WAC Tournament Preview: Utah State Has The Whole Conference In Its Hands

Take whatever you know about the WAC from football season - namely that the competition is weak, the level of play is lacking, Mark May knows very little about how it really works, and Boise State is supremely dominant - replace Boise State with Utah State, and you have a pretty good idea of how WAC men's basketball works.

There is Utah State and then everyone else.

The Aggies, winners of 15 straight, dominated the WAC conference schedule this year, going 14-2 against league foes. Utah State has not lost to a league opponent since football bowl season, rolling off 14 straight wins against conference teams with a win over RPI darling Wichita State on BracketBuster weekend thrown in for good measure. They are the NCIS to the WAC's NBC scripted dramas, the UCONN to the WAC's women's college basketball, the five-dollar footlong to the WAC's Burger King chicken fries.

Anything short of a Utah State win in this tournament would be a major upset.

The Stakes

Chances are good this year that the NCAA tournament will only be inviting one WAC team to the Big Dance. For sure, if Utah State wins the tournament, the WAC will be sending the Aggies and only the Aggies to the Big Dance. If anyone other than Utah State wins, then the conference's best team may be left out in the cold. Utah State is very much on the bubble, and depending on whom you ask (Aggie fans will ask Mark Schlabach because he hearts them), an NCAA tournament spot may be out of the question without a WAC tournament win. They will so own the NIT, though.

Speaking of the NIT, the rest of the WAC is playing for bridesmaid tournaments. Nevada and New Mexico State are likely to land somewhere, and a 22-win Louisiana Tech has good odds. If winning the conference tournament is out of the realm of possibility for these teams, expect them all to at least make a push for a couple extra wins, a little more prestige, and a postseason spot in a tourney that few people know exists.

Names You Should Know

F Tai Wesley, Utah State. The leader of the conference's best team, Wesley is a consistent low-post scorer who complements the guard play of fellow first-team all-conference pick Jared Quayle. On a team that shares the stat book, Wesley's numbers are not eye-popping, but his leadership has produced results.

F Luke Babbitt, Nevada. The player of the year in the WAC, Babbitt led the conference in scoring and was third in rebounding. And he's only a sophomore. Babbitt headlines the WAC's best offense along with second-team all-conference pick Armon Johnson.

G Jahmar Young, New Mexico State. The sweet-shooting Young can be killer from outside. He averages over 20 points per game and had a two-week stretch midseason where he was scoring over 30.

G Adrian Oliver, San Jose State. When Oliver - an All-WAC first-team selection - is on, SJSU can hang with anyone. As evidence, he had 35 points in a near-upset of Nevada two weeks ago, and he had 12 in a 29-point loss to Boise State on Saturday.

Bill Sproat, Utah State. Sproat does not play for the Aggies, but he is reviled by opponents nonetheless. As one of the WAC's most noticeable fans, Sproat has earned a reputation as a free-throw-distraction savant, thanks to his wide assortment of costumes that mostly render him shirtless.

Tournament Outlook

The WAC is Utah State's to lose. The Aggies are clearly the best team in the conference, they have the best defense, a seasoned coach, and an offense that can churn out points no matter the situation.

They also have a first round date with one of the hottest teams in the conference, the Boise State Broncos. Winners of three out of their last four, BSU came the closest on the scoreboard to the Aggies during USU's 15-game winning streak, managing a 5-point loss when the two teams tangled in early February.

Nevada has a tough first-round draw, too. The Wolf Pack face an Idaho Vandals team that took them to the wire in a one-point game in early February. The good news for Nevada is that the tournament is being played in Reno, which gives them a desirable home court advantage assuming there is no Keno this weekend.

The conference's four best teams - Utah State, Nevada, Louisiana Tech, and New Mexico State - should advance to face off in the semifinals, but don't be surprised if a lower-tier WAC opponent pulls an upset. Several of the lower seeds had hard-luck seasons, and all are capable of putting it together for a tournament run.

Assuming the Big Four advance, the high stakes semifinal matchup between Nevada and New Mexico State will be fun to watch. The Pack got the best of the Aggies in the season series between the two, and Nevada will benefit from the home court crowd. But it would be a mistake to count out NMSU, a team that can score in bunches if the mood hits right.

Either Nevada or New Mexico State were expected to give Utah State some trouble in a potential championship matchup - that is, until USU steamrolled NMSU by 18 points in the season finale. Utah State has the momentum, the experience, and ultimately the upper hand on both of these conference rivals. Every factor in the conference tournament seems to be in the Aggies' favor. The pressure is on Utah State to make good.

The Bracket

Thursday, March 11

Boise State vs. Utah State (8 vs. 1), 12:00 p.m. PST

Fresno State vs. Louisiana Tech (5 vs. 4), 2:30 p.m.

Idaho vs. Nevada (7 vs. 2), 6:00 p.m.

San Jose State vs. New Mexico State (6 vs. 3), 8:30 p.m.

Friday, March 12

Boise State or Utah