TWENTY-FOUR HOURS from now, the WAC basketball tournament will descend upon the Huntsman Center, where the mood figures to be somewhat, well, frantic. Imagine throwing nine lukewarm bodies off a sinking ship and into a lifeboat. That's this year's tournament.
They should call it the Amnesty Tournament. After staggering through the season in varying stages of mediocrity, the WAC's nine teams - none of which cinched an NCAA tournament bid via superior play during the regular season - come to Salt Lake City to fight for the league's one automatic NCAA tournament invitation. Just like that, the regular season is rendered meaningless. Which, in this year's case, is just as well.But so what if it was a regular season that justified the invention of No Doz? So what if none of the schools are nationally ranked, and the best non-WAC opponent defeated this season was New Mexico State? So what if the closest thing the WAC is going to get to an All-American is a six-foot guard from Air Force? So what if the WAC became so balanced that Hawaii climbed into the first division?
All it's done is conspire to create a tournament atmosphere that is the most competitive in history.
Talk about your sudden death.
It has also made it terrifically tough to handicap the tournament. Already, these teams have proven that on any given night, any of them can lose.
Still, there are indicators; and momentum. As fans from around the league trickle into the city, consider these to be the unofficial, subject-to-change, team-by-team, from-worst-to-best, pre-tournament odds:
- SAN DIEGO STATE: The Aztecs might be the favorite, instead of the least favorite, were it not for the fact that somewhere between New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day they lost their starting backcourt. One guard, Bryan Williams, was suspended after being charged with petty theft at the campus bookstore (but, to his credit, he was allegedly stealing textbooks), while the other starting guard, Michael Best, was suspended after reportedly failing a drug test. SDSU odds: 9-1.
- WYOMING: It's been a tough year for the Cowboys, with nine new bodies in uniform. They still haven't stopped wearing "Hi, MY NAME IS . . . " name tags. They've gone 4-7 in their last 11 games, although they did cap their 14-16 regular season with a win at Utah. Still, few orangeish-brown windbreakers or rubber-meshball caps are expected in the Huntsman Center this week. After two straight postseason titles, Wyoming's fans are driven out. Wyoming odds: 8-1.
- HAWAII: True, the Rainbow Warriors did finish fourth in league play (with a 9-7 record), and true, they went 16-11 overall, to realize, in one season, approximately the same number of wins the program accumulated since the days of King Kamehameha. Truer still, the Rainbows have a legitimate scorer in Reggie Cross and an emergent hero in Troy Bowe (Bowe of the `Bows), who admirably replaced the suspended Chris Gaines (grades). But, still, leaving the islands is no vacation. Hawaii odds: 7-1.
- UTAH: The Utes do, as a matter of fact, own the floor. But that hasn't stopped them from not winning at home in more than a month now. They'd stop the bleeding but apparently it's internal. Still, in one fell swoop the Utes could deaden that dull feeling that follows a season that saw them finish sixth when they were supposed to finish first; and they could save Lynn Archibald's job. Utah odds: 6-1.
- AIR FORCE: Introducing the amazing Raymond Dudley, small enough to fit into a cockpit but big enough to lead the WAC in scoring (26.9 ppg). The six-foot Dudley is the league's Top Gun and should be enough to inspire an Air Force rooting section from as far away as Hill Air Force Base. Figure on the Air Force-New Mexico opener to be the best candidate for an upset on Thursday, if Dudley is on his game. Air Force odds: 5-1.
- NEW MEXICO: The Lobos could have won the league, or at least tied for the regular-season title, but a shot by Hawaii's Terry Houston at the buzzer last Saturday night in Albuquerque was first blocked by New Mexico's 7-foot-2 center Luc Longley, and then still went in the basket, giving the Rainbows a 71-70 upset win in The Pit. That left the 19-9 Lobos one win away from 20, and one game away from the co-title with Colorado State; and also left them looking for a psychiatrist's couch. They'll either be fighting mad in Salt Lake, or still moaning the blues. New Mexico odds: 4-1.
- BYU: Weird as it seems, playing in Salt Lake is a homecourt advantage for the Cougars. This is a team that won five of its last seven, although it did lose by 17 to Colorado State. The Cougars' big deal is that they have Michael Smith, the 1987-88 WAC Player of the Year who, for his encore year, was second in scoring (26.1 ppg), first in rebounding (8.57 rpg), first in free-throw percentage (92.1 percent), 11th in field-goal percentage (52.5 percent) and ninth in 3-point field-goal percentage (38.4 percent). The rap on Smith is he doesn't work on defense. The respone is that he's too busy being offensive. He is the one player in the tournament who could singlehandedly make a difference. BYU odds: 3-1.
- UTEP: A tranquil year for the Miners, by their standards. Only two players were kicked off or left the team. One was forward Jerry Johnson, their best defender, who went AWOL on the road, taking a hike and never returning only seven hours before tipoff at the Wyoming game. The Miners lost that game but, oddly, won the next two on the road. They've been steady ever since, and boast the best overall record (22-6) in the WAC, even if the non-conference victories included wins over Fort Lewis, Texas Southern, Alcorn State, Jackson State, Prairie View and Mississippi Valley State. NCAA computer translation: 22 wins doesn't get the Miners a guarantee anywhere. They need this tournament as much as anyone else. See Tim Hardaway go for NBA first-round status. See Don Haskins coach like mad. UTEP odds: 2-1.
- COLORADO STATE: Nothing underscores just how weird the year was more than the Rams, never before a WAC hoops titlist, winning their last eight league games to come into Salt Lake as Their Highnesses. More than 500 Rams fans are at this moment taking a left turn at Laramie and heading west on I-80, bound for the Huntsman Center. CSU stresses defense to the point of being obnoxious. The Rams allow five points less a game than UTEP. CSU odds: Even money.
Still, you can't get too overwhelmed by Colorado State, or too underwhelmed by anyone else. That old maxim, "The race doesn't always go to the strong and quick, but that's the way to bet," doesn't work this week. Nobody's got a corner on greatness. The straight scoop is, the WAC has been playing for four months now, and still hasn't sorted anything out.