|After 4-way tie for season title, WAC tournament is wide open|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 12 March 2008 11:17|
Four teams tied for the regular season championship with 12-4 records, so now it's a horse race as Boise State, New Mexico State, Nevada and Utah State square off at the WAC tournament.
Yet such parity brings a measure of peril.
Only the WAC tournament champion is guaranteed a trip to the NCAAs, and with the regular season wealth spread among four schools - not to mention the WAC's No. 20 slot in the national RPI - there's likely no dancing for the also-rans.
``We are a one-bid league,'' Utah State coach Stew Morrill said Wednesday. ``It's not perception. It's reality.''
New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies figures all four co-champions must take the same approach: Win the next three games or expect to be left out of the NCAA tournament.
``You never can figure out how that NCAA process works,'' Menzies said. ``There's always a couple teams left out and some get in. It's a tough job, but you've got to cut the line somewhere. Our efforts have been focused on winning the tournament the whole time to get the automatic bid.''
This spring marks the first time in WAC history that four teams shared the regular season title. Utah State (23-9) earned the top seed, based on a 4-2 record against the other three co-champions.
Still, the tournament is wide open.
``Five or six days ago, we were the fourth seed,'' Morrill said.
The quarterfinals are Thursday, with fourth-seed Boise State (22-8) meeting No. 5 Hawaii (11-18), followed by Utah State against No. 8 San Jose State (13-18), which beat Louisiana Tech in a first-round game Tuesday.
Later Thursday, second-seed Nevada (20-10) faces No. 7 Fresno State (13-18) and No. 3 New Mexico State (19-13), which won last season's tournament on its homecourt, plays No. 6 Idaho (8-20).
All agree the top teams are evenly matched.
``Those four teams all have quality frontline play,'' Idaho coach George Pfeifer said. ``They all have quality guard play. They're very solid offensively. They can score with anybody. They all play very good defense.''
Utah State is led by Jaycee Carroll, the WAC player of the year and the nation's most accurate 3-pointer shooter at 50.2 percent. Carroll holds nine school records and led the league in scoring, averaging 22.7 points.
``Over the last few games when we had a chance to claim a share of the title, he was very focused, very feisty,'' Morrill said. ``Jaycee has always played full throttle.''
Each of the other co-champions has a top gun.
At Boise State, Reggie Larry averaged 18.9 points and 9.2 rebounds. A junior college transfer, he became the first player in school history to score 1,000 career points in only two seasons.
Greg Graham, in his sixth year leading the Broncos, earned the WAC coach of the year award after moving Boise State from an 8-8 league record and fifth-place tie last season to this year's four-way knot.
New Mexico State is led by Justin Hawkins, who scored a career-high 37 points as the Aggies closed the regular season with a 106-71 victory over Hawaii. He added 10 rebounds, his seventh double-double this season.
Hawkins was MVP of the conference tournament last season, when New Mexico State reached the NCAAs for the first time since 1999.
The Aggies are heating up, winning eight of their final nine games and beating the last five visitors to the Pan American Center by an average 29.6 points. They had 65 rebounds in last weekend's win over Hawaii.
``Our goal was 66, so we fell a little short,'' Menzies joked.
Pfeifer said: ``They're big, physical, long, and they're deep. They get a lot of those rebounds in transition - shoot the ball and go fetch it.''
Then there's Nevada's Marcellus Kemp, averaging 20.1 points, and guard Armon Johnson, who was named the conference's top freshman after averaging 14.1 points and 4.1 rebounds while shooting 54.0 percent from the field.
The WAC may have flown under the national radar this season, but the tournament is shaping up as a thrill ride.
``It's that time of year. It's called March Madness for a reason,'' Menzies said. ``You'll see a lot of things happening that maybe you didn't anticipate, all based on energy or adrenaline.''