LOGAN — The last three seasons everyone in the Western Athletic Conference was in a race to see who would finish second. Utah State won the league crown by at least three games each year.
This year it's anybody's season.
Nevada comes in with the league's best record and a seven game win streak. ... New Mexico State is the only school that currently ranks in the top 100 in the all-important RPI rankings. ... Utah State has recent history and an intimidating home court in its corner. ... Hawaii is equally tough to beat after a flight over the Pacific and the list goes on.
In a perfectly mediocre conference, seven of the WAC's eight teams come into league play at 5-5 or 6-4 in their last 10 contests. It's a wide open year for Utah State to clinch its fifth straight title, for Fresno State, Hawaii or Nevada to win a championship in their last year in conference, for New Mexico State to finally capitalize on their potential or for Louisiana Tech, Idaho or San Jose State to break through for their first conference crown. Barring a miracle there will be no at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament this season, so every conference game is crucial.
Conference play tips-off on Thursday night with Fresno State visiting Utah State and Nevada making the trip to Idaho. Here is a team-by-team breakdown of the contenders as ranked by the preseason media poll.
UTAH STATE (8-6):
SO FAR: After stumbling out of the gate and struggling to replace injured forward Brady Jardine, the Aggies have recently righted the ship. Utah State has won five of last seven, with the two losses coming narrowly on the road to a very good Wichita State team and No. 15 Mississippi State.
TOP PLAYERS: Since being shutout against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, sophomore guard Preston Medlin has scored double figures in nine of the Ags' 10 games. He leads the team in scoring with 14.4 per game. Junior Kyisean Reed has stepped up in the absence of Jardine the last few weeks averaging 13 points a game in December.
OUTLOOK: Even with the improved team play this last month the Aggies have only one road win on the season (at Idaho State). Along with defending the home court, Utah State will have to pick up a couple of wins away from the Spectrum to keep their quest for five straight WAC titles alive.
SO FAR: After a 0-2 start the Wolf Pack look to be the team to beat this season. Nevada has racked up impressive victories over the Pac-12's Arizona State and Washington. The Wolf Pack have not lost since the day after Thanksgiving.
TOP PLAYERS: Deonte Burton made First Team All-WAC in the preseason and has lived up the billing scoring 14 points and dishing nearly five assists a game. Fellow first-teamer Dario Hunt does the dirty work down low, averaging 8.8 rebounds (third in the conference) and has scored in double figures in his last five games.
OUTLOOK: Before Utah State won four consecutive titles the Wolf Pack took home at least a share of the title in five straight years. Nevada has to be considered the slight favorite to reclaim the crown before moving to the Mountain West next season.
NEW MEXICO STATE (10-5)
SO FAR: The Crimson Aggies finally hit the 10-win mark prior to conference season for the first time since 2006-2007. New Mexico State has an impressive win over rival New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque and came close to knocking off Arizona at home. Following a hot 4-0 start however, the Aggies are just 6-5 with wins over bottom feeders like Cal-State Bakersfield, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and McNeese State.
TOP PLAYERS: Wendell McKines is arguably the best all-around player in the WAC. He's second in the conference in scoring at just under 18 a game and leads the league in rebounding at 10.5 a contest. Combined with 6-foot-11 Hamidu Rahman (9.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg) the Aggies have a frontcourt to fear.
OUTLOOK: If they can return to the team that won at New Mexico they are contenders. That might be tough to do without Christian Kabongo (14.6 ppg, 3.5 assists per game) who recently transferred out of the program.
SO FAR: The Warriors were pegged to make a leap to contenders before the season and after a so-so start have started to show that form. The Warriors have won six of their last eight including wins against Xavier and Clemson and a narrow loss at No. 17 UNLV.
TOP PLAYERS: Arizona transfer Zane Johnson is producing in his second year with Hawaii. Johnson is fourth in the conference in scoring at 15.2 a game. Big man Vander Joaquim is nearly averaging a double-double with 12.5 points and 9.2 rebounds a contest.
OUTLOOK: The trouble for Hawaii has always been winning away from the islands and the same is true this season, the Warriors only road win so far came at Division II Hawaii-Hilo. If they can get some traction on the mainland they will be in the mix for the title.
SO FAR: Despite a very average record the Vandals have been in every game this season. Idaho has not lost a game by double-digits and with the largest setback coming at Long Beach State in the opener by just eight. The Vandals are on a three-game losing streak going into WAC play with those three losses coming by a combined seven points.
TOP PLAYERS: Former Aggie Deremy Gieger has taken a leap forward in his senior season averaging 13.1 points a contest and leads the conference with a 2.5 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Center Kyle Barone is making nearly 57 percent of his attempts and is chipping in 12.5 points and 8.2 boards a game.
OUTLOOK: The Vandals have always been a step behind the leaders and have just a single conference tournament victory (a play-in-game win over San Jose State in 2007). If there ever was a season to change that it is this year.
SAN JOSE STATE (6-8)
SO FAR: The Spartans' six wins have come against UC-Irvine, Holy Names, Texas-San Antonio, UC-Davis, Coppin State and at Seattle. Not exactly a who's who of college basketball. Combined with losses to Cal Poly (twice), UC-Riverside and Montana State it could be a long conference season.
TOP PLAYERS: Sophomore guard Keith Shamburger has improved in nearly every category from his freshman campaign, averaging 15.4 points per game and a conference best 5.1 assists. College of Eastern Utah transfer James Kinney leads the team with 16.7 points a game.
OUTLOOK: San Jose looks to be on the bottom half of the conference, but the margin between them and the leaders is not that wide.
FRESNO STATE (7-8)
SO FAR: The Bulldogs are another team that has found its footing after a rough start. Fresno State has won three straight (at Arizona State, at Pacific and home against Boise State).
TOP PLAYERS: Sophomore guard Kevin Olekaibe is the league's leading scorer at 18.7 a game and is strong on the defensive end as well with 1.5 steals a game. Point guard Steven Shepp sets the table with 4.7 assists a game.
OUTLOOK: New head coach Rodney Terry has the Bulldogs playing an entirely different brand of basketball, slowing down the game to a near crawl, which can be difficult for impatient opponents. Even with a tough new style, the Bulldogs are probably a year or two away.
LOUISIANA TECH (8-7)
SO FAR: The other Bulldogs are only four wins short of the 12 wins they put up last season, but have two wins over non-D-I schools and a strength of schedule that ranks near the bottom of the country.
TOP PLAYERS: Freshman guard Raheem Appleby leads the team at 11.7 points per game and has double figures in seven of his last nine games after playing just nine combined minutes in the Bulldogs first six games. Senior guard Trevor Gaskins is second on the team in scoring at 10.7 and first in rebounding with 4.7 boards a game.
OUTLOOK: New head coach Michael White appears to have the Bulldogs on the rise, but with a so-so record against soft competition Tech should be near the bottom of the standings this year.
WAC OPENING SCHEDULE
Fresno State at Utah State, 7 p.m.
Nevada at Idaho, 8 p.m.
Fresno State at Idaho, 4 p.m.
New Mexico State at Louisiana Tech, 6 p.m.
Nevada at Utah State, 7 p.m.
San Jose State at Hawaii, 10 p.m.Opening weekend
Fresno St. at Utah State, 7 p.m.
Nevada at Idaho, 8 p.m.
Fresno State at Idaho, 4 p.m.
New Mexico St. at La. Tech, 6 p.m.
Nevada at Utah State, 7 p.m.
San Jose St. at Hawaii, 10 p.m.