Nine WAC basketball coaches, a dozen basketball players and about 50 media members met Monday at the Little America Hotel to talk basketball and make a few predictions about the upcoming season, which begins sooner than you think.
Of course they didn't agree on a heck of a lot except that defending champ BYU will finish fifth, Hawaii eighth and Air Force ninth.The players and media chose the University of Utah as the favorite, while the coaches opted for Colorado State. New Mexico, which has received a lot of preseason attention, was picked second by the players, third by the media and fourth by the coaches.
Utah Coach Lynn Archibald, whose teams most years have done better than their preseason picking, isn't bothered by the pressure of being a favorite this time around.
"I think it's a compliment to our players and it a great challenge to them to see if they can live up to it," he said. "I'd sooner be picked first than last. At least they think we have something. That's a compliment becuse I know everyone else is very good."
According to all the coaches and players, the WAC is, of course, going to be better than ever this year. And more balanced. Apparently there won't be a single pushover in the league this year.
"The last-place team will maybe win five or six ballgames - and the team that wins it will probably go 11-5 and there'll be a couple of teams with them," said BYU Coach Ladell Andersen.
"I've heard the coaches talking and we all agree that the bottom half of the league has gotten that much better," said Wyoming's Benny Dees.
"Hawaii might win this thing," said UTEP's Don Haskins.
"You can't go to the islands and go to the beach any more," said Boyd Grant.
Wyoming will play the WAC's first official game in the Big Apple NIT Nov. 18 against SMU. A week later Utah plays in the Great Alaska Shootout and BYU plays in the Lapchick Tournament in New York.
Here's a brief look at each of the nine WAC teams in order of how the media picked them (they know more than the coaches don't they?).
Utah - The Utes return four players who started a year ago and have several newcomers who should see plenty of action.
Mitch Smith, a four-year starter, leads the way, along with Watkins Singletary, Keith Chapman and Jimmy Madison. The newcomers expected make an impact are guards Van Gray, Billy Perkins and Mark Lenoir, forward Josh Grant and 300-pound Walter Watts, who'll play anywhere he wants.
Archibald's biggest worry is developing a point guard to replace
Tommy Connor, who is sitting out with a back injury. He also needs to keep his players healthy. So far this year his team has suffered five knee injuries, four ankle injuries, an appendectomy and a concussion.
Colorado State - The Rams' high ranking is based on their strong finish a year ago when they went to the NIT Final Four. They also have one of the league's best players in 6-8 forward Pat Durham. With Trent Shippen running the offense and Eric Freihauf back in the middle, the Rams have some good experience. They don't have David Turcotte any more, but in Boyd Grant, have perhaps the best coach in the league.
New Mexico - After settling for NIT berths for past five years, Lobo followers are hoping new coach Dave Bliss has the right formula to get the Lobos into the NCAA. Charlie Thomas is the top returnee and he has ample help in Darrel McGee, Rob Loeffel, Luc Longley and Rob Robbins. Former Ben Lomond High star Kurt Miller probably won't start, but will play plenty. "Nobody plays harder than Kurt. He plays so hard, he's had about 20 injuries this fall," said Bliss.
UTEP - As usual, Don Haskins has a sad story to tell. He doesn't have enough players, they can't shoot, they can't play defense and poor Bear can't sleep because of all his worries.
Well, all he has are returning starters Tim Hardaway and Antonio Davis, along with a former UCLA starter, 6-11 Greg Foster. He also has Jerry Jones, a top-notch forward, whom the Bear forgot to mention, just as an El Paso writer predicted before he spoke. It's doubtful anyone will be feeling very sorry for Haskins when the season is over.
BYU - The Cougars have Michael Smith and what else? Let's see, there's Marty Haws and Andy Toolson and . . .
"Our weakness is we need some players that have played," said Andersen. "I don't know who they're going to be, but they better come along pretty fast."
Besides the three returning starters, Andersen has "nine or 10 guys trying to work themselves into the lineup."
One of the more likely starters is Steve Schreiner, a former Brighton High and Dixie College star. Mike Herring is a possibility for the other starting spot as is Kevin Santiago, a walk-on from Provo High and UVCC.
Smith will be playing center this year, but that doesn't mean he won't be shooting those 3-pointers this year. "He's going to shoot any time he wants to," said Andersen.
Wyoming - Although his team may have been picked for the lower division, Benny Dees was tops in one-liners Monday. Losing Eric Leckner and Fennis Dembo and seven other seniors, Dees has to find something to joke about. This year he'll build his team around returning starters Reggie Fox and Robyn Davis. Six-foot-10 Clint Bean, formerly of Ricks College and American Fork High, will probably start in the middle.
San Diego State - As usual Coach Jim Brandenburg was a no-show, although his replacement, assistant coach Kevin McLeod, insisted Brandenburg really was sick. Anyway, the Aztecs should be better than last year. Shooter Tony Ross has supposedly improved his total game and Mitch McMullen, who is up to 6-10, 265, will push a lot of folks around. Seven-footer Neal Pollard, whose older two brothers played at BYU for a time, is a "big project," who may play after his mission.
Hawaii - The Rainbows, after going 4-25 last year, nearly upset BYU in the first round of the WAC tournament. So now everyone is acting afraid of the Rainbows. Three starters return, Chris Gaines, Reggie Cross and David Hallums and two other part-time starters will only be 9th or 10th men this year. Coach Riley Wallace brought in several junior college players.
Air Force - The Falcons return three starters, including Raymond Dudley, several top reserves and have some of their best recruits ever. But although Minton says, "We'll have a better team, he also says, "It's going to be another tough year."