Two December victories by Western Athletic Conference teams were enough to get people talking:
- Texas El Paso stunned then-No. 5 Georgetown, 71-60, on Dec. 15 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. It was Georgetown’s first loss at home to a non-Big East team since 1982.
- Hawaii shocked then-No. 11 Pittsburgh Sunday, 84-82, in the Rainbow Classic championship in Hawaii.
Now, starting this week, WAC teams will attempt to keep people talking. San Diego State hosts Brigham Young at 9:05 tonight at the San Diego Sports Arena in a game nationally televised by ESPN in the conference opener for both teams.
The conference shapes up to be exceptionally balanced this year. Teams will be big (New Mexico and 7-foot-2 center Luc Longley and BYU and 7-6 Shawn Bradley), inexperienced (Hawaii lost four starters from last year) and just plain young (of UTEP’s six leading scorers, only one is a senior). New Mexico and UTEP are receiving most of the support as conference favorites, although Wyoming, Colorado State and Utah have all had quite a bit of pre-WAC success. And you can never count out BYU.
“It’s hard not to reckon with UTEP with what they have done,” New Mexico Coach Dave Bliss said. “Wyoming is playing well. I think Colorado State has got to be reckoned with, and I think Utah is playing as well as anybody.”
Said SDSU Coach Jim Brandenburg: “UTEP is very physical and very talented. Beating Georgetown at the Capitol Centre indicates they are a serious threat.
“Utah, everybody tells me they are playing lights-out, gangbusters. New Mexico should be 9-2 going into league play (the Lobos are 10-2). Colorado State, I think they’re pretty good. BYU, with Shawn Bradley, should keep getting better.”
In October, Brandenburg said it was his hope that SDSU could improve enough to become a “nightmare” for WAC opposition this winter. The Aztecs have won five of their past seven games. Center Marty Dow has played well, averaging 18.7 points and 9.4 rebounds a game. What hurts, though, is that forward Keith Balzer, who looked sharp in two preseason exhibitions, has been hampered by tendinitis in his knee and his playing time may be limited.
“We’ve got work ahead of us,” Brandenburg said. “We’ve got skill. We need to apply a cerebral approach.”
As for the rest of the WAC’s approach . . . AIR FORCE
Last season: 12-20, 3-13, ninth place
The Falcons have one of the league’s best small forwards in Chris Lowry (6-4), but not much else. They are hurt by the loss of guard Raymond Dudley, who averaged 21.4 points a game last season and is now a graduate assistant coach.
Lowry is a dangerous shooter and solid rebounder. He shot 42.9% from three-point range last year, fourth in the WAC. He is averaging nearly 18 points a game this season but is shooting only about 20% from three-point range. Part of that may be because teams are able to key on him more with Dudley out of the way.
Besides Lowry, 6-8 center Aaron Benson is the only other returning Falcon.
Air Force is dangerous in close games because it shoots free throws so well. The Falcons are leading the nation at 82.4%.
Buzzer Beater: Air Force’s last winning season was in 1977-78, when the Falcons finished 15-10. The coach of that team? Current USD Coach Hank Egan. BRIGHAM YOUNG
Last season: 21-9, 11-5, tied for first
Last year, BYU put the ball up from anywhere. They set a school record for three-point shooting--45%--and were eighth in the nation in that category.
This year? Look no further than Bradley, BYU’s 7-6 center. He leads the team in scoring (17.4 average), rebounding (8.8) and blocked shots (6.3). His 83 blocks have already surpassed the BYU season record of 81, set by former Boston Celtic Greg Kite in 1982-1983.
“He’s been doing a nice job,” BYU Coach Roger Reid said. “His offensive productivity is maybe even more than I thought (it would be).”
Thanks in part to Bradley, BYU is taller this year. Steve Schreiner, a 6-7 senior, has been able to move from center to forward because of Bradley. Meanwhile, Scott Moon--the WAC high-jump champion--has stepped in at guard.
BYU is 6-7, but has lost to three top-25 teams--East Tennessee State, South Carolina, and St. John’s.
Buzzer Beater: The Cougars were 15-0 at home last season. COLORADO STATE
Last season: 21-9, 11-5, tied for first
Despite the return of only two starters, the Rams make other WAC teams wary. Colorado State has made the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons and this season will attempt to become the first WAC team since UTEP (1983-85) to win or share three consecutive regular-season conference championships.
The returning starters are senior guards Mark Meredith (12.1 points a game and 92.8% from the free-throw line last year) and Lynn Triton (8.8 points, 3.6 assists a game last year). Meredith is an outstanding shooter, having made 46.9% of his three-point attempts last season.
A third player to watch is senior forward Chuckie White, a transfer from Indiana. White, a strong rebounder, will help the Rams compensate for the loss of forward Mike Mitchell, the WAC’s player of the year last year.
Boyd Grant, known for coaching patterned offenses, has a quick team this year and has said the Rams may push the ball up the court more quickly than in the past.
Buzzer Beater: Grant’s three years include a third-place NIT finish in 1988, first WAC championship in 1989, co-WAC championship in 1990. HAWAII
Last season: 25-10, 10-6, tied for third
In addition to losing four starters, Hawaii lost three other lettermen. The Rainbows don’t return a forward or center who averaged more than 2.2 points a game last year.
No matter. They still stunned Pitt. After that, Coach Riley Wallace was asked if it was the biggest victory in his three years at Hawaii.
