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November 6, 2007
The Western Athletic Conference
Mass Rebuilding

by Ken Pomeroy

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The term “rebuilding” gets thrown around a lot, but it's not applied, usually, to a conference. In 2008, though, the WAC is rebuilding. None of the top 11 conferences loses as many player-minutes as the WAC does, more than half. Every team in the conference loses at least two starters. Nevada’s Nick Fazekas and Ramon Sessions, along with Fresno State’s Dominic McGuire, were selected in the second round of the NBA draft.

At the same time, there is reason to believe the quality of the conference won’t be that far off from where it was last year, when Nevada was ranked for the entire season and New Mexico State played its way into the NCAA Tournament. There are a few stars to take the place of the ’07 headliners. Utah State’s Jaycee Carroll and Nevada’s Marcellus Kemp should get a lot of national press. Assuming he becomes eligible, New Mexico State’s Herb Pope should have an impact as a freshman. The WAC may not produce an at-large quality team this season, and it almost certainly won’t produce a shoo-in the likes of Nevada in ’07, but whoever represents the conference in the postseason will have the chance to pull off a win or two.

NEW MEXICO STATE

The Aggies suffered the single most significant off-season loss of any WAC team when the Sacramento Kings hired head coach Reggie Theus away from Las Cruces in June. In just two seasons with the Aggies, Theus put together a case for being one of the best coaches in the country. If he should fail at the pro level, like so many others who have tried to make the college-to-pro jump have, he’ll be in heavy demand for another college gig. The Theus hire was so successful that New Mexico State went back to the same well--the University of Louisville--for his replacement. Rick Pitino’s top assistant and lead recruiter, Marvin Menzies, will take over the Aggies’ program. Menzies inherits some talent, but more importantly a highly regarded class of newcomers, although three of them are still sorting out eligibility issues.

The most notable freshman is the 6’9” Pope. Theus was able to sign him when a handful of power conference schools were scared off by what can be described as a checkered past. After committing to NMSU, Pope was shot four times at a party near his home in Pennsylvania. He has apparently made a full recovery, but has yet to be declared eligible to play by the NCAA, which is investigating his high-school coursework. The past two seasons of New Mexico State basketball have featured a bruising offensive style relying heavily on the two-point shot and oodles of free throws. If Menzies wishes to maintain that team personality, he’ll have the services of seniors Martin Iti and Hatila Passos up front. Passos actually took more shots from the free-throw line than from the field in ’07, one of just four players in the country to do so while playing at least half of his team’s minutes. The Aggies will also have an all-senior backcourt in Fred Peete and Justin Hawkins. Neither is much of a long-range threat, which was fine last season because the Theus system was built around attacking the basket.

UTAH STATE

Jaycee Carroll returns for his senior season after undergoing the obligatory test of his draft stock last summer. Carroll’s game took a step forward last year, moving him beyond just being a three-point specialist. He’s able to score off the dribble effectively and get to the line a respectable amount of the time. In addition, he grabbed about eight percent of his team’s missed shots, an offensive rebounding percentage that ranked eighth among the 278 D-I players at Carroll’s listed height (6’2”). Ignoring the strength of the competition (as usual, the Aggies' non-conference schedule was weak), Carroll had one of the best offensive seasons in the country in 2007. He’ll be joined by three other seniors in the starting lineup-–6’2” point guard Kris Clark, 6’7” C/F Stephen DuCharme, and 6’6” forward Nick Hammer. Neither Clark nor DuCharme was very involved in the offense last season. Coach Stew Morrill has a track record of producing teams that are effective, if deliberate, offensively, so expect more of the same this year even though the Aggies enter the ’08 season with a bunch of new players. Despite the fact that Carroll gets a lot of press as a sharpshooter-–he is a 45% career shooter from beyond the arc--Morrill’s offense doesn’t rely on long-range shooting very much.

NEVADA

The Wolf Pack suffers the most severe player losses of anyone in the league, in part because it had the most to lose. Nevada returns just one starter, 6'5" guard Marcellus Kemp. Considering Nick Fazekas and Ramon Sessions had their names called in the NBA Draft, it might come as a surprise that Kemp was more involved in the Nevada offense than anybody else. The concern for Nevada is that it was a team that won wth offense, its offense was almost entirely supported by three players, and two of those guys are gone. Most likely to fill the scoring void is seven-foot sophomore JaVale McGee. McGee came off the bench last season, and like everybody else on the team, stayed out of the way on offense. When he did assert himself, he made 60% of his shots and was a very good offensive rebounder. He was also the best shot blocker on the team. He’ll probably see quite a few minutes alongside 7’1” senior David Ellis, who is much less skilled offensively and on the boards. The size should give Nevada some defensive presence, which is a necessity on a Mark Fox team that won’t force many turnovers. If this team is going to get back to the NCAA Tournament, it’ll need an improvement in its defense to compensate for the inevitable loss of offense. Replacing Fazekas’ rebounding will be a necessary part of that equation, and the return of 6’9” senior Demarshay Johnson, who redshirted last season while trying to shore up his grades, could be a solution.

