best defense, and the Bulldogs are sure to fight hard in an effort to climb out of the WAC Tournament play-in game. Just like Thursday night with the NMSU Aggies, this will probably be one of the best games of the night.
WAC #1 Utah State (13-1) at WAC #2 Nevada (8-5) (7 p.m.)
Ah, the Battle Royale. The one we’ve all been waiting for: the conference’s #1 and #2 teams coming together in mortal combat. Could this be a preview of the WAC Tournament championship game? The Aggies dismantled Hawaii at home on Thursday night and had a chance to sit most of their starters. Nevada, by contrast, is coming off a tough road loss to Fresno State that went down to the final seconds. That extra rest may look really important down the stretch in this game.
Both teams have big offensive arsenals — Utah State’s Gary Wilkinson and Tai Wesley, Nevada’s Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson — so it would not be a shock to see one or both teams push for the century mark. But Utah State’s best-in-conference defense will undoubtedly try to neutralize the Wolf Pack by forcing them to over-rely on the big two. That tactic earned the Aggies an 11-point victory in Logan earlier this season, as the Pack bench was basically shut down all night. Nevada won’t roll over and go easily, though, and taking down the Aggies in the regular season would be a nice feather in the team’s cap if, by chance, we end up with a straight-seed, 1-2 WAC title game.
The demoralized, dispirited Rainbow Warriors have big problems. Hawaii has dropped three of its last four, and was comprehensively dismantled by San Jose State back in January. The Spartans, on the other hand, are looking to pull off the double-defense of their home court and make a play to move up in the WAC Tournament seeding. Hawaii is struggling just to stay out of the play-in game. This is a recipe for fail.
With Adrian Oliver back on the court, the Spartans’ conference-leading rebounding can finally be converted consistently into buckets. The Vandals paid the price for that on Thursday night, and the Rainbow Warriors just might do the same on Senior Night for San Jose State.
For a San Jose State perspective on this matchup, click here.
WAC #5 Idaho (6-7) at at WAC #9 Fresno State (3-10) (7 p.m.)
Underestimating Fresno State gets you whacked. Two of the WAC’s top teams — first Boise State, now Nevada — have found that out the hard way. Now, through a quirk of scheduling, the Idaho Vandals will get their very first look at the Bulldogs this season, with just three games to play. With the loss at San Jose State, this game really becomes a must-win for the Vandals. Heading into the WAC Tournament, they have to prove, to themselves if no one else, that they can win big, clutch games on the road. They also need to bring momentum with them back to the Cowan Spectrum for next week’s season-ending homestand.
The dream of winning out and finishing with 10 conference wins is dead. The chance to get a 3-seed is still alive, if only just. To do it, they’ll have to contain (not shut down, that’s probably not possible) Fresno State’s super-stud Sylvester Seay and keep Marvin Jefferson — Idaho’s only real post player — from regressing any further. In the Vandals’ three straight wins, Jefferson played 28, 26 and 31 minutes for the Vandals, compiling a grand total of four personal fouls and averaging 12 points per game. It seemed Big Jeff had turned a corner on the court. But in San Jose, he took a giant step back, fouling out after just 21 minutes and scoring just 4 points. If the Vandals are to win in Fresno, never mind make a deep run in the tournament, he simply must do better.
WAC #3 Boise State at WAC #4 New Mexico State (6 p.m.)
Louisiana Tech 80, New Mexico State 71
Utah State 82, Hawaii 62
Fresno State 68, Nevada 66
San Jose State 72, Idaho 64