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WAC season preview: Title wide open for the taking

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 4 2012 8:36 p.m. MST

Utah State Aggies celebrate after winning the championship game in the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas, NV, Saturday, March 12, 2011.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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LOGAN — The last three seasons everyone in the Western Athletic Conference was in a race to see who would finish second. Utah State won the league crown by at least three games each year.

This year it's anybody's season.

Nevada comes in with the league's best record and a seven game win streak. ... New Mexico State is the only school that currently ranks in the top 100 in the all-important RPI rankings. ... Utah State has recent history and an intimidating home court in its corner. ... Hawaii is equally tough to beat after a flight over the Pacific and the list goes on.

In a perfectly mediocre conference, seven of the WAC's eight teams come into league play at 5-5 or 6-4 in their last 10 contests. It's a wide open year for Utah State to clinch its fifth straight title, for Fresno State, Hawaii or Nevada to win a championship in their last year in conference, for New Mexico State to finally capitalize on their potential or for Louisiana Tech, Idaho or San Jose State to break through for their first conference crown. Barring a miracle there will be no at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this season, so every conference game is crucial.

Conference play tips-off on Thursday night with Fresno State visiting Utah State and Nevada making the trip to Idaho. Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the contenders as ranked by the preseason media poll.

UTAH STATE (8-6):

SO FAR: After stumbling out of the gate and struggling to replace injured forward Brady Jardine, the Aggies have recently righted the ship. Utah State has won five of last seven, with the two losses coming narrowly on the road to a very good Wichita State team and No. 15 Mississippi State.

TOP PLAYERS: Since being shutout against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, sophomore guard Preston Medlin has scored double figures in nine of the Ags' 10 games. He leads the team in scoring with 14.4 per game. Junior Kyisean Reed has stepped up in the absence of Jardine the last few weeks averaging 13 points a game in December.

OUTLOOK: Even with the improved team play this last month the Aggies have only one road win on the season (at Idaho State). Along with defending the home court, Utah State will have to pick up a couple of wins away from the Spectrum to keep their quest for five straight WAC titles alive.

NEVADA (10-3):

SO FAR: After a 0-2 start the Wolf Pack look to be the team to beat this season. Nevada has racked up impressive victories over the Pac-12's Arizona State and Washington. The Wolf Pack have not lost since the day after Thanksgiving.

TOP PLAYERS: Deonte Burton made First Team All-WAC in the preseason and has lived up the billing scoring 14 points and dishing nearly five assists a game. Fellow first-teamer Dario Hunt does the dirty work down low, averaging 8.8 rebounds (third in the conference) and has scored in double figures in his last five games.

OUTLOOK: Before Utah State won four consecutive titles the Wolf Pack took home at least a share of the title in five straight years. Nevada has to be considered the slight favorite to reclaim the crown before moving to the Mountain West next season.

NEW MEXICO STATE (10-5)

SO FAR: The Crimson Aggies finally hit the 10-win mark prior to conference season for the first time since 2006-2007. New Mexico State has an impressive win over rival New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque and came close to knocking off Arizona at home. Following a hot 4-0 start however, the Aggies are just 6-5 with wins over bottom feeders like Cal-State Bakersfield, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and McNeese State.

TOP PLAYERS: Wendell McKines is arguably the best all-around player in the WAC. He's second in the conference in scoring at just under 18 a game and leads the league in rebounding at 10.5 a contest. Combined with 6-foot-11 Hamidu Rahman (9.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg) the Aggies have a frontcourt to fear.

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