After two-and-a-half months of conference play, the Western Athletic Conference regular season is all wrapped up, and the season comes down to three nights in Reno for the conference tournament.
Here is a preview of what to expect in Reno this weekend.
No. 1 Utah State (14-2) vs. No. 8 Boise State (5-11)
No team comes into Reno hotter than the Aggies. After starting out 0-2 in conference they have ripped off 15 in a row (14 of them in conference play) and haven't lost in over two months.
Utah State had two players on the All-WAC first team (Tai Welsey and Jared Quayle), the coach of the year in Stew Morrill, and two players on the all-newcomer team (Nate Bendall and Brian Green). Pooh Williams made the all-defensive team, and if the award existed, he would likely have been the defensive POY as well.
Boise State, on the other hand, looked like they might not make it to Reno up until the last two weeks, in which they went 3-1, highlighted by beating Louisiana Tech on the road and then thrashing Hawaii and San Jose State to secure the eighth seed.
The Aggies won both of the previous matches this year, winning 81-59 at home and surviving on the road 72-67. In the game at Boise the Broncos made a furious comeback in the last few minutes by employing a full-court pressure defense. They will need to turn the Aggies over and have a good shooting night if they have any hopes of pulling the upset.
What to watch for: Utah State looks to be on the right side of the bubble as of now, but a loss against Boise would burst that.
No. 4 Louisiana Tech (9-7) vs. No. 5 Fresno (7-9)
Louisiana Tech was not the same team without second team All-WAC guard Kyle Gibson down the stretch. With Gibson hurting, the Southern Bulldogs sputtered, going 1-4 in their last five WAC games.
Fresno is a tough team to figure out. They may be the most talented team in the WAC (Sylvester Seay, Paul George, and Greg Smith will all probably play in the NBA someday) and have looked like world-beaters at times (convincing home wins against No. 2 seed Nevada and No. 3 New Mexico State), while at other times they just look lost (scoring just 84 points in two games during their last road trip).
These two teams split their regular season series with the home team taking each game. WAC Newcomer of the Year Greg Smith had 17 points for Fresno against the league's best defensive big man in Tech's Magnum Rolle. Another big night for Smith could end Tech's season early.
What to watch for: In an oddity of WAC scheduling, Louisiana Tech ended their season at Nevada, and rather than flying back to Ruston for a few days they have opted to stay in Reno for the tournament. Fresno will get a whole week off to prepare as their last game was Thursday night against Louisiana Tech.
No. 3 New Mexico State (11-5) vs. No. 6 San Jose State (6-10)
New Mexico State came into the final week of WAC play with a chance to take the No. 1 seed if they could beat both Nevada and Utah State on the road, but failed to win either and slid all the way to the No. 3 seed for the WAC tournament.
Before that, though, the southern Aggies were hot, winning seven of their last eight games. They have been a completely different team with both Troy Gillenwater and Wendell McKinnes on the floor after being declared eligible starting in the spring semester.
San Jose State isn't so hot, going just 2-8 down the stretch. The Spartans failed to win a road game in conference, so three in a row on a foreign court could be a struggle. That being said, their up-tempo style of play and unorthodox lineup (often have four guards on the floor with one big man) can make for an interesting sleeper pick.
Both teams won on their home floors in the regular season in games that resembled track meets (San Jose won 93-84, NMSU won 94-82). Don't expect anything different in this one.
What to watch for: In terms of scoring guards, it's hard to find two better in the WAC than San Jose's Adrian Oliver (first team All-WAC, averaging 22.5 a game, good enough for seventh in the nation) and New Mexico State's Jahmar Young (also first team All-WAC, averaging 20.9 a contest).
No. 2 Nevada (11-5) vs. No. 7 Idaho (6-10)
Nevada has the best player in the conference in future pro Luke Babbitt (WAC Player of the Year) and a fantastic guard in Armon Johnson (second team All-WAC) but has really struggled to get much production from anywhere else on the court. Combined with a thin bench, it will be up to those two to carry the Wolf Pack through the tournament unless someone else steps up.
Brandon Fields averaged 22 a game over the last few weeks of the season. If that kind of play continues from him, it could be the Wolf Pack's tournament on their home floor.
Idaho was last year's Cinderella team, finishing third in the WAC only to fall to Louisiana Tech in the first round of the tournament. This year has been closer to a nightmare for the Vandals, with off the court issues (highlighted by Kashif Watson calling out the coach via his Twitter account) combined with on the court mediocrity.
Nevada swept the season series between these two teams, but neither game was a blowout. Had Armon Johnson not scored an and-1 with just a few seconds left on the clock, Idaho would have won their home game. If the Vandals get the kind of production they got out of Steffan Johnson on Saturday night (28 points, including 8-of-14 from long range), then an upset could be a very real possibility.
What to watch for: Since joining the WAC, the Vandals have won only once in conference tournament play, beating San Jose in the play-in game in '07-08. Before that you'd have to go back to '03-04, when Idaho beat UC-Riverside in the Big West Tournament first round.
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