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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 8, 2006

UH big men face big task in WAC tourney

By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer

RENO, Nev. If the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team is to come up with three big wins in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament this week, much will depend on its three big men.

Center Chris Botez and forwards Matthew Gipson and Julian Sensley are the only tall players remaining on the Hawai'i roster after the season-ending knee injury to starting center Ahmet Gueye last week.

Botez, Gipson and Sensley will be in the starting lineup and will likely have to play long minutes tomorrow when the Rainbow Warriors play New Mexico State in a quarterfinal game at the Lawlor Events Center. It is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. Hawai'i time, and will be televised on KFVE.

Hawai'i is 17-10 and the No. 4 seed in the eight-team field. New Mexico State is 15-13 and the No. 5 seed.

"We don't have (big) guys on the bench, and there's nothing we can do about it now," Hawai'i coach Riley Wallace said. "The guys know the situation."

The three players give the 'Bows the tallest starting front line in the WAC: Botez is 7 feet, Gipson and Sensley are both 6-9. But with no forwards or centers in reserve, Hawai'i can not afford any foul problems.

"We still have to play aggressive," Gipson said. "Ahmet gave us so much of a post presence, we can't just forget about that. We all have to do our share to make up for it."

Gueye was a WAC All-Defensive Team selection, and had a conference-leading 65 blocked shots before he got hurt. However, Wallace said Gueye's 12.2 points per game might be more difficult to replace.

"(Botez) can come in and lock up on defense," Wallace said. "But Ahmet gets a lot of points down low for us and (Botez) is not that kind of offensive player."

If any of the big three gets into foul trouble, the lineup becomes like a jigsaw puzzle. For example, if Botez goes out, Gipson moves to center, Sensley goes to power forward, and either 6-6 Matt Lojeski or 6-3 Deonte Tatum shifts to small forward.

"I actually don't mind doing that," Sensley said. "When I play (power forward) I think I can get more rebounds and get some inside points and get to the foul line a little more."

Botez said: "It's hard because you want to play aggressive and strong, but in the back of your mind, you know you have to stay out of foul trouble to help the team."

Hawai'i will suit up only nine players for tomorrow's game, and the four reserves are all guards: Hiram Thompson, Dominic Waters, John Wilder and Jack Miller.

"We can't make excuses," Sensley said. "If one of us big guys goes out, we can go with a smaller lineup and be a little quicker."

NIT bid at stake?

WAC commissioner Karl Benson said he thinks both Hawai'i and New Mexico State are in contention for an NIT bid.

"I think we have five teams that merit postseason consideration and Hawai'i and New Mexico State are certainly in that group," Benson said.

Wallace said he thinks the winner of tomorrow's game will secure an NIT bid, and the loser will likely be out of contention.

Benson said Hawai'i might still be considered for the NIT if it loses tomorrow, although the loss of Gueye could be a factor.

"Injuries are taken into consideration, especially if it changes a team," said Benson, who is a member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

TWO-A-DAYS STILL ON

In keeping with its recent road tradition, Hawai'i had a hard practice yesterday morning followed by a shootaround in the early evening.

"We get our scouting done in the morning and then we keep the guys loose at night," Wallace said. "It's been working, so why not stick with it?"

No teams are being allowed to practice in the Lawlor Events Center this week, so the 'Bows practiced at nearby high schools.

WAC MEN'S TOURNAMENT

A capsule look at each team, in order of seeding:

NEVADA

Records: 24-5 overall, 13-3 WAC

Top players: Junior forward Nick Fazekas is the two-time WAC Player of the Year. He leads the conference in scoring with 21.9 points per game, and is second in rebounding with 10.3 per game. ... Sophomore guard Marcelus Kemp is averaging 14.1 points per game. ... Senior forward Mo Charlo was named to the WAC's All-Defensive Team.

History: The Wolf Pack won the tournament in 2004, but got upset on its home court in the quarterfinals last year. Nevada is 14-1 at the Lawlor Events Center this season.

Outlook: Gambling on the WAC Tournament is legal in Reno, and the smart money is on the Wolf Pack. Nevada, which is on an 11-game winning streak, should get invited to the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens this week.

UTAH STATE

Records: 21-7 overall, 11-5 WAC

Top players: Senior forward Nate Harris is averaging 17.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He leads the WAC with a 62.0 field-goal percentage, and was a first-team All-WAC pick. ... Sophomore guard Jaycee Carroll is averaging 16.7 points per game, and is second in the WAC with 89 3-pointers. ... Senior guard David Pak (4.9 assists per game) and senior center Cass Matheus (6.4 rebounds per game) are solid role players.

