Nevada not ready to give up WAC crown just yet

Go ahead and sleep on NevadaFazekas APNevada has lost Nick Fazekas, the WAC's only three-time Player of the Year.
Mark Fox has a message for the eight other WAC basketball programs: Attach a bull's-eye to his team's back if you must, but don't expect those wearing Nevada uniforms to surrender by the season's first media timeout.

"You have to understand, we're going to shoot back," Fox said. "It's not going to be target practice for everyone.

"They don't just give away championships. The ones we have won, we've earned."

It's the summer of 2004 all over again. Back then, Nevada was coming off the first of its four straight regular-season conference titles and had lost the conference's best player, Kirk Snyder.

He was gone to the NBA, reason enough for most to place the Wolf Pack fourth in preseason conference polls, to paint them more afterthought than contender.

Nevada's response: a 25-7 record and a first-round NCAA Tournament win against Texas.

But the whispers have returned, the quiet and yet pointed suggestions that Nevada's time atop the conference will end now that All-American forward Nick Fazekas has departed. New Mexico State has all that talent. Fresno State has all that potential. Utah State has, well, it doesn't really matter, because all the Aggies ever do is win.

You get the idea. No one really believes Nevada can overcome losing NBA draft pick Fazekas and all-conference guard Ramon Sessions (who left school early and also was selected in the second round) and still wear the king's crown.

The hard part is getting many to actually say it.

"I think any time you lose a kid of [Fazekas'] caliber, you take somewhat of a dip," said first-year New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies, whose team is a popular early pick to dethrone the Wolf Pack. "But the difference between Nevada now and several years ago is that it reloads instead of rebuilds. Good programs like that tend to have kids ready to step in and keep things rolling along.

"They have done what every program aspires and hopes for -- they have dominated this league and contended for a title year in and year out. That should be every team's goal."

Nevada has defined domination the past four seasons. The Wolf Pack are 106-27, including 56-12 in conference. Fazekas -- a three-time WAC Player of the Year -- ended his career ranked third all-time among league scorers (2,464 points) and second in rebounds (1,254).

He was as consistent as anyone nationally, starting all but one game his past three seasons. He filled a stat sheet like a pharmacist does prescriptions.

"We'll have to play a little differently without him," Fox said, "unless one of our guys suddenly became the best player in our league over the summer."

If it's unfair to downgrade Nevada when forecasting this season's race, it's not incorrect to assume the league will be far more balanced throughout.

Six of the nine teams return three starters. Also, four of the league's top 10 scorers are back, including the conference's two 1,000-point career scorers in Utah State guard Jaycee Carroll (1,715) and Nevada guard Marcelus Kemp (1,280).

"I think it will be a more competitive league," said third-year Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland. "I'm sure there are teams that might think this is their turn to be at the top, but that doesn't mean Nevada with their coaching staff and players doesn't have just as good a chance of winning it as it always has. But, certainly, the feeling is that the conference is wide open and everyone has an opportunity."

The conference will have a new player of the year for the first time since Fazekas' sophomore season. One serious candidate is Justin Hawkins, a senior wing for New Mexico State.

He is, like many WAC players, familiar with chasing the lofty bar raised by Nevada, knowing that preparing for the Wolf Pack is pretty much always preparing for a season's biggest game.

"We really can't worry about who they have now or who they lost," Hawkins said. "This is our chance to take the league from a team that has owned it for a long time. We think we can. We expect to make a lot of noise. We're ready for this."

Mark Fox might tell him and others to take their best shot.

Then remember to duck.

– Ed Graney
Ed Graney is a columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com.

New faces
The conference debuts three new head coaches this season. Bob Nash isn't really new to Hawaii -- he takes over for Riley Wallace after spending the last 28 years in the program as player, graduate assistant, assistant and associate head coach. Louisiana Tech hired former Indiana associate head coach and Utah interim head coach Kerry Rupp. Finally, New Mexico State has replaced the departed Reggie Theus with longtime college assistant Marvin Menzies.

Streak to watch
Nevada has won 12 straight at home, which ties for 15th place nationally. The Wolf Pack last lost in Reno against UNLV in December of last year. Nevada is 60-6 at the Lawlor Events Center over the last four years.

Lots of W's
Four conference teams won at least 20 games last season, the most for the WAC since five teams managed the feat in 2003-04.

Did you know?

San Jose State's George Nessman is the only WAC head coach to earn two master's degrees. He has one in education from San Francisco State in 1988 and one in physical education/recreation from Saint Mary's College in '93.

Coming soon
Utah State coach Stew Morrill, 213-75 in nine seasons leading the program, needs just 13 wins to become the school's all-time leader. You figure his chances are almost guaranteed with a program that has won 74 percent of its games over the last eight seasons.

Advantage Aggies
What's even better than owning arguably the league's most talented roster? New Mexico State will again host the conference tournament at the Pan American Center, where it clinched an NCAA Tournament berth in March.