FRESNO STATE

The formula for success at Fresno State this season is simple: find some guys who can make shots. Because Steve Cleveland’s offense doesn’t attack the offensive glass, it relies heavily on making shots, and Cleveland hasn’t suited up too many who can do that in his first two seasons at Fresno. Thus, the Bulldogs have been relegated to WAC mediocrity. Fresno State took 48% of its shots from three-point range last season, after taking 44% of its shots from beyond the arc in Cleveland’s first season at Fresno State in 2006. Ignoring Cleveland’s inaugural season at BYU in 1998, his Cougars teams never took more than 35.4% of their shots from long range. A more effective offense will be the reward if Fresno State can find some balance.

The Bulldogs lose two key players from last season--6’6” Quinton Hosley and 6’8” Dominic McGuire. McGuire was one of the more unique individuals in the college game last season. He assisted on 22% of his teammates’ made baskets, a rate that some point guards are unable to achieve, yet he also blocked 10% of opponent’s two-point shots, ranking him 22nd in the nation. McGuire and Hosley were the team’s top two scorers, but like the team as a whole, they suffered from settling for too many threes, so the offense may not miss them as much as people think it will.

BOISE STATE

Broncos basketball hasn’t shared the meteoric rise of the football program since joining the WAC for the 2002 season, as Boise State has experienced just one winning campaign in its six in the league. The Broncos will rely on 6’6” forward Reggie Larry and 6’9” post Matt Nelson. Both are seniors, and both were consistent scorers and rebounders last season. There may be some questions at point guard, where the departure of Coby Karl, a four-year starter, leaves a hole. Karl was actually less involved in the offense last season than in his junior year due to the emergence of Nelson and Larry. The starter at the point will be ’07 WAC freshman of the year Anthony Thomas, who has a bright future in the league based on what he did in 15 minutes per game last season.

HAWAII

For the first time in two decades, Hawaii has a new coach. Riley Wallace somewhat reluctantly announced his resignation last season, and longtime assistant Bobby Nash will take over. Nash will have to deal with the departure of guard Matt Lojeski, who was the team’s bright spot in an otherwise dysfunctional offense. Hawaii also loses center Ahmet Gueye, who was one of the WAC’s better rebounders and the anchor of a defense that was often dominant, finishing 30th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Hawaii will have experience, as it will likely start five seniors. But with Lojeski gone, it’s hard to imagine the offense improving very much, which means that the Warriors will likely be relegated to the middle of the WAC pack.

LOUISIANA TECH

Six of the Bulldogs’ top seven players were seniors last season. The lone returnee is 6’2” Drew Washington, who used just 13.9% of Tech’s possessions in ’07, so the success of Kerry Rupp’s first season as head coach is going to rest on what the newcomers bring to the table. Rupp managed to secure a couple of late commitments that should have an immediate impact in 6’7” Olu Ashaolu and 6’7” DJ Wright. Both were among the best Canadian prospects in the class of ’07. Rupp also has LSU transfer Magnum Rolle in the pipeline for the ’09 season, so while Louisiana Tech may take its lumps this year, its future looks attractive.

SAN JOSE STATE

The best thing going for the Spartans the last couple of seasons is that Idaho has been in the WAC. The Spartans have gone 2-24 in regular season play against the rest of the league over that time but 4-0 against the Vandals. Their last WAC road win over somebody other than Idaho was a win at Hawaii on February 15, 2003. Even though San Jose State has won just 11 games in two seasons under head coach George Nessman, its defense has been respectable. It’s the offense that has caused the losses to pile up. Last season the Spartans ranked 301st nationally in three-point accuracy and 317th in two-point shooting. Only one player on the team had an eFG% of better than 46. That player, 6’9” center Menelik Barbary, was the team’s leading scorer, but was also a senior.

IDAHO

The Vandals were asked to join the WAC two seasons ago, and have proceeded to provide most of their conference brethren with two wins each season. Idaho won two games against WAC opponents last season, including one in the WAC tourney--and both were by a single point. Even though Idaho was young in ‘07, head coach George Pfeifer has to deal with a lot of turnover. Among returnees, the scoring load will fall on 6’10” senior Darin Nagle. Pfeifer has stocked his roster with junior college talent to try and jump-start his program.

Predictions

It remains to be seen whether all of the turnover will change the top of the WAC. Nevada has won the last three regular-season titles by multiple games each season. The loss of Fazekas and Sessions makes Nevada more beatable, but there’s enough uncertainty at the top of the league for it to hold out hope of another title defense.

             2007 Pythag   % Returning      2008  
Team            Wins         Minutes      Prediction 
New Mexico St.  9.9           50.6          12-4 
Utah St.        8.5           54.1          11-5 
Nevada          12.1          43.4          10-6 
Fresno St.      7.8           57.0          9-7 
Boise St.       9.7           53.5          9-7 
Hawaii          11.1          58.2          8-8 
Louisiana Tech  6.4           26.1          6-10 
San Jose St.    4.1           48.3          4-12 
Idaho           2.6           38.9          3-13 

Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.

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