WAC Tournament Preview: 10 Things You Need to Know
The WAC Conference Tournament gets underway on Thursday in Reno, Nevada with defending conference tournament champion and regular season champion Utah St. once again heading the field.
Utah St. is the only team in the conference with an RPI inside the top 50, meaning that, barring an upset, the conference is likely to send just one team to the Big Dance.
However, with several capable teams nipping at Utah St.'s heels, including Nevada who is 15-1 at home this season, the tournament is sure to be exciting.
Here are 10 Things You Need to Know About the WAC Tournament.
Team to Beat: Utah St.
Utah St. has been the class of the WAC in 2009-2010 for the second straight year. They currently hold a 23-6 record and an RPI ranking of 31, meaning that even if they come up short in the WAC tournament an at-large bid is likely.
The Aggies are lead by senior guard Jared Quayle and junior forward Tai Wesley. Both were Third Team All Conference performers last season, and have a shot at the First Team this season.
Quayle is a guard who does a little bit of everything. He is averaging 11.9 points, 6.2 boards, and 4.3 assists per game. He also is knocking down threes at a rate of 43 percent. However, perhaps the most valuable thing he brings to the table is his leadership.
Wesley is the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game. He also does a little bit of everything, adding 6.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.3 blocks per game.
After Quayle and Wesley the team relies on junior JC transfer Nate Bendall (10.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game), junior point guard Tyler Newbold (8.4 points per game), and junior swingman Pooh Williams (8.7 points per game).
Guard Brian Green and forward Brady Jardine provide depth off of the bench.
The Aggies balanced attack has caused fits for the rest of the WAC all season long, making them the favorite to take home the tournament title.
Bubble Burster: Nevada
They won’t burst the bubble of another WAC team, but if they win the WAC tournament and force the committee to give Utah St. an at-large bid, Nevada could push someone in another conference out of the Big Dance.
The big reason that Nevada has a shot at winning the WAC tournament is 6’9” 225 pound sophomore, and likely WAC Player of the Year, Luke Babbitt.
The former McDonald’s All-American is averaging 21.7 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Wolfpack. He has the ability to score down low, but causes real match-up problems with his ability to play away from the hoop. He is shooting an impressive 43 percent from three-point range and 51 percent from the field overall.
If teams do find a way to slow down Babbitt, they’ll still have to deal with guards Armon Johnson (16.0 points and 5.6 assists per game) and Brandon Fields (14.6 points per game). The threesome of Babbitt, Johnson, and Fields provides the Wolfpack with the WAC’s most explosive offense.
Senior forward Joey Shaw puts in 10.4 points and 5.0 boards per game and senior guard Ray Kraemer adds 6.0 points per game.
Sophomore forward Dario Hunt adds 6.3 points and 7.0 boards per game off of an extremely thin bench.
The Wolfpack are explosive, but have been killed by lack of depth. It will be difficult for them to get to the WAC finals and not be worn down by the pace of tournament, but they have the ability to beat anyone, including Utah St. With a current RPI of 70, their only way into the tournament is by taking home the WAC tournament championship.
Bubble Burster: New Mexico St.
The other team with a legitimate chance of playing spoiler is New Mexico St. The Aggies finished the regular season with the same exact conference and overall record as Nevada, 11-5 and 19-11, and already have a win over Utah St. in the books.
The New Mexico St. Aggies are headed up by junior guard Jahmar Young. The 6'5” Young is averaging 21.0 points per game. He also contributes 3.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game.
Young's backcourt mate is senior Jonathan Gibson. Gibson averages 17.8 pointers per game, while knocking in threes at an impressive rate of 41 percent. Additionally, his leadership on the court is invaluable to the Aggies.
Seven-footer Hamidu Rahman, a sophomore, provides the Aggies with some much needed size in the paint. He adds 10.8 points, 8.4 boards, and 1.4 blocks for the Aggies.
6'6” Wendall McKines is tenacious rebounder. He is averaging 9.9 boards, while scoring 10.6 points per game as well. He is a grinder, and in many ways the heart and soul of the team.
Hernst Laroche, the fifth member of the starting line-up, adds a little of everything. He is scoring 6.6 points a game, while collecting 3.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per contest.
A strong Aggies bench is led by sophomore Troy Gillenwater. He is contributing 14.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in just 22 minutes per game. The 6'8” sixth-man may be as much of a key to the Aggies success in the tourney as anyone.
The Aggies have dropped their past two conference games to fellow contenders Nevada and Utah St. While that doesn't bode well for their chances in the upcoming WAC Tournament, the Aggies certainly have the talent to avenge both loses and punch their ticket to the dance.
Player to Watch: Luke Babbitt
Former McDonald's All-American Luke Babbitt is arguably the WAC's best player. The 6'9” 225 pound sophomore from Reno is a match-up problem for everyone.
He can score in the paint, has a great mid range game, and shoots a phenomenal 43 percent from three point range. He shoots 51 percent from the field, which is ridiculous for a shooter, and makes 90 percent of his free throws, amongst the best in the nation.
He averages 21.7 points, 9.3 boards, 2.0 assists, and 1.1 steals a game. You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him, and containing Luke Babbitt will be the first priority of each team Nevada plays in the WAC tournament.
