Run-and-fun AP Photo/Danny MoloshokReggie Theus was a curious hire, but he's working out well in Las Cruces.
The first thing you need to understand is that Reggie Theus played college basketball for Jerry Tarkanian, which is like spending years in one of those Gatorade Sports Science Institute commercials. Years of running and running and running.
You can imagine, then, how Theus felt when first conducting individual drills as head coach at New Mexico State and his players quit midway through the workout.
"I had never seen that before," said Theus, about to enter his second season in Las Cruces after two years as an assistant at Louisville. "They literally just stopped. Just stopped. I still can't explain it today, how or why it happened. Obviously, at that point, I knew how much work needed to be done."
The message, it seems, was received.
One of the rising coaches out West has his rising program on the doorstep of a breakout season, having moved beyond those forgettable first workouts by going 16-14 last year and expecting more progression this fall.
New Mexico State has a rich enough tradition to own 16 NCAA Tournament appearances but hasn't been part of the madness since 1999. Theus thinks he can change that with a team that returns four starters and welcomes four Division I-eligible transfers.
But before all the new faces became major pieces to the puzzle he believes could challenge the likes of Nevada for a WAC championship, Theus granted one player his release and didn't renew the scholarships of three others.
"When I got here, the players decided which ones were going to stay on and later come back by their attitude and approach to the game," Theus said. "We only won six games the season prior to [my] arriving. Something was obviously broken. If we were going to move in the direction I wanted, we had to find the attitude problems and get rid of them. For us to move forward, we had to make a statement."
Theus is one of only seven players in NBA history to amass 19,000 points and 6,000 assists, a heady list that also includes John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson, John Stockton, Gary Payton, Clyde Drexler and Jerry West. UNLV has retired the jerseys of just six players, and Theus is one. He has sat atop the proverbial mountain, which has helped Theus gather the talent to establish such a well-stocked roster this quickly. At first, his résumé was all the credibility players needed.
"He immediately brought a lot to the table in terms of experience," said senior point guard Elijah Ingram, who transferred from St. John's and was a second-team All-WAC pick last season. "His background speaks for itself. He's been there, done that, at every level. We've had some guys come and go from the program recently, but part of my responsibility as a senior is to help build back chemistry quickly. We can be very good if we just listen [to Theus]."
Said Iti, a 7-foot junior center who declared for the NBA draft following his freshman season before returning to help lead UNC Charlotte to the NCAA Tournament in 2005: "We definitely have a lot of skill, but it's going to come down to whether or not we play together. One of the best things about coach Theus is that he always has us working toward some specific goal. He makes sure they are high goals, that we strive to go as far as possible."
How far is that? New Mexico State made the Final Four in 1969-70 under Lou Henson, and Theus believes that piece of program history can be repeated under his watch. He feels the Aggies have the facilities and conference and coaching to live the same dream as George Mason last season or Utah in '98 or even the '77 team at UNLV that Theus played on.
"We have a chance to be a very good basketball team this season," Theus said. "It's like coach [Rick] Pitino always said at Louisville, 'We have to have a PhD in basketball: Poor, hungry, driven.' That's the kind of attitude it takes to have a very successful program.
"This program has what it needs to make it back to a Final Four. My ability to recruit, the contacts I have made over the years, makes me believe I'm going to get high-major-type players. Once we build the tradition back and prove we deserve some accolades, I promise we'll have that opportunity. I think it's coming fast but I'm also cautious. We won 16 games last year. If we win 18 this season, that's moving forward. This is not about just a one-year turnaround. Our goals will always be to play harder than anyone else. If we keep that mind-set and do the right things down the stretch of games, we're going to have a good chance of winning our share."
Our best guess: The days of anyone quitting during an individual drill are long gone.
The Hot Zone
The league won't be wanting for experienced players. Seven of 10 names from the first- and second-team all-conference selections return, including the Player of the Year (Nick Fazekas, Nevada) and all the second-teamers. Three teams return their entire starting lineups.
The conference has a career 1,000-point scorer besides Fazekas. Coby Karl, son of Denver Nuggets coach George Karl, is a senior guard at Boise State who already has scored 1,240 points. Coby, who had surgery for a treatable form of thyroid cancer in March, needs to attempt 205 3-pointers and make at least 67 to become the school's all-time leader in both categories.
Nevada might win the most at home, but Fresno State beats everyone in fans. The Bulldogs led the conference in attendance (10,047 average) for the second straight year.
Idaho struggled mightily at 4-25 last season, but in one sense the Vandals managed to continue a fairly impressive run. Idaho hasn't allowed an opponent to score 100 or more points in 430 straight games.