– Ed Graney

2006-07 Standings/Stats

* NCAA Tournament
# NIT participant

Nevada's reign isn't over just yet, according to our resident Bracketologist Joe Lunardi, who predicts the Wolf Pack will win the WAC and the league's automatic berth. But can another WAC team sneak into the Tournament?

Early 2007-08 Bracketology

– Joe Lunardi

Fast breakWAC

Boise StateBoise State
Scoring wasn't an issue in league games last season. The Broncos averaged just over 76 points and yet still only managed a tie for fifth place. Now they return two of the league's top five scorers and two of its better rebounders in senior forwards Reggie Larry (14.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Matt Nelson (13.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg), the latter having also led the conference in shooting at 57.8 percent. Also back is guard Anthony Thomas, conference freshman of the year in 2006-07. ... Greg Graham needs 17 victories to become the third head coach to win 100 games at the school.

Fresno StateFresno State
The league's best 3-point shooting team from last season returns three starters, including one of the league's best point guards in senior Kevin Bell (WAC-leading 5.5 apg). Hector Hernandez is a senior forward who spent his summer competing for the Mexican national team, while the early departure of forward Dominic McGuire (13.5 ppg, 9.8 rpg) to the NBA could be somewhat offset by transfers Rekalin Sims (Kentucky) and Bryan Harvey (Louisville). ... In just his second season with the Bulldogs, head coach Steve Cleveland led the program to its best record (22-10) since 1995-96, which earned Fresno State an NIT berth.

Bob Nash knows the deal. He is following a coach (Riley Wallace) who retired following 20 seasons and a school-record 334 wins. But the new leader will benefit from three returning starters, including his son (senior guard Bobby Nash, 11.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and two-year starter Matt Gibson (10.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, team-leading 44 3-pointers and 52 steals) at point guard. … Hawaii enjoyed eight straight winning seasons and nine trips to the postseason (three NCAA and six NIT) under Wallace.

How to improve from an overall record of 4-27 and a conference mark of 1-15? Add nine new faces to the roster, including five junior-college transfers and three prep recruits. … Darin Nagle returns as a 6-10 senior forward who in just 22 games last season blocked 42 shots while averaging 9.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. ... One of the notable highlights for the Vandals from last season is the fact they managed 19 dunks compared to four the previous year. That's a pretty good sign things could be better. Idaho did, however, set a single-season school record with 225 3-pointers in the 2006-07 season.

La. TechLouisiana Tech
The best player for first-year coach Kerry Rupp isn't eligible. He is Karl Malone, the new director of promotions/assistant strength and conditioning coach and former Bulldogs and NBA star. ... Rupp's team is young with a capital Y, having lost six seniors from last season's 10-20 effort. Junior guard Drew Washington averaged 2.1 assists while starting 25 games. Some experience will come from seniors J.J. Marshall at guard and Keith Smith at forward. ... There is help on the way with 6-10 LSU transfer Magnum Rolle, who will sit out this season and have two years eligibility remaining.

The Wolf Pack has just one returning starter (first-team all-conference pick Marcelus Kemp) but eight more letter winners from last season. Kemp started all but one of 34 games last year, averaging 18.5 points and 4.6 rebounds. ... Mark Fox is the first coach in school history to lead Nevada to three straight 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament berths. He has been named the conference coach of the year all three seasons, a first in WAC history.

New Mexico StateNew Mexico State
Marvin Menzies knows what new San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner feels like: Get hired and immediately inherit your league's most talented team. Three starters return from an Aggies roster that won its first WAC tournament title, was the most improved Division I-A team nationally over the previous two seasons, won 25 games last season, set a school record for home wins with 19 and led the country in both free throws made (641) and attempted (975) under former coach Reggie Theus. ... The leading player is senior wing Justin Hawkins, MVP of the conference tournament who averaged team bests in points (15.6) and rebounds (6.6).

SJSUSan Jose State
The Spartans got a head start on trying to forget last season's 5-25 nightmare and 4-12 conference record. They competed in their first overseas summer tour in England. … Senior guard Jamon Hill is the only returning Spartan to start every game last season, when he averaged 9.7 points, scored in double figures 18 times and led the team in free-throw shooting (73.3 percent) and assists (2.6). ... Midseason help arrives in 6-9 sophomore forward Chris Oakes, a transfer from Pepperdine. ... Freshman center Oliver Caballero was one of 25 players invited to try out for the 2007 Mexican national team.

Utah StateUtah State
The Aggies have averaged nearly 25 victories over the last eight years and join Gonzaga, Kansas and Syracuse as the only teams nationally to win at least 23 games in each of those seasons. ... Utah State has appeared in a school-record eight straight postseasons (five NCAA, three NIT) and now returns an all-conference point guard in senior Jaycee Carroll (WAC-best 21.3 scoring average last season). Carroll needs 391 points to become the school's all-time leading scorer. ... Utah State, which has a winning record against all other WAC schools, shot a school-record 78 percent from the free-throw line last season, leading the league and ranking second nationally.