Key Injury: Kyle Gibson
The Louisiana Tech Bulldogs enter the WAC tournament as the number four seed. They also enter the tournament with the WAC's second best overall record. All this seems to point to the Bulldogs being a darkhorse, or perhaps "darkdog," in the tourney.
However, the Bulldogs face a huge obstacle. Senior guard and leading scorer Kyle Gibson has been hobbled by an ankle injury that kept him out of Tech's recent match-ups with Fresno St. and Idaho.
Gibson, who is averaging 19.1 points per game, was able to return in Saturday's loss to Nevada, but clearly was not playing at 100 percent. In eighteen minutes he failed to score.
Without a healthy Gibson, the Bulldogs are unlikely to make any kind of run in the tournament. Gibson's injury means a first round loss to Fresno St. is a distinct possibility, which would be an unfortunate end for the excellent career of Gibson and fellow Bulldog seniors Magnum Rolle and Jamel Guyton.
Team With Something to Prove: Idaho
The Idaho Vandals entered the season as one of the four teams considered to have a shot to finish the season as WAC champions. They finished the 2008-2009 season tied for third in the WAC, and with an overall record of 17-16.
With four returning starters, including their leading scorer senior guard Mac Hopson, the high expectations were warranted, but the Vandals have fallen flat on their face.
They finished 6-10 in conference, and 15-15 overall. Hopson, who some touted as the preseason WAC Player of the Year, has seen his scoring totals drop from 16.4 last season to 14.4 this year.
Furthermore, fellow starters Kashif Watson and Marvin Jefferson have failed to take a step forward in 2009-2010.
The Vandals face off with Nevada in the tournament's first round, and while pulling off the upset would not save their disappointing season, it certainly would go a long way in earning back some of the respect they've lost this year.
Player to Watch: Jahmar Young
New Mexico St.'s Jahmar Young is a force in the WAC. At 6'5” the junior is a big guard that many teams WAC teams have had difficulty guarding this season.
Young, a product of Baltimore, is averaging 21.0 points per game while shooting 46 percent from the field. He also contributes 3.6 boards and 2.9 assists per game.
He is a slasher who likes to get to the basket, but also shoots well from three-point range at 38 percent.
If the Aggies are to be successful in the WAC tournament, they are going to need a lot from Young.
Key Defensive Match-Up: Troy Gillenwater On Luke Babbitt
Looking ahead to a potential semifinal showdown, New Mexico St. will have to slow down Nevada’s Luke Babbitt to avenge their recent 100-92 loss to the Wolfpack. In that game, Babbitt went for 23 points and nine boards, right around his season averages.
However, the attention that Babbitt drew allowed teammate Brandon Fields to go off for 32 points with seven boards and nine assists. In the rematch, the Aggies will need to find a way to control Babbitt without averting attention from Fields or one of the other Wolfpack players.
That is where sophomore Troy Gillenwater comes in. At 6’8” and 230 pounds, Gillenwater has the size and strength to match-up with Babbitt down low and the man skills to guard Babbitt when he takes to the perimeter.
Gillenwater has been coming off the bench for the Aggies, but has been successful in that role. In fact, in the 100-92 loss to Nevada, Gillenwater scored 17 points and grabbed nine boards.
The Aggies other options to guard Babbitt don’t match up as well. Wendall McKines is a ferocious rebounder who has the necessary skills on the perimeter, but lacks the size necessary to stay with Babbitt. The Aggies seven-foot big man, Hamidu Rahman, lacks the speed and perimeter skills to match-up with Babbitt.
It also translates to Gillenwater needing to step up and have a big game for the Aggies on the defensive side of the ball.
Most Anticipated Match-Up: Utah St. vs. New Mexico St.
The potential semifinal match-up between Nevada and New Mexico St. promises to be a dandy. The Wolfpack won both of the regular season matchups, but you don't need me to tell you how hard it is for a team to beat another quality team three times in one season.
New Mexico St. should come out with a chip on their shoulder, and a strong desire to avenge their two losses to Nevada. I think the Aggies will come out on top in what very well could be the conference tourney's best game.
If New Mexico St. does defeat Nevada, it should set-up an even more anticipated matchup with Utah St. New Mexico St. already has one win over Utah St. under its belt, and you'd better believe that Utah St. is not going to want to lose to them again.
The battle of the Aggies promises to be a superb match-up. New Mexico State's Aggies will be looking for a bid to the Big Dance, while Utah St.'s Aggies will be looking to secure the title of the WAC's best team.
Player to Watch: Jared Quayle
Jared Quayle may not post the same type of numbers that many of the other stars in the WAC post, but he is the unquestioned leader of the league's best team.
The senior guard from Perry, Utah averages 11.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. He is superb from three-point range, shooting 44 percent.
Quayle is the type of do-everything grinder that you'll find on nearly every championship team. He is the heart and soul of the Aggies, and the kind of guy every coach dreams of coaching.
The Aggies will go as far in the WAC tournament, and the NCAA tournament, as Quayle can take them. Don't be surprised if everyone knows who he is by the end of March.