Mark Fox is batting 1.000. The Nevada coach has won the Don Haskins WAC Coach of the Year award in each of his first two seasons running the Wolf Pack.
Here's one reason Utah State is always good -- it makes baskets. The Aggies shot a WAC-best 49.8 percent last season, which ranked third nationally. They also made a league-leading 40.1 percent from 3-point range.
Seems like Reno is a place people like to stay around.
Nevada has made three straight NCAA Tournaments, and in two years under coach Mark Fox has compiled a 52-13 record and consecutive regular-season conference titles. Now, the Wolf Pack get Fox back (he removed his name from consideration for the Nebraska job earlier this summer), along with the league's best player.
Nick Fazekas went through the process of testing the NBA draft waters, but didn't see the opportunity he had envisioned, so the 6-11 forward will play his senior season at Nevada.
What it means: The league's two-time player of the year almost certainly will end his career as the school's all-time scorer. He ranks second with 1,812 points, just 65 behind Edgar Jones (1975-79). Already, Fazekas has the school record for blocks (144) and ranks among the top five in rebounding, field goals made and free throws made.
"I took a lot away from the [NBA draft process]," said Fazekas, who averaged 21.8 points and 10.4 rebounds last season. "To be honest, I probably haven't put forth the greatest effort as far as trying to be the best player I can be ... Now, I really know what it takes to get to the next level. By working out for a few different teams, I've seen what they like and what they don't like."
Said Fox: "Throughout the process, we ran the gauntlet of emotions. There were days when I was sure Nick was gone. There were days when I thought maybe he would come back, and then a week later was sure he was gone. Nick was probably more levelheaded in the process than I [was]."
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George Nessman swears he knew what he was getting himself into, that he did the necessary research, spoke with the appropriate people and asked the intelligent questions.
He still feels that way. Moreso, even.
"I'm thrilled to be here because I think a lot of positive things can happen," Nessman said. "The program has been down for a long time. But while it might sound crazy to some, I feel really good about where we are at."
Where that is is San Jose State. Nessman is the second-year head coach of a program that last won a regular-season conference championship the same year a new car cost under $1,700 and bread was 14 cents a loaf.
Seems just like yesterday, good ol' 1949.
What's more, the Spartans last won 10 games in a season five years ago. Their last NCAA Tournament appearance was 1996. The last winning season? 1993-94.
But with a homegrown coach like Nessman (he is a graduate of Cal, has master's degrees from San Francisco State and Saint Mary's, and was a highly successful coach at Concord De La Salle High and Porterville College before two years assisting in Berkeley), San Jose State has given itself a fighting chance to at least lift its head above water.
Nessman recently became the first Spartans coach in 21 seasons to sign a Bay Area high school senior to a letter of intent. This season, San Jose State owns a roster stocked with 10 new scholarship players, including seven underclassmen.
"We have to jump into the middle of the conference before we can even think about getting to the top and making the big guys worry about us," said Nessman, whose club finished at 6-25 last season. "It has to be a methodical approach. Nevada's rise didn't happen overnight. They had to first establish a good recruiting base and figure out what they needed to be successful. It's a very good model for us to follow.
"To talk about winning a conference is premature for us. We first have to get players who can compete with those at the top of our league, players who are good fits and believe in what we're doing. We have a new administration that sees things differently than in the past. We have brand new dorms. Our campus shows well. We're in a beautiful location. We need to take advantage of all that. I mostly see strengths when it comes to this job."
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Boise State: Head coach Greg Graham enters a fifth season with arguably his best team yet to execute the Broncos' uptempo system. Boise State returns 80 percent of its scoring, 70 percent of its rebounding, 91 percent of its assists and five players who started at least 16 games last season.
Fresno State: One reason Steve Cleveland's team led the conference in scoring last season (73.8 average, the team's highest since 2001) was Ja'Vance Coleman. The guard now returns for his senior season, having ranked tops among WAC players in 3-pointers made (3.39) last year.
Hawaii: The Warriors officially return two starters (Matt Lojeski and Ahmet Gueye) off a 17-win team, but two of the more critical pieces are junior guards Matt Gibson and Bobby Nash. Each sat out a majority of last season with different issues. Gibson averaged 13 points as a starter in 2004-05.
Idaho: Of the nine WAC schools, only the Vandals begin with a new head coach this season. George Pfeifer was promoted to the lead job after serving one season as an assistant. He was previously the head coach at Lewis-Clark State College, where he went 296-208 over 16 seasons.
