'Bows take aim at WAC
By Dayton Morinaga
Advertiser Staff Writer
Now comes the hard part for the University of Hawai'i men's basketball team.
The Western Athletic Conference.
The pre-conference schedule produced mixed results and a 7-6 record for the Rainbow Warriors. In effect, it served as a warmup for the rugged 16-game WAC season.
"Obviously, we'd like to have a better record at this point," Hawai'i head coach Bob Nash said. "But you can still build a lot off the experiences and use it in conference."
The 'Bows begin their WAC season by hosting Idaho tomorrow and then Boise State on Monday.
"You can't let any of them get away at home because it's so difficult to win on the road in this league," Nash said. "You lose even one game at home, you're behind the 8-ball, having to make up for it on the road."
Hawai'i was picked to finish last in the nine-team WAC by the conference coaches during the preseason.
Nash, however, thinks that the separation between the top of the WAC and the bottom will be slight. As proof, every WAC team will enter conference play with a .500 record or better.
"I think you can bunch just about any of the teams in there and it'll be a crap shoot for who's going to win on any given night," he said. "I think there's parity from top to bottom, which should make for exciting play throughout."
Utah State is the defending WAC champion, and was picked to finish first in the preseason polls. The Aggies are 10-4 entering conference play.
The early-season surprise has been Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs, who finished with a 15-18 record last season, are 12-2 this season.
"Louisiana Tech might be the team to beat right now," Nash said. "They're so athletic and physical."
Still, no WAC team is receiving any votes in the Top 25 national polls. That's because the WAC teams lost several games to higher-ranked opponents in the pre-conference season.
For example, No. 19-ranked New Mexico went 4-0 against WAC teams (including a win over Hawai'i). Saint Mary's from the West Coast Conference also went 4-0 against WAC teams (including a win over Hawai'i).
But what the WAC might lack in team recognition, it could make up for with individual star power. Thirteen of the top 15 WAC scorers from last season are back this season.
"We all know what to expect because we're familiar with each other's personnel," Nash said. "But it also means there are a lot of good players you have to deal with game in and game out."
Every team can claim at least one candidate for first team All-WAC honors, and several of them are considered NBA prospects. Among the most significant:
• LaTech guard Kyle Gibson is ranked 15th in the nation in scoring at 21.6 points per game.
• Nevada forward Luke Babbitt already has seven double-doubles, and is averaging 19.8 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.
• Nevada point guard Armon Johnson is averaging 17.0 points and 4.9 assists per game.
• San Jose State guard Adrian Oliver has topped 30 points in three games this season.
• The New Mexico State guard tandem of Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson is combining for 39.5 points per game. Gibson is ranked 10th in the nation with 42 3-pointers.
Babbitt, Johnson, Fresno State forward Paul George and LaTech center Magnum Rolle are all being looked at as potential first-round NBA Draft picks.
Hawai'i has all-conference candidates in Roderick Flemings, Petras Balocka and Dwain Williams.
The 'Bows have battled injuries the entire pre-conference season, and no player has been able to start all 13 games. However, all of the key players appear to be available for the WAC opener tomorrow.
"We still don't know how good we can be because we haven't really had our full team together," Nash said. "Hopefully we put it all together in conference, because that's when it counts the most."
The 'Bows have played just one road game this season, an 80-70 loss at UC Irvine.
They will make four separate road trips during the WAC season, with each trip consisting of two games.
"It's always a concern for us because we have to sit on that plane for five hours just to get to California," Nash said. "From there, it's on to another plane or bus to get to where we need."
Not surprisingly, the 'Bows have a 10-31 road record in the WAC over the last five seasons.
"It's part of what you have to do in this conference," Nash said. "You can't look at it as an excuse. You just hope to avoid delays and weather and that kind of stuff that could make it even more difficult than it already is."