As hoops season heats up, we’ll take this opportunity to begin our weekly Power Rankings of the Western Athletic Conference’s men’s basketball teams. These are, of course, our subjective opinion, so please feel free to agree or disagree at your leisure.
1. Idaho, 4-1 — The Vandals are off to their best start in more than 20 years. There’s more depth than on any other bench in the WAC and newcomers like Steffan Johnson, Luiz Toledo and Jeff Ledbetter have contributed lights-out shooting. Led by Mac Hopson, Idaho has one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, and the defense isn’t far behind. But the season’s toughest tests lie ahead, with a brutal three-game stretch — Big West champ Northridge, #25 Portland and red-hot Washington State. The next week may be the Vandals’ crucible.
2. Nevada, 2-3 — There’s still a lot of questions about the Pack’s depth, but nobody can challenge the talent found in the star pairing of Luke Babbitt and Armon Johnson. After taking defending national champion North Carolina right to the wall, Nevada showed it can compete score-for-score with the best teams in America. What remains to be seen, however, is how well Babbitt and Johnson will hold up down the stretch with virtually no bench support. Right now, the Pack can’t afford an off night from either of them.
3. Utah State, 3-2 — For a “rebuilding year” without inside-outside-do-everything superstud Gary Wilkinson, Stew Morrill’s Aggies are starting off reasonably well. Both losses came in close games on the road against quality opponents, and Nate Bendall is growing into the big shoes Wilkinson left. It’s not clear, though, that the Aggies have the firepower to be the unstoppable juggernaut they were last season. Two big home tests against BYU and Saint Mary’s await, and wins there might answer that question in the affirmative.
4. San Jose State, 2-3 — This may be too high, but I like the spunk the Spartans are showing early. They beat previously-undefeated Pacific, hung with Pac-10 favorite Washington and, last night, very nearly upended WCC powerhouse Saint Mary’s. These are long-awaited promising signs for a long-suffering San Jose State team. The question has long been whether coach George Nessman can put together the talented pieces he has on his roster, and this might be the year he finally pulls it off.
5. Louisiana Tech, 5-1 — The win number is gaudy, but as Chris Murray of the Reno Gazette-Journal pointed out, those five wins came against teams with a combined six victories of their own. Now, you can only win the games you play, so it’s a little unfair to dock them too much, but racking up big victory margins over terrible opponents doesn’t really tell us that much about how well the Bulldogs will do against a WAC schedule that’s practically bursting with depth and firepower.
6. Boise State, 4-2 — OK, so there’s not many quality wins here either, and Anthony “Guarantee” Thomas seems to be regressing, but Ike Okoye is growing into a certifiable stud in the paint and the Broncos do have some talented newcomers making contributions. A 26-point thrashing at the hands of a very mediocre Wyoming squad, however, says Boise State has a long way to go before it can think about contending for a spot in the conference’s top tier.
7. New Mexico State, 2-3 — Until the Aggies show some semblance of defense, this might be as high as they go. Getting back Troy Gillenwater and Wendell McKines after next week will be huge, but the fact is right now, Marvin Menzies’ crew is giving up 85 points per game and allowing opponents to shoot 46 percent. When you win your gimme game against a D-II school by only 10 points, there’s something very wrong. This evening’s game against UTEP could get ugly.
8. Fresno State, 2-3 — A pair of weak wins to open the season has been followed by three straight weak losses, as the Bulldogs fell to Division I newcomer Seattle and perennial WCC mid-packer Santa Clara. Fresno State’s put together a solid defensive package, but despite their obvious talent on the floor, they’re still the WAC’s lowest-scoring and most inefficient team. There’s a lot of youth so it might take a few games to come together as a team — but that seems to be the excuse for Fresno State every year, doesn’t it?
9. Hawaii, 2-3 — The WAC’s basket case program can’t catch a break, as Dwain Williams, a transfer from Providence and a key piece of Bob Nash’s plan to rebuild the Rainbow Warriors (and save his job), was suspended for two games and is reported to be quite unhappy in Honolulu. They’re producing the second-worst shooting percentage and worst shooting defense in the conference. Unless things turn around quickly, it’s shaping up to be another very long season in paradise.