Louisiana Tech: The good: Keith Richard's team tries to build off its first 20-win season and postseason appearance since 2001-02. The bad: It must do so without Mr. Boards. Paul Millsap became the first player to lead the NCAA in rebounding average for three consecutive years, but chose to forgo his senior season and enter this past summer's NBA draft.
Nevada: A major reason Nevada has ruled the conference for three straight years is its ability to whack visiting teams. The Wolf Pack are 45-5 at the Lawlor Events Center during that time and enter the 2006-07 season with a nine-game win streak in Reno. Things should continue as such considering Nevada returns five starters (although senior forward Demarshay Johnson is academically ineligible for the first semester) and nine letterwinners.
New Mexico State: The Aggies not only have one of the league's most skilled teams, but now own the opportunity to host the conference tournament for the next two seasons. Making the NCAAs might be a tad easier when an auto bid will be up for grabs at the Pan American Center in 2007 and '08.
Utah State: Never count out a program that has averaged 25 victories over the last seven seasons and is just one of five schools (along with Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas and Syracuse) to have won at least 23 per year during that time. Utah State has earned a school-record seven straight postseason berths (five NCAA, two NIT).
Nevada has three consecutive 20-win seasons under its belt and doesn't appear to be anywhere near letting up on the accelerator as the Wolf Pack aims for another NCAA tournament appearance. With two-time league MVP Nick Fazekas returning along with Marcellus Kemp, Kyle Shiloh and Ramon Sessions, the Wolf Pack are the clear favorite in the WAC to have a Gonzaga-like season. What will be interesting is how they compete without Mo Charlo and Chad Bell, two workhorses who both really improved in their time in Reno.
With "neutral site" games against Cal in San Jose and Gonzaga in Seattle, along with road games at Oregon State and Akron, and home games against UNLV and St. Mary's, Mark Fox seems to be looking toward March as the ultimate measuring stick, even if he loses some tough tests early.
Fox continues to be a rising star in the business and should have his best team yet. The only potential bad news is that he may have a chance to cash in somewhere else (if he wants) as soon as after this season.
The rest of the league seems pretty solid, too, with returnees like Utah State's Jaycee Carroll , Fresno State's Quinton Hosley, New Mexico State's Tyrone Nelson and Boise State's Coby Karl, who returns from illness and the NBA predraft camp. Karl is a point forward type who, when healthy, is a dominant player in this league for the Broncos.
Utah State has made the NCAA tourney five of the past seven years and won 23 or more games in seven straight seasons. The unreal home-court advantage (122-10 in the past 9 years) the Aggies have at the Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum Events Center will help a team that needs to overcome the sizable loss of all-everything forward Nate Harris. If Jaycee Carroll can continue to grow into a starring role and Chaz Spicer and Durrall Peterson can fill up the stat sheets until juco transfers Mikel Watson and Arvydas Viatiekus are up to speed, Morrill will once again hope that the committee recognizes the number of wins on his team's resume, even if the opponents' name quality sometimes does not match up.
Fresno seems to be the next best thing in this league with a talented threesome of its own. Kevin Bell led the league in assists, Hosley led the team in scoring and rebounds and 3-point gunner Ja'Vance Coleman scored 20 or more points 14 times. Steve Cleveland's club has gotten the SaveMart Center rocking and if Cal transfer Dominic McGuire can clean things up inside with any consistency, Fresno very well could be the second WAC team dancing.
Speaking of transfers, Stephen Verwers was once one of the hottest recruits in Texas. He was a home-schooled kid who chose Colorado State and then barely played. After sitting out a year at Hawaii, he'll join Ahmet Gueye to give Riley Wallace (possibly in his last season in the islands) a strong 1-2 shot-blocking combo inside. Add back into the mix Matt Gibson, who missed much of last year after averaging 13 ppg in 2004-05, and WAC trips to paradise may be much less pleasant than hoped for.
Tyrone Nelson at NMSU seems to be a star Reggie Theus can ride to continued improvement. Theus took the Aggies to 16 wins after they nabbed just six the year before he arrived in Las Cruces.
Expect multiple bids yet again from the WAC if the league performs anywhere near the level that it did last year in nonconference play -- when Nevada won at Kansas, Louisiana Tech beat Southern Illinois on the road, Hawaii blasted Michigan State at home and NMSU stomped Texas Tech. Nevada seems to be an NCAA Tournament lock, with Fresno, New Mexico State, Hawaii and, of course, Utah State giving chase.
The good news: Even after Nevada's first-round NCAA Tournament flameout against Montana in a 5-12 game in March, resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Wolf Pack returning as a 6-seed in his very early look at the 2007 NCAA Tournament.
The bad news? Nevada is the only WAC club to make his field of 65.
* -- NCAA Tournament