“How about life?” Wallace replied. “Beating Pitt, ranked 11th in the country, nothing compares to this.”
It was the first time Hawaii won the Rainbow Classic in 17 years. What that means is, Hawaii may not be as weak as many thought.
Wallace has been called the most underrated coach in the WAC, and last year’s 25-10 record was the best in Hawaii history.
This year, point guard Troy Bowe is the main man. He is the only returning starter, and he has started 51 consecutive games. Hawaii’s best player, though, has been forward Ray Reed, a 6-6 Seminole (Okla.) Community College transfer who leads the WAC in scoring at 24.2 points a game.
Buzzer Beater: In the past three years, Hawaii’s record has gone from 4-25 to 17-13 to 25-10. NEW MEXICO
Last season: 20-14, 9-7, fifth place
Two words explain why New Mexico is a legitimate WAC and NCAA tournament contender: Luc Longley. The 7-foot-2 senior center, a near-consensus preseason All-American pick and considered by many the best passing center in college basketball since Bill Walton, led the Lobos last year in scoring (18.4), rebounding (9.7) and set a WAC record with 117 blocked shots, seventh in the nation.
Bliss is still fine-tuning the lineup despite a 10-2 start--the school’s best since 1977-78, the last time it participated in the NCAA tournament. Former super-sub Willie Banks is starting instead of forward Marvin McBurrows and forward Kurt Miller is starting in place of Khari Jaxon, McBurrows and Jaxon coming off the bench now. Vladimir McCrary, New Mexico’s first inside sub, is out two to three weeks with a separated shoulder.
The Lobos were hit hard when point guard Andre McGee was lost for the season because of a nerve-muscle disorder. He underwent surgery Dec. 17 and will be out for the season.
The other guard, senior Rob Robbins, has started 115 consecutive games and was the nation’s leading free-throw shooter a year ago (101 of 108, 93.5%).
A key may be how the Lobos play defense: Last year, they were 16-1 when they held opponent under 70 points, 4-13 when they didn’t.
Buzzer Beater: The Lobos have won 20 or more games in each of the past four years and still have not been able to make the NCAA tournament. They have played in the NIT tournament in each of the past seven years. TEXAS EL PASO
Last Season: 21-11, 10-6, tied for third
The victory at Georgetown is enough to make opponents wary. UTEP is capable of beating any team, anywhere, on any given day. The question is, can the Miners sustain a comparable level of play throughout the season?
UTEP leads the WAC in scoring defense. Offensively, the Miners are balanced. Six players are averaging in double figures: Junior Marlon Maxey (14 points a game), sophomore Johnny Melvin (12.5), senior Mark McCall (12.2), sophomore Henry Hall (11.9), junior David Van Dyke (10.2) and junior Von Bennett (10.0).
Maxey is probably UTEP’s best player, but he had arthroscopic surgery on his knee before the season and has been able to play in only five games.
UTEP may get a boost as WAC play opens when guard Prince Stewart returns. Stewart was ineligible during the first semester because of grade problems and is taking a winter class right now. If he returns, he and Hall--the WAC’s freshman of the year--should be one of the best guard combos in the conference.
Coach Don Haskins, meanwhile, is healthy again this season after being sidelined for the season last Dec. 20 with an acute case of laryngitis.
Buzzer Beater: UTEP Coach Don Haskins enters his 30th season with a career record of 563-243. UTAH
Last Season: 16-14, 7-9, tied for sixth
Coach Rick Majerus is back after missing all but six games last season because of heart bypass surgery. So far, he has the Utes at 11-1 with eight victories in a row. They open at Hawaii tonight.
“I think Utah is playing as well as anybody (in the WAC),” New Mexico Coach Dave Bliss said.
Utah’s only loss this season was at Michigan (81-65). The Utes lead the WAC in three-point field-goal percentage (42.7%) and turnover margin (minus-two). Their best outside shooters are junior forward Josh Grant and redshirt freshman guard Phil Dixon.
Inside, Utah will rely on stocky center Walter Watts, who is 6-8 but weighs 270. He averaged 11 points and six rebounds a game last year. That, combined with Grant’s 16.5 points and seven rebounds a game, gave Utah a solid one-two punch inside last season.
Buzzer Beater: The smartest team in the conference? Ten Utah players had grade-point averages of 3.0 or better last winter quarter. WYOMING
Last Season: 15-14, 7-9, tied for sixth
Two of the WAC’s best players play in Wyoming--forward Reginald Slater, a first-team All-WAC pick last season who averaged 16.7 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, and small forward Tim Breaux, who averaged 12.8 points a game and was picked honorable mention All-WAC last season. Slater (21.6 points a game) opens WAC play as the conference’s second-leading scorer.
Three transfer guards could be the key to this season for the Cowboys: Maurice Alexander (Tyler, Tex., Community College), Paris Bryant (Walker Community College in Jasper, Ga.) and Brett Studdard (Abraham Community College in Tifton, Ga.). Alexander has been the standout so far.
The Cowboys, off to their best start in three seasons, have won nine of their first 11 games despite the loss of sophomore forward Quein Higgins, who dislocated a kneecap and tore a ligament in his knee in the season’s third game. Higgins, one of the WAC’s better younger players last season, is out for the season.
Buzzer Beater: Wyoming went 8-0 in exhibition games during a June trip to New Zealand. Coach Benny Dees figured most of the opponents were comparable to “mid-to-lower Division I teams in this country.”