Monday, October 13, 2008

Oh boy, do we stick our necks out

Let's begin with a fitting quote from someone named Albert Einstein: "When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.”

If that wasn't enough, here's Hannah Arendt: "Predictions of the future are never anything but projections of present automatic processes and procedures, that is, of occurrences that are likely to come to pass if men do not act and if nothing unexpected happens; every action, for better or worse, and every accident necessarily destroys the whole pattern in whose frame the prediction moves and where it finds its evidence.”

But we like the following the best. “The groundhog is like most other prophets; it delivers its prediction and then disappears.” -- Bill Vaughn

Pigs can't fly but rodents can be wise.

With these words of caution in mind, we say it's going to be a wild men's basketball season in the WAC. Granted, such a statement would be considered par for the course if uttered by a WAC employee or anyone affiliated with a WAC team. But here's why such an offering doesn't fall into the 'yadda, yadda, yadda' category: because nobody knows who is going to win the conference championship in 2009.

Nobody in the media, none of the conference coaches. Certainly not the rose-colored glasses-wearing fans of the various teams. Now plenty have submitted their guesses -- including us below -- but at best all are educated judgment and opinion. At worst...well, it's fan being typical fans or sometimes personal grudges being played out. We've yet to encounter the divine prophet who nails such efforts each and every time but please do put us in touch with anyone you know fitting that description.

The collective talk of the conference is that five teams have legitimate chances to win the WAC:

(please note that these are listed in alphabetical order)

Louisiana Tech Nevada New Mexico State San Jose State Utah State

Yes, we fully expect incoming ordnance from the fan-doms of Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii and Idaho but that goes with the territory of making predictions. The latter four teams just don't have the manpower this go-around -- that's not a coaching sin nor a hanging offense -- just our perception of reality. We'll gladly admit our error if we are proven wrong and expect reciprocation if our accuracy prevails.

What is especially going to be enchanting viewing in 2008-2009 is how the youthfulness and the newness of the members of the 'Big WAC Five' plays out. The Bulldogs, the Wolf Pack, the Aggies, the Spartans and the Aggies again will have a large number of freshmen and sophomores and certainly newcomers as part of their respective foundations. The question is begged just how will the 'kids' and 'newbies' develop, in what aspects and at what pace?

Obviously this is not a new theorem but our take is the two WAC teams that end up ranking as the top defensive squads in the fast-approaching season will eventually be battling among themselves for the top spot. Generally, the better individual defenders come from the ranks of the juniors and seniors and the best defending teams usually have a majority of upperclassmen in the playing rotation. But these junior/senior and upperclassmen characteristics simply won't be heavily present during WAC play, at least not in nearly the same proportion as last season. Thus, individual and team development should be closely watched throughout conference play.
Now let's wade into the defensive numbers pool even while issuing the cautionary Benjamin Disraeli phrase that there are lies, damn lies and statistics and also with the proviso that there are a number of other important factors that 'play' into a team's shooting percentage defense. Nevada's defenders led the WAC in shooting percentage defense last season, followed by Fresno State with New Mexico State, Boise State and Utah State tied with one another. San Jose State was next, with Hawaii and Idaho tied and Louisiana Tech bringing up the rear.

For reference purposes, JaVale McGee obviously anchored the Wolf Pack's defensive efforts, Marcelus Kemp was a sixth-year senior and Lyndale Burleson made the All-WAC Defensive Team as a redshirt junior. Fresno State had a goodly number of seniors, as did New Mexico State and especially Boise State. Utah State lost three seniors. San Jose State lost some seniors but returns its starting five intact.

So with a goodly amount of experience departed and with the defensive roles these players filled in many cases being assumed by greener underclassmen, we offer that we have no idea what the ultimate order of finish of the top five will be in the WAC. Neither does anyone else.

