After a 15-1 WAC basketball season, the University of Utah appears to be a solid favorite to win the league tournament which begins Wednesday in Laramie.
But WAC tournaments rarely go the way they are supposed to go.Take last year, for instance, when BYU tied Colorado State for the regular-season title, only to get knocked off in its first game by No. 7 seed Utah. CSU, meanwhile, was a first-round loser to Air Force, the No. 9 seed.
The upset is no stranger to this annual event.
Utah has the late game (9:30 p.m.) Thursday against the winner of Wednesday's doormat duel between San Diego State and Air Force. The Utes beat the Aztecs and Falcons each twice, but in only one of those wins did the margin of victory reach 10 points. Of course, Utah's margin of victory rarely reaches double-digits - they beat everyone, but they rarely blow anyone off the court.
And don't be surprised if Air Force is the Utes' opponent. The Falcons rarely won this season, but were usually in games right up to the final minute. Falcon center Aaron Benson isn't a scorer, but he plays the kind of physical defense that could cause problems for the Aztecs' main man, center Marty Dow. And the impatient Aztecs' somewhat helter-skelter style could play right into the hands of the more disciplined cadets.
The Utes might be tempted to look past their opening encounter, since their next opponent would be the winner of the Wyoming-UTEP game. The Cowboys would probably be a solid favorite to win, except that the Miners are always dangerous in this tournament. In the seven years of the WAC tourney, UTEP has reached the championship game six times and won it four. Even in 1988, when they finished fourth in the regular season, the Miners reached the championship game.
If it does end up a Utah-Wyoming clash, it could be tough for the Utes to win a second time on the Cowboys' homecourt in front of the WAC's rowdiest fans.
On paper, BYU seems to have an easier path to the title game than Utah. BYU opens with Colorado State Thursday at 2:30 p.m., and the Cougars beat the Rams by 17 points twice this season. CSU has played better recently but apparently reverted to form in a loss to Air Force last week. A Cougar victory would pit BYU against the winner of the New Mexico-Hawaii game, and New Mexico manhandled Hawaii by double-figure margins in both meetings this year.
The evidence would seem to point to a BYU-New Mexico matchup, except for one axiom that some college basketball observers put a lot of stock in: Beating a team three times in a season is next to impossible.
The reasoning behind that axiom goes like this: The favored team's players will let down, figuring that since they beat a team both home and away, another victory anywhere shouldn't prove much of a challenge. And the underdog team, after two thrashings, will dredge up some pride and emotion and figure out what they have to do to beat their oppressors.
At any rate, BYU had a lot more trouble with Hawaii this year than it did with New Mexico. The Cougs beat the Lobos by seven points twice, but the Rainbows' quickness causes them problems. They lost to the 'Bows in Hawaii and struggled to beat them in Provo.
It's probably unlikely, given the history of upsets in this event, that the two top seeds will meet for the championship game, but it's hard to picture a more entertaining engagement than Utah vs. BYU III, The Final Conflict. These two teams have pounded each other in earnest twice already, and while Utah has come out on top both times, the Cougars have not gone down without a struggle.
The guess here is, they'd like to give it one more shot.