History: The Aggies are in their first season in the WAC. They won the Big West Tournament last season.

Outlook: Utah State is the only visiting team to beat Nevada in Reno this season, so it probably has the best shot at upsetting the Wolf Pack this week. The Aggies need an impressive showing this week to receive consideration for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

LOUISIANA TECH

Records: 19-11 overall, 11-5 WAC

Top players: Junior forward Paul Millsap is second in the conference in scoring with 19.7 points per game, and leads NCAA Division I with 13.5 rebounds per game. ... Senior guard Daevon Haskins is third in the WAC in assists with 4.8 per game, and made the WAC's All-Defensive Team.

History: The Bulldogs are in their fifth season in the WAC. They have lost in the quarterfinals each of the previous four seasons.

Outlook: LaTech's hopes ride on the wide shoulders of Millsap, and he is capable of carrying them to the title. The Bulldogs should receive an NIT bid regardless of what happens this week.

HAWAI'I

Records: 17-10 overall, 10-6 WAC

Top players: Senior forward Julian Sensley is averaging 17.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He was a first-team All-WAC selection. ... Junior guard Matt Lojeski is contributing 13.7 points per game and leads the team with 55 3-pointers. ... Senior point guard Deonte Tatum (3.7 assists per game) and senior forward Matthew Gipson (5.6 rebounds per game) are key role players.

History: The Rainbow Warriors won back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002, but have been eliminated in the quarterfinals each of the past two seasons.

Outlook: Starting center and All-Defensive Team selection Ahmet Gueye is out for the tournament with a knee injury, significantly diminishing Hawai'i's chances. The 'Bows probably need to win at least one game to have a shot at NIT consideration.

NEW MEXICO STATE

Records: 15-13 overall, 10-6 WAC

Top players: Sophomore forward Tyrone Nelson is fourth in the WAC in scoring (18.3 points per game) and rebounding (8.8 per game). He was a first-team All-WAC selection. ... Junior guard Elijah Ingram is contributing 13.3 points and 3.0 assists per game. ... Senior guard Mike Mitchell is averaging 12.5 points per game and is second in the WAC with 1.9 steals per game.

History: The Aggies are in their first season in the WAC. New Mexico State was in the Sun Belt Conference the previous five seasons, but never won that tournament.

Outlook: New Mexico State was the surprise team of the conference during the regular season. The Aggies might possess the kind of quickness required to knock off some of the bigger teams in the tournament.

BOISE STATE

Records: 14-14 overall, 6-10 WAC

Top players: Junior guard Coby Karl is averaging 17.3 points and 4.0 assists per game. He ranks third in the WAC with 70 3-pointers. ... Senior center Tez Banks is averaging 5.6 rebounds per game. ... Junior guard Eric Lane is fourth in the WAC with 60 3-pointers.

History: The Broncos shocked No. 1 seed Nevada in the quarterfinals last season, and made it to the championship game before losing. Boise State's last tournament championship was in the 1994 Big Sky Tournament.

Outlook: The Broncos faded in the second half of the WAC regular season, so another run to the title game would be even more surprising than last year.

SAN JOSE STATE

Records: 6-24 overall, 2-14 WAC

Top players: Senior guard Alex Elam is averaging 13.1 points per game and leads the team with 47 3-pointers. ... Senior forward Demetrius Brown is contributing 5.7 rebounds per game.

History: The Spartans are 1-8 in WAC Tournament games and have never advanced past the quarterfinals.

Outlook: San Jose State lost several close games during the regular season, including a three-point loss at Utah State on Saturday. However, the Spartans are on an eight-game losing streak, and even one victory this week would be a surprise.

IDAHO

Records: 4-24 overall, 1-15 WAC

Top players: Senior guard Tanoris Shepard is averaging 15.4 points and 3.6 assists per game. ... Junior guard Brett Ledbetter leads the team with 53 3-pointers.

History: The Vandals are in their first season in the WAC. Idaho has not played in the NCAA or NIT tournaments since 1990, the longest drought among the current WAC teams.

Outlook: It's been a difficult WAC initiation for Idaho, and the punishment should continue tomorrow when it plays host Nevada in the quarterfinals. An Idaho victory tomorrow could be considered the biggest upset in WAC Tournament history.

Reach Dayton Morinaga at dmorinaga@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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