With that mantra -- "we have no idea what the ultimate order...will be" -- in mind, here we still go with our fearless forecast plus the 'whys' of our choices:

Predicted Order of Finish:

1. Nevada
2. Utah State

3. Louisiana Tech

4. San Jose State

5. New Mexico State


6. Boise State
7. Hawaii

8. Fresno State

9. Idaho

Nevada - The House of Cards in Reno could fall apart given a tweaked Luke Babbitt hamstring or any injury that keeps The Wonderkind off the court for a period of time. There's plenty of proven scorers to surround him -- 6-3 guard Armon Johnson, 6-4 guard Landry Fields, 6-6 Joey Shaw (who has NCAA experience from his time at Indiana) -- but nowhere near even another Babbitt-lite on the roster. Mark Fox will need consistent boardplay and defensive effort upfront from 6-8 Dario Hunt and 6-7 Ahyaro Phillips, although the former is much more ready than the latter. The return to play of oft-injured 6-7 junior Richie Phillips would be a nice bonus as he's entering his fourth year in the program and his injuries have prevented him from contributing to date. Fields and Lyndale Burleson will pressure opposing backcourters as both were given league honors last season for their defensive efforts.

Summary: we see only depth to some degree and frontcourt uncertainties holding back the Pack.

Utah State - Now some will disagree but Stew Morrill's Aggies enjoy the best home court advantage in the league what with sellouts and a student section that best works over opponents. Plus the trio of 6-9 Gary Wilkinson, 6-6 Tai Wesley and 6-4 Tyler Newbold gives the Aggies the best center/forward/guard threesome in the league. But we still want to see more than 31 free throw attempts -- in 35 games -- for the season from Newbold. What Utah State needs foremost is someone to step in at the point and run Morrill's offense (easier said than done) and another power player to consistently contribute on the frontline. Freshman Deremy Geiger, redshirt frosh Jaxon Myaer and junior college transfer Jared Quayle are the inexperienced candidates for the former. The pickings are a little slim for the latter. There's a bunch of junior college recruits battling to replace Jaycee Carroll but the key there will be who can not only shoot well off the screen but who can create off dribble drives. Pooh Williams is the best defender on the team (with Newbold close) and his efforts at containing opponents should earn him much greater playing time this season.
Summary: a proficient point is needed along with a consistent shooting guard stepping up as well as a center/power forward.

Next was the most difficult choice. Louisiana Tech or San Jose State? San Jose State or Louisiana Tech? Here's our little secret: we flipped a coin and it came up for the Bulldogs. How's that for courage?

Louisiana Tech - Tech fans will definitely need a new scorecard this season as the Aggies underwent more personnel turnover than any other team in the WAC. Were titling this Louisiana Tech season "Kyle Gibson gets some help" and it's expecially so on the frontline. 6-10, 260 Kenneth Cooper will be a defensive stalwart in the middle, flanked by expected point producers Magnum Rolle at 6-10 and 6-7 redshirt freshman Olu Ashaolu, with former Idaho Vandal 6-8 David Jackson and 6-10 Shawn Oliverson providing depth at forward and center respectively. Rolle will have some pressure to produce close to a consistent double-double but the shots and boards will be there for the taking. Gibson, a true shooting guard, played every position save center last season and it looks like he will be playing the point in 2008-2009 what with two backcourters (Jamel White and J.C. Clark) being dropped from the squad recently. Gibson logged 36 minutes a contest last season and just may have to replicate that feat this season unless Canadian import Juevol Myles can adapt quickly in quarterbacking the team or another freshman backcourt recruit, Arrez Henderson, can help. But right now, neither Myles or Henderson appear on LT's official roster. Junior college transfer Jamel Guyton looks to have the outside-shooting skills to man the two.

Summary: Tech still lacks solid depth so any injuries could be devastating but this Ruston roster talent level is the most improved in the WAC. Kyle Gibson, Magnum Rolle and Olu Ashaolu should combine to provide enough points to position the Bulldogs for a winning season. Rupp still doesn't have the roster he wants in the exact terms of classes and that should take another season or two. Plus, Gibson will hopefully finally be afforded the opportunity to play as a shooting guard next year in his senior season.