– Ed Graney

Expert's takeFraschilla

Here's how our expert thinks the WAC will shake out this season.
1. Utah State
There are not 10 better basketball tacticians in the country than Stew Morrill. Couple that with the great home-court advantage that the Aggies enjoy, and that's good enough to finish in the upper echelon in the WAC no matter who Morrill puts on the floor. Fortunately for Morrill, 6-4 senior Jaycee Carroll will end his career as one of the league's all-time best players. Carroll is one of the nation's best 3-point shooters. He has made 252 3-pointers (45 percent) in his career. He should shatter Utah State's all-time scoring mark of 2,127 points by midseason. Sophomore Brayden Bell, a 6-9 Ohio State transfer, sat out last season and should help immediately.

2. New Mexico State
New Aggies coach Marvin Menzies inherits three returning starters from a 25-9 team that lost its biggest star, Reggie Theus, to an NBA coaching gig with the Sacramento Kings. The hope in Las Cruces is that Menzies can maintain the momentum that Theus created. Senior swingman Justin Hawkins, one of the WAC's best scorers, returns with fellow senior Fred Peete, who was a member of the WAC's all-defensive team last season. Menzies has kept one of New Mexico State's most highly decorated recruits ever, 6-8 forward Herb Pope from Aliquippa, Pa. If Pope's off-the-court issues are behind him, he will be an instant impact player.

3. Fresno State
Steve Cleveland returned home to rebuild a once-proud Bulldogs program and last season's 22 wins were the most since the 1995-96 season. Gone are Quinton Hosley and Dominic McGuire (the Washington Wizards' second-round selection), although two transfers, 6-5 sophomore Bryan Harvey (Louisville) and 6-9 senior Rekalin Sims (Kentucky) should step right in. Senior Kevin Bell, who has led the WAC in assists the last two seasons, returns to run the show. Guard Eddie Miller and 6-9 forward Hector Hernandez can shoot the long ball.

4. Boise State
Coach Greg Graham lost the crafty Coby Karl to graduation and the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers but does return three players who garnered all-WAC honors a season ago. Juco transfer Reggie Larry made an immediate impact, averaging 14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds a game and finished the season strong. Eastern Washington transfer Matt Nelson averaged 13.5 points and a league-leading 8.9 rebounds a game. Sophomore Anthony Thomas scored in double figures five times in WAC action en route to the league's freshman of the year award.

5. Nevada
Mark Fox is 81-18 as the head coach of the Wolf Pack with four WAC titles under his belt, so picking his team fifth may seem a little goofy. However, with the loss of four starters, including two NBA second-round picks, this should be a bump-in-the-road season for a program that is now among the best of the nonpower conference programs. Returning for his senior year is the WAC's best NBA prospect in 6-5 senior Marcelus Kemp, who also gave heavy consideration to forgoing his last season of college basketball. Sophomore JaVale McGee, Fox's second-leading returning scorer, averaged 3.3 points a season ago.

6. Hawaii
There aren't many associated with one college basketball program like Bob Nash has been. For the last 28 years, the new Warriors head coach has been a part of Hawaii basketball as a player, assistant and now as the head coach. He'll have three starters returning, including his son, 6-6 forward Bobby Nash, the team's leading returning scorer. Wingman Matt Gipson is a solid WAC player, but Nash will have to rely heavily on seven newcomers to make a splash in his first season replacing his mentor, Riley Wallace.

7. San Jose State
George Nessman, one of California's most successful juco coaches ever, is only 11-50 in his first two seasons at San Jose State. But the roster is finally filled with good, young talent. Jamon Hill, one of only three seniors on the roster, is the team's leading returning scorer.

8. Louisiana Tech
Another new WAC head coach, Kerry Rupp, brings a solid reputation as a teacher and has already had success in the recruiting wars. He has picked a commitment from 6-7 Toronto native, Olu Ashaolu, one of the summer circuit's top performers. Ashaolu finished his requirements for high school graduation in Canada a year early and will help the Bulldogs right away. He will join a team that has only two seniors on the roster. Sophomore guard Drew Washington is the leading returning scorer (4.8 points).

9. Idaho
Only 4-27 a year ago, the Vandals are looking to restore some of the glory of the Don Monson and Tim Floyd eras in Moscow. George Pfeifer, who enters his second season at the helm after building an NAIA power at Lewis-Clark State, will have to rely heavily on newcomers.

– Fran Fraschilla

How do you think the WAC is going to shape up this season? Can Nevada keep its strangle-hold on the conference? Can New Mexico State knock off the Wolf Pack? Rank them yourself.

For all of the 2007 ShootArounds, click here.