The Western Athletic Conference may not be on the verge of its best overall season, but it certainly could have its most exciting season when it begins play later this week.
For perhaps the first time, all nine league teams head into conference play sporting winning records. Outside of UTEP's 11-1 mark, none of the records are outstanding, but the preseason predictions by the coaches of a well-balanced league are beginning to make sense.Here is a look at each of the nine WAC teams with their records and prospects going into league play:
UTEP (11-1) - OK, the Miners had their usual patsy preseason schedule with 10 home games against the likes of Fort Lewis College, Prairie View and Mississippi Valley State. But their last two wins in the Sun Bowl tournament were a 40-point win over Cleveland State and an 18-point win over Maryland of the ACC. Their lone loss to Indiana on the road shows they may be vulnerable to the tough WAC road slate. Tim Hardaway may be the best guard in the WAC and Antonio Davis and UCLA transfer Greg Foster give the Miners a strong inside game.
Air Force (8-3) - The Cadets also had a pretty easy preseason agenda with Adams State, Mesa State and Doane. In their last outing, the Cadets played Connecticut of the Big East to a three-point game with five mintues left before falling by 13. Guard Raymond Dudley has been scoring over 20 points a game for the Cadets, who return all but one starter from last year.
Hawaii (7-4) - Over the weekend, the Rainbows defeated Purdue, the team that beat Utah by 42, 72-69 in the semifinals of the Rainbow Classic. Then in the finals, they played No. 4 Illinois close all the way, leading in the second half before losing by nine. Chris Gaines and Reggie Cross, who were the stars of the team last year, have been joined by JC transfers Terry Houston and Vincent Smalls to give the Rainbows extra scoring threats.
Colorado State (7-4) - The Rams, who were picked for first by the coaches, may be the biggest disappointment of the preseason so far. With a fairly easy schedule, the Rams have already lost games to North Texas State, Wisconsin-Green Bay and to a 2-6 Texas Tech team at home. Pat Durham and Trent Shippen are the solid holdovers from last year and newcomer Joel Tribblehorn is a good 3-point shooter, but the team still needs a center. Remember, though, last year Boyd Grant had his team peaking in March, when it may have been the best team in the league.
San Diego State (6-4) - Just as everyone expected, Jim Brandenburg has already turned the Aztec program around. Just four nights ago, more than 13,000 fans, the most in school history, packed the Sports Arena to watch the Aztecs play 7th-ranked North Carolina tough before losing 103-92. Former BYU signee Mitch McMullen is a force inside and Michael Best, a transfer from Clemson, is being touted as the top newcomer in the league. Juniors Tony Ross and Bryan Williams give the Aztecs a talented guard line.
Utah (8-6) - The Utes were supposed to be one of the league's most experienced teams, and here it is January and they're starting four players who weren't even on the team last year. Mitch Smith, with 10 per game, is probably the league's best rebounder. Utah has the deepest bench in the league, which could make a difference before it's all over.
BYU (5-4) - The Cougars aren't as bad as a lot of people thought. Steve Schreiner gives the team a fourth scorer to go along with Michael Smith, Marty Haws and Andy Toolson. But the team is still searching for another guard to complement Haws and is vulnerable off the bench. Coach Ladell Andersen may have his team peaking in February or March rather than January this year.
New Mexico (5-4) - First-year coach Dave Bliss hasn't found it easy sledding so far in Albuquerque. The Lobos expectedly lost to national powers Arizona and Oklahoma, but they also lost at home to unheralded San Diego U. and to in-state rival New Mexico State. Over the holidays they won their own Lobo Classic, beating Wake Forest in the finals. Most of the Lobo names are recognizable ones from last year - Charlie Thomas, Rob Loeffel, Luc Longley, Darell McGee, Rob Robbins and former Utah prep star Kurt Miller.
Wyoming (6-5) - Things are a whole lot different in Laramie from last year when the Cowboys were getting national attention with Dembo, Leckner and Co. The top holdovers this year are Robyn Davis and Reggie Fox, but Benny Dees misses the rebounding of Leckner and Dembo. Kenny Smith is the top newcomer on the team. In their last outing the Cowboys lost to Southern Illinois in the finals of the Cowboy Shootout. They will be the only team not to start league play this week.
*** BONUS SHOTS: The WAC tournament will be in Salt Lake City at the Huntsman Center March 8-11. Tickets are available . . . Jerry Pimm's Cal-Santa Barbara team is quietly having an outstanding season with a 9-0 mark to date after winning the Kactus Klassic in Tempe last week. It's the school's best start in 51 years . . . Seton Hall, which defeated Utah in the first round of the Alaska Shootout in the opener for both teams, is now 12-0 after being picked for seventh in the Big East.