San Jose State - As previously mentioned, five starters return which can be either a good or troubling situation but here it is favorable. Juniors C.J. Webster and Chris Oakes man the 'big' spots quite well but do need to display improved defensive positioning which will translate into less foul trouble. One of the keys to the Spartan season will be the development of another consistent post, be it 6-9 soph Oliver Caballero, who was nagged by injuries for most of last season, or 6-10 redshirt freshman Clint Amberry. Sophs Justin Graham and Adrian Oliver highlight the backcourt with their ability to create along with junior shooters Robert Owens and Mac Peterson. Three-point ace Tim Pierce returns on the wing along with fellow seniors DaShawn Wright and DeVonte Thomas. San Jose State will be a much better shooting/scoring squad than previous incarnations and also be in a situation where substitutions off the bench are much more capable.

Summary: the Spartans remain young to a degree and will miss Oliver for the first six games due to NCAA transfer rules. Conversely, here's a team that should by natural progression be better by the end of the season -- which bodes well for tourney play. Graham and Oliver are going to be problems for opposing guards but that third 'big' remains a major need.

New Mexico State - Here's another team in need of introductions to one another and the keys to the season are:

*** how tight the playing together meshes
*** how quickly and how consistently some of the newcomers can contribute
*** what leadership emerges given that a number of seniors have graduated

6-2 Jonathan Gibson and 6-5 Jahmar Young own two of the starting spots and both should be at or around the 15 points per game or so average. Freshman Terrance Joyner has the most potential of any of the incoming guards but the question remains about who will and can man the point and when? The return of 6-4 soph Wendell McKines helps and he'll team up with redshirt 6-7 freshman Troy Gillenwater in the corners. Redshirt frosh 7-0 Hamidu Rahman and 6-11 true freshman Chris Gabriel are in the middle but unproven at this point. 7-0 Abdoulaye N’doye is supposed to enroll in December but it's anyone's guess if he will play or redshirt. There are two recruits from Canada -- one is redshirting and the other is freshman point Hernst Laroche.

Summary: There are definitely enough shots to go around this coming season and that will be beneficial to the spirit of the Aggies. Getting Mick Durham on the coaching staff is a positive move as a professional of his calibre is always a plus addition. Ultimately, we see New Mexico State as too young and inexperienced this go-around to top the other teams listed but still dangerous and deserving of inclusion.

Okay, let's move on with more that will surely raise some blood pressure readings to astronomical levels:

Player of the Year: Luke Babbitt

Isaiah 11:16 prophesied that "...and a little child shall lead them..." and, while the 6-8 Babbitt doesn't qualify as petite, he will be both the POY and the Freshman of the Year in the WAC. The only problem we see for him next season is staying out of foul trouble as his opponent as well as the others will be assigned to go right at Babbitt as much as possible.

WAC All Leaguers:

Gary Wilkinson - Utah State
Brandon Fields - Nevada
Jonathan Gibson - New Mexico State
Magnum Rolle - Louisiana Tech
Adrian Oliver - San Jose State.

Wilkinson needs to be consistent from the get go but this should be aided by the dearth of experienced 'bigs' he'll face. We selected Fields over Armon Johnson because he brings offense and defense to the Wolf Pack. We went with Gibson over Jarmar Young because Gibson offers better playmaking along with scoring. Rolle has a golden opportunity and his projected scoring and rebounding totals give him the nod, however slightly, over Kyle Gibson. Oliver will be the top scorer for the Spartans and is their best talent.

Note that but one senior (Wilkinson) is among our selections. Last season, it was five seniors being honored.

Other Contenders:

Kyle Gibson - Louisiana Tech
Roderick Flemings - Hawaii
Armon Johnson - Nevada
Sylvester Seay - Fresno State
Jahmar Young - New Mexico State
C.J. Webster - San Jose State.

Gibson will enjoy a very big year and certainly receive consideration for First Team All League status from many. He was the most difficult player to leave off the First Team. Flemings will need to carry Hawaii and will certainly be the Rainbow Warriors top scorer and possibly rebounder too. Johnson was very good as a freshman and should be even better in 2008-2009. Seay will lead FSU in scoring and possibly rebounding too. Young just might top the Aggies in scoring but isn't the playmaker -- at least as yet -- that Jonathan Gibson is but he's a year less experienced than his teammate. Webster is our final choice as a possibility to land a First Team nod due to his combination of scoring, rebounding and passing talents.

So those of you suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune anywhere in the above, well, do offer your disagreements but please tell us both why we are wrong and why you, of course, are right. ;-)

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