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October 19, 2011

League preview: Western Athletic

We continue with our league breakdowns for the upcoming season; we're working backward from league No. 32 to our top-ranked league.

The breakdowns will become more in-depth as the leagues get bigger.

14. Western Athletic

For the WAC's final season with its current alignment, many of the same conference battles will be played out.

Since the league reorganized in 2005-06, only four teams have represented the WAC in the NCAA tournament -- Utah State (four times), New Mexico State and Nevada (twice each) and Boise State (once). Boise State already is gone, to the Mountain West, and Nevada follows next season.

The Aggies (of both Utah State and New Mexico State) will remain in the WAC next season, but Nevada and Fresno State will head to the Mountain West and Hawaii's basketball team to the Big West. The WAC, in turn, will add Denver from the Sun Belt and Texas-San Antonio and Texas State from the Southland.

Utah State has been the undisputed leader of the conference, but the Aggies underwent significant roster turnover after last season. The Aggies return only one starter from a 30-4 team. That player, G Brockeith Pane, was an All-WAC first-teamer and the conference tournament MVP. As usual, Utah State has an influx of junior college transfers among 10 new players in the program.

Chief among them is G Antonio Bumpas (a JC transfer who was on the roster last season and redshirted), redshirt freshman F Ben Clifford, JC Fs Mitch Burneel and Kyisean Reed and freshman G Adam Thoseby.

New Mexico State is anticipating the return of F Wendell McKines, who missed last season with a broken foot. McKines averaged 10.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 2009-10 and averaged a double-double the season before that. He will be the league's best rebounder. Point guard Hernst Laroche, the WAC's returning leader in assists and steals, also returns. But New Mexico State must replace F Troy Gillenwater, who left to pursue a pro career.

This could be a turning point for New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies, whose team has finished in third place in the WAC in each of the past three seasons.

Once the top program in the league, Nevada has struggled since coach Mark Fox left for Georgia. Last season's 13-19 record was the program's worst in a decade. Nevada went 8-8 in the league. Third-year coach David Carter finally has experience on his roster with five returning starters, four of whom should contend for all-conference honors.

Hawaii was the surprise team in the league last season, going 8-8 in the league in coach Gib Arnold's first season. The Warriors return Zane Johnson, the top returning scorer in the league (15.3 points). Idaho also was a pleasant surprise, going 9-7 in the league. Fourth-year coach Don Verlin is 24-24 in the WAC, which is a big deal for a program that struggled to win 10 games overall before his arrival.

The bottom of the league won't be pretty. San Jose State enjoyed its first winning record since 1994, but the Spartans went 5-11 in the conference and will be without WAC scoring champ Adrian Oliver this season. Fresno State and Louisiana Tech have first-time coaches and a paucity of talent.

F Dario Hunt, Nevada (6-8/230, Sr.)
F Wendell McKines, New Mexico State (6-6/230, Sr.)
G Deonte Burton, Nevada (6-1/185, Soph.)
G Zane Johnson, Hawaii (6-6/210, Sr.)
G Brockeith Pane, Utah State (6-1/195, Sr.)
C Kyle Barone, Idaho (6-10/225, Jr.)
F Olek Czyz, Nevada (6-7/240, Sr.)
F Brady Jardine, Utah State (6-7/220, Sr.)
G Hernst Laroche, New Mexico State (6-1/170, Sr.)
G Malik Story, Nevada (6-5/225, Jr.)

Utah State G Brockeith Pane
Fresno State F Kevin Foster (6-8/230, Jr.; JC transfer, began his career at George Mason)

1. Utah State
2. Nevada
3. New Mexico State
4. Hawaii
5. Idaho
6. Fresno State
7. San Jose State
8. Louisiana Tech

Best frontcourt: Nevada
Best backcourt: Nevada
Coach on the rise:
New Mexico State's Marvin Menzies
Coach on the hot seat:
Nevada's David Carter
Most underrated:
New Mexico State G Hernst Laroche
Program on the rise: Nevada
Program on the decline: None. (Utah State will be hard-pressed to repeat its 30-3 season ago, but it's difficult to claim the Aggies are on the decline. Utah State has won at least 23 games in each of the past 12 seasons, and still is the top contender for the WAC title.)

New coaches: Rodney Terry at Fresno State (had been an assistant at Texas), Michael White at Louisiana Tech (had been an assistant at Ole Miss)
Regular-season winner last season: Utah State
Tourney winner last season: Utah State
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 13th in 2010-11, 12th in 2009-10, 15th in 2008-09
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2007, Nevada as a No. 7 seed in first round
2012 conference tournament: March 7-10, Las Vegas

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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