Saturday, January 3, 2009

WAC Hoops Predictions

It's the first Saturday of 2009 -- and for Fresno State that means the start of the conference basketball season. It'll be a pivotal stretch of games for a young team looking more toward its future potential than immediate postseason hopes. Here's how I see the WAC shaking out this year, in one of the most unpredictable seasons in memory.

Utah State: The Aggies can no longer rely on the awe-inspiring shooting and quickness of Jaycee Carroll, but 6-foot-9, 240-pound Gary Wilkinson (17.1 points per game, 8.2 rebounds) has inherited the go-to role for a Utah State team that started the season 12-1 with its only loss a close neutral site one to BYU. Tai Wesley (6-7) is the invaluable type of guy who will do the dirty work and get second-chance points. Wilkinson is a double-double threat every night.

Nevada: The Wolf Pack is a young squad, but maybe the most talented in the WAC. Gone are stars Marcellus Kemp and Javale McGee, both now in the NBA, but Armon Johnson is the WAC's best point guard. Freshman Luke Babbitt (6-9, 225) showed flashes of why he was so highly touted out of high school, hitting a couple jumpers in the face of North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough earlier in the week. Babbitt already leads the team with 15.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Johnson has 56 assists and 30 turnovers in 13 games. Despite a 7-6 start, watch for Nevada to mesh just in time for conference play.

Boise State: Even with a 9-3 start, it’s hard to get a good gauge on the Broncos. They’ve been stomped by 38 at BYU and 30 at Siena, and five of their wins were by four points or less against sub-par competition. Boise State did pick up a solid road win at San Diego. Led by Mark Sanchez’s 15.8 points and 7.1 rebounds, the Broncos also boast one of the WAC’s better point men in Anthony Thomas (60-31 assist-turnover) who is selectively efficient from long range (14 for 34).

New Mexico State: Despite having four players averaging double figures in points, and an efficient young point guard in Hernst Laroche (58 assists, 20 turnovers), the Aggies are off to a 6-7 start. Jahmar Young leads the team with 17.2 points and joins Jonathan Gibson and Wendell McKines in shooting better than 42% from 3-point range. McKines leads the team with 8.9 rebounds. Credit the Aggies for a challenging non-conference slate that included road games at USC and Kansas and a home-and-home with UTEP and New Mexico. But they won just one of those six contests, at home against UTEP.

Fresno State: The WAC better get used to dealing with the dynamic freshmen tandem of Paul George and Mychal Ladd. George leads the Bulldogs with 15.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 30 3-pointers (50% from the perimeter). Both are athletic leapers and dunkers. The team’s lone senior, Dwight O’Neil is second in the WAC with 74 assists and is third on the ‘Dogs with 12.9 points, but has a ridiculous 56 turnovers. Freshman point guard Bryce Cartwright has a 44-25 assist-turnover ratio. Arizona State transfer Sylvester Seay is second on the team with 13.1 points, and leads the WAC with 22 blocks. Out to a 7-7 start, this team figures to be around .500 in WAC play, but has the potential to get hot and pull off some decent wins as the youth matures.

Hawaii: Junior college transfer Roderick Flemings (6-7, 210) has led the Bows to an 8-4 start with a team-high 17.9 points and 6.8 rebounds. The downside is Hawaii hasn't beaten any team worth a darn, with Iowa State being the only name win, and that was a one-point victory. The Bows are tough to predict with so many key new faces.

San Jose State: Could this be San Jose State’s best team under George Nessman? Heck, it could be its best in modern memory – which isn’t necessarily saying much. The Spartans are led by Washington transfer Adrian Oliver, who averages 20 points in his four games this season. Three other Spartans – Tim Pierce, C.J. Webster (6-9, 255) and Chris Oakes (6-10, 235) – also average in double figures. Oakes leads the WAC with 9.3 rebounds per game. Point guard Justin Graham, who was hyped last year as an up-and-comer, has a glaring 42 turnovers to go with his 56 assists. That’s way too many in just 10 games.

Louisiana Tech: It looks like a long year for La Tech (6-7) after non-conference losses to Seattle, Western Carolina, Alaska-Anchorage, McNeese State and Samford. That said, the big thing La Tech has going for it is size in 6-11 Magnum Rolle (11.5 points, 6.8 rebounds), 6-10 Kenneth Cooper (11.9, 6.9) and 6-8 David Jackson all in the starting lineup. The shortest starter is 6-3. Kyle Gibson leads the team with 16.1 points and shoots 42% on 3s. But the point guard also has more turnovers (48) than assists (37).

Idaho: Credit the Vandals (6-7) for challenging themselves with non-conference games at Michigan State, Gonzaga and Washington State, but those were all pretty telling losses. Strangely, Idaho also laid a beatdown on UC-Irvine by 101-47. But that might say more about how bad the Anteaters are. Washington State transfer Mac Hopson leads the Vandals with 16.3 points and has a WAC-high 77 assists compared with 41 turnovers.

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