College basketball: Utah State emerges as Western Athletic Conference contender
Logan • Rock bottom for Utah State came early, before Thanksgiving, with a head-scratching defeat at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
That was the kind of game the Aggies should've never lost, even with a young team, even without their best player, Brady Jardine. The players knew it. The fans knew it. Stew Morrill knew it, his postgame comments laced with the reality that this could be a long season for his men's basketball program.
Almost two months later, the Western Athletic Conference portion of the schedule is at hand for USU, which opens league play this week with two important home contests against Fresno State and Nevada.
Almost two months after that sobering loss, the Aggies once again look like conference contenders. Morrill won't admit it. But the evidence is there.
Utah State closed its nonconference schedule with four wins out of its last five games. The Aggies handily defeated Kent State, one of the better mid-major teams in the country.
On New Year's Eve, USU went to Mississippi State, a top-15 team nationally, and lost 66-64 in a game it very well should've won, if it weren't for two missed free throws down the stretch.
The Aggies are much better than they were early in the season. Their perimeter game is shaping up to be the best in the conference, and they seemed to have figured out a way to challenge for a fifth consecutive championship.
"I think we can do some things that will give us a chance to compete," Morrill said. "I don't see us as a contender. I see us as a team trying to be competitive. Road wins will be hard to come by. Hopefully we can do what's needed to give ourselves a chance."
The WAC as a whole looks much better than the dreadful league it was last year. There have been big nonconference wins. New Mexico State defeated New Mexico at the Pit, one of the toughest venues in the country. Nevada defeated Arizona State. Hawaii, in its own tournament, beat nationally ranked Xavier and Clemson.
There have been setbacks as well. New Mexico State looked like a prohibitive favorite early on. But the Southern Aggies have lost their best perimeter player, Christian Kabongo, to transfer. Now, they have backcourt depth issues. Nevada, for its big wins, has had mystifying losses as well. Still, the Wolf Pack, on paper, have the most talent in the league.
WAC men's basketball preview
Utah State Aggies
Head Coach • Stew Morrill
Last Year • 30-4
This Season • 8-6
Conference outlook • A month ago, things looked bleak, when the Aggies lost to Weber State and Texas A&M-Corpus-Christi, and struggled with teams like Southern Utah and Utah Valley University. Now, Utah State is playing much better. The Aggies are nowhere near the dominant inside team of a season ago. But they are much better on the perimeter with Brockeith Pane and Preston Medlin. This is a team that can challenge for its fifth consecutive conference title.
New Mexico State Aggies
Head coach • Marvin Menzies
Last year • 16-17
This season • 10-5
Conference outlook • Physically, NMSU can be dominant, with power forward Wendell McKines and center Hamidu Rahman. But, as usual, this is a team that can be light between the ears. The latest casualty of discipline? Christian Kabongo, the shooting guard and New Mexico State's most talented perimeter player. Without him, Hernst Laroche is going to have to score more, and that isn't in his nature as a pass-first point guard. New Mexico State is certainly talented enough to win it all. But talent isn't enough, as the Aggies have so often proved.
Nevada Wolf Pack
Head coach • David Carter
Last year • 13-19
This season • 10-3
Conference outlook • Meet the most physically talented team in the league. Deonte Burton, Malik Story and Dario Hunt are all good enough to win player of the year awards. In fact, Burton, a point guard, may be the next NBA player out of this conference. Nevada defeated Arizona State in the preseason and has been the most consistent team from this league. Utah State and the Wolf Pack meet in a titanic matchup on Saturday night at the Spectrum.
Head coach • Don Verlin
Last year • 18-14
This season • 7-7
Conference outlook • Much is expected out of point guard Deremy Geiger, a former Utah State player, who took the league by storm last year after detouring to a junior college. Verlin is an excellent head coach and has proved that by turning Idaho into a competitive program after years in the cellar. This is a dangerous team.
Head coach • Gib Arnold
Last year • 19-13
This season • 8-6
Conference outlook • Hawaii has WAC's two most impressive out-of-conference wins, beating nationally ranked Xavier and proving that wasn't a fluke by beating Clemson. Zane Johnson may be the best pure shooter in the league, and Shaquille Stokes is an exciting freshman point guard who will be difficult to deal with. Former Brighton star and Utah player Jace Tavita is a redshirt here. He will play next season, when the Warriors are in the Big West Conference.
San Jose State Spartans
Head coach • George Nessman
Last year • 17-16
This season • 6-8
Conference outlook • Gone is superstar Adrian Oliver, a guy who could carry the Spartans with his unique scoring ability. Keith Shamburger is still there, and the sophomore point guard can play in his own right. But this is a team that is woefully short on experience and firepower. Expect San Jose State to fall into the bottom of the league race.
Fresno State Bulldogs
Head coach • Rodney Terry
Last year • 14-17
This season • 7-8
Conference outlook • Terry is in his first season as head coach of the Bulldogs, and while his team plays hard and he has brought enthusiasm to the program and community, this is a team that will take its lumps. The Bulldogs still have athletes, but the inside game is lacking, as is depth. They did, however, play very well against Stanford.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs
Head coach • Michael White
Last year • 12-20
This season • 8-7
Conference outlook • The Bulldogs have fallen hard since challenging for the league title two years ago. White, who came from Ole Miss, replaces Kerry Rupp. He has a very young team that will need a few years to gel. The Bulldogs have played hard, but scoring has and will continue to be a challenge.