SPOKANE, Wash. — It’s the most beautiful season of all in this great Hoops Nation — conference season. We resume our regularly scheduled posting today with a quick WAC Power Rankings before games begin tonight. Starting tomorrow, we’ll be posting complete capsule previews of all the upcoming WAC matchups.
The big question in a very even Western Athletic Conference season: who can get road wins? With parity the rule atop the conference, a 12-4 or even 11-5 campaign might be enough to win the regular season. Teams that can win on the road will quickly rise to the top.
1. Louisiana Tech, 14-2, 2-0 (2) — OK, after taking down Nevada and blowing out Utah State, the WAC’s Eastern Bulldogs are undoubtedly for real. No more cracks from us. The only question left: Can they win consistently on the road in the nation’s farthest-flung athletic conference? With a huge test tonight in Moscow, Louisiana Tech will start answering that question. The power duo of Olu Ashaolu and Magnum Rolle have been tearing up painted areas across the country and opponents will be hard-pressed to beat the Bulldogs without slowing them down.
2. Nevada, 9-6, 1-1 (4) — There’s no shame in losing to Louisiana Tech on the road, and a win over New Mexico State is solid stuff. Despite having almost no bench production, David Carter’s Nevada Wolf Pack are starting the season quite well. Will the toll of constant travel and the conference rhythm expose their lack of depth later on? Perhaps. But for now, Armon Johnson and Luke Babbitt seem determined to carry the Pack to a top seed in the conference tourney.
3. Idaho, 8-5, 1-1 (1) — After picking up a road win at Hawaii (and in the process avenging last season’s blowout loss in Honolulu) the Vandals fought hard but narrowly lost to San Jose State. A key homestand awaits Idaho this weekend against Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State. The corollary to road wins being important is that defending homecourt will be equally vital. Don Verlin’s crew did a stellar job in the Cowan Spectrum last year, and they’ll have to match those kind of performances to lay claim to the WAC title.
4. New Mexico State, 8-7, 1-1 (8) — Not a bad start to WAC play for the Crimson Aggies, with a home-court win over the defending conference champions to their credit. The arrival of Wendell McKines back on the hardwood seems to have reinvigorated Marvin Menzies’ club, sparking the offense back into its old, highly-productive self. They’re still terrible defensively, but what else is new in Las Cruces? A road trip to Boise State and Idaho this week will tell us a lot about how much shaking down is left to do.
5. San Jose State, 8-5, 1-0 (6) — The Spartans have only played one WAC game, but it was a good home-court defense against a scrappy Idaho squad fresh off a victorious trip to Honolulu. Tonight they’ll be truly tested, taking on the Wolf Pack in Reno, finishing off the road trip with a visit to downstate rival Fresno State. C.J. Webster and Chris Oakes have created quite an inside teaming for San Jose State, and squads with undersized front lines will struggle against them. George Nessman has done a stellar job putting the pieces together in the Silicon Valley.
6. Fresno State, 8-7, 1-0 (5) — The way Boise State looks right now, a home-court win over the Broncos isn’t too meaningful — but the Western Bulldogs have a win, and that’s more than two other WAC teams can say. One of two WAC teams to play only one game last weekend, Fresno State gets two more home games (Hawaii and San Jose State) to open the season. Certainly, they’ve got one of the conference’s easiest starting slates. Can coach Steve Cleveland use it to build momentum?
7. Utah State, 10-6, 0-2 (3) — Wow. Just, wow. Nobody’s saying the road trip to Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State is easy, but for the WAC’s preseason juggernaut to get swept — and embarrassed in Ruston — was simply unthinkable before last weekend. Unthink no more, because Stew Morrill’s Aggies are in deep trouble this year. Without go-to big man Gary Wilkinson throwing it down in the paint, Utah State’s offense is sputtering and fumbling. Now mired midpack in measures of shooting and rebounding, the Aggies have been forced to become the conference’s slowest-tempo team by a wide margin, playing a ball-control game. That’s not Stewball, and until guys like Jared Quayle and Tyler Newbold step it up, things will stay rough for USU.
8. Hawaii, 8-7, 1-1 (9) — A victory! Yes, it came over the woeful Broncos, but hey… a win’s a win, right? Well, if only Hawaii’s non-conference slate wasn’t so unconvincing, we might be tempted to boost the Rainbow Warriors above even Utah State (Heresy!) As it is, Bob Nash’s team has to hit the road and play Fresno State and those Blue Aggies. A Hawaii win in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum? OK, it’s ridiculously unlikely… but the fact that those teams are even in the same conversation says a lot about the state of the WAC right now — none of it good.
9. Boise State, 9-6, 0-2 (7) — Losing at Fresno State and Hawaii to open the season earns the Broncos a quick trip to the bottom of the Power Rankings. They’re the WAC’s worst team from beyond the arc, they can’t rebound and they have no go-to scorer. An epic collapse in the backcourt (LaShard Anderson shoots .412, Anthony “Guarantee” Thomas a putrid .370) has left Greg Graham’s squad with an easily-shut-down one-note offense. Can they even defend home-court? Frankly, with games against New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, it wouldn’t shock us to see Boise State go 0-4 to open the season, with a road trip to San Jose State and Utah State on deck. Worst team in the WAC? Maybe so.