Basketball practice has been underway around the Western Athletic Conference for two weeks, and already a coach is on the injury list. Riley Wallace, the Hawaii coach, underwent back surgery recently and is sidelined indefinitely.
Does any of this sound familiar? When last we left the WAC basketball wars, Utah coach Rick Majerus was recovering from open heart surgery, BYU coach Roger Reid was getting ready to have double hip replacement surgery and UTEP coach Don Haskins was just finishing an advanced case of laryngitis and two months of silence.Majerus, Reid and Haskins are back in action, but now Wallace is not. Who knows what will happen once the season actually begins.
That notwithstanding, WAC basketball coaches gathered in Denver Monday to discuss the upcoming season with the media. Here is a wrapup of the WAC teams, listed in order of their predicted finish, along with last year's records:
NEW MEXICO (20-14/9-7, Returning starters: 4) - For two years the Lobos have fallen short of high expectations. This year it's now or never. The Lobos return five of their top six players from a year ago, and four of them are seniors. This is the last chance to cash in on Luc Longley, the 7-foot-2 center from Australia who bypassed the NBA draft (and possibly a lottery pick) to improve his game. He'll join his old mates - Rob Robbins (14.0), Kurt Miller (11.6), Marvin McBurrows (6.1) and Willie Banks (8.9).
"We'll pass the sight test better this year," says Coach Dave Bliss. "We've been Luc Longley and the Seven Dwarves."
Bliss signed five recruits who are 6-foot-7 or taller. They will allow Bliss to move the 6-3 Miller from power forward to wing and the 6-2 Banks from forward to guard.
But the team still will rely on Longley, who averaged 18.4 points and 9.7 rebounds a year ago.
WYOMING (15-14/7-9, Ret. starters: 3) - The Cowboys have got a head start on the rest of the league. They took a 10-day trip to New Zealand last summer and won all eight of their exhibition games. They also return 10 lettermen, including the likes of 6-6 Reggie Slater, who averaged 16.7 points and 11.3 rebounds a year ago, and 6-6 Tim Breux (12 ppg., 42 treys).
The question is can the Cowboys, a strong team in the paint, come up with guard who can score from the perimeter and run the ball. "Guard play has been our nemesis since I've been here," says Coach Benny Dees, who signed three JC guards during the off-season.
COLORADO STATE (23-10/12-4, Ret. starters: 2) - The Rams suffered heavy graduation losses, but don't count them out yet. Coach Boyd Grant is a proven winner. After taking over the sinking CSU program three years ago, Grant has led the Rams to WAC championships the last two years. In both of those seasons he came up with a key transfer who starred in his one and only year of remaining eligibility. Two years ago it was Joel Triblehorn, a second-team all-WAC pick and Newcomer of the Year. Last year it was Mike Mitchell, who was the WAC Player of the Year. This year it is (drum roll, please), Chuckie White, who transferred from Indiana last year.
"Two years ago we played Inidana and their best player was Chuckie White," says Haskins. "Now he's at CSU."
White played 32 games for Indiana, his best game being a 20-point outing against Louisville. Grant wonders how a year's layoff - in which he was seldom able to practice - will affect White.
White will team up with guards Mark Meredith, a fine outside shooter (84 treys, 12 ppg.), and Lynn Tryon (8.8 ppg).
TEXAS-EL PASO (21-11/10-6, Ret. starters: 3) - Haskins, who is back for his 30th season, says, "I've always been a hollerer. I swore I wouldn't do it again, but I'm kind of getting back to that."
Frustration is mounting in El Paso. Guard Prince Stewart, who is academically ineligible, will miss at least the first eight games, and Marlon Maxey, last year's leading scorer and rebounder, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last week.
Haskins has good size on his squad, but he also has 10 newcomers and still no solid ball-handling guard. "I don't know how we gathered so many guys who can't handle the ball," he says.
BRIGHAM YOUNG (21-9/11-5, Ret. starters: 1) - BYU fans haven't looked forward to a season with so much anticipation since, well, since the football season. This is the debut of freshman Shawn Bradley, the 7-foot-6 natural wonder of Utah. But so far his college career is off to poor start. The first time he lifted weights he injured a deltoid muscle and hasn't been able to lift since then. So much for much-needed strength work. Then he came down with a case of tendinitis of the knee.
"The guy who was supposed to lead us to the world championship hasn't practiced," says Coach Roger Reid. " . . . I'm not sure he'll start right now."
With Marty Haws, Andy Toolson and Mark Durrant gone, the Cougars will be green, with 11 new players. Their top returnees are 6-7 Steve Schreiner, 6-1 Scott Moon and 6-5 Mark Heslop. Nathan Call, a former starting point guard, is back from a mission. Besides Bradley, the Cougars also have coveted recruit Ken Roberts to work in.
UTAH (16-14/7-9 Ret. starters: 2) - Who knows what to make of the Utes. Their roster includes five returning lettermen, four players who haven't played for a year, a couple of transfers and one player who is still recovering from an accident.
The Utes will be counting largely on two players - swingman Josh Grant (last year's leading scorer (16.5) and rebounder and center Walter Watts, who averaged 10.9 points and 5.4 rebounds a year ago. The other returnees are Jimmy Soto, Craig Rydalch and Larry Cain. And that's it.
The Utes will miss point guard Tommy Connor. Their new team leader may eventually prove to be JC transfer M'Kay McGrath, who has won rave reviews from Majerus.
The rest of the picture is unclear. Phil Dixon, who played six games before falling through a window and cutting his leg, still isn't practicing fulltime and is a year away from full recovery. Tyrone Tate and Byron Wilson were Prop. 48 cases last year. Barry Howard redshirted last year after transferring from Washington. And Paul Afeaki sat out last season after transferring from Snow JC.
HAWAII (25-10, 10-6, Ret. starters: 1) - After going six years without a winning season, the Rainbows turned into big winners a year ago. Now they're rebuilding again. They graduated their leading scorer, rebounder and defender. Guard Troy Bowe is the lone returning starter. He'll play with 10 newcomers.
"I think we'll finish somewhere in the middle of the pack," says assistant coach Bob Nash.
The Rainbows signed baseball player Chris Walz, a 6-foot-8 pitcher who will be a starter or the sixth man. Phil Lott scored 25 points in one game as a reserve last year. Other than that, it could be a return to lean times for the Rainbows this season.
SAN DIEGO ST. (13-18/4-12, Ret. starters: 2) - The Aztecs probably won't challenge for the championship, but assistant coach Jimmy Williams says they'll "be one of the top airport teams. We'll look good in the airport." That's because the Aztecs have size: 7-foot-1 Marty Dow, 6-11 Mark Pollard (yes, brother of the former BYU Pollards), 6-11 Neil Steinly, 6-10 Joe McNaull, 6-8 Keith Balzer, 6-7 Courtie Miller.
The Aztecs are counting heavily on Dow, a senior who averaged 12 points and 6 rebounds last year but missed the last 10 games with an injury.
The Aztecs were hopelessly undisciplined on the court last year and finished eighth. That's about where they'll finish this year.
AIR FORCE (12-20/3-13, Ret. starters: 2) - The Falcons lost three top players, most notably Ray Dudley, the WAC's all-time leading scorer.
Coach Reggie Minton likes what he sees in sophomore guard George Irwin and freshman guard Clark James. "(James) looks like he could play for the other teams in the league," says Minton. They'll team with the Falcons' top veteran player, 6-4 forward Chris Lowry (12 ppg. 6 rebounds last year). But as Minton says, "We don't expect anyone to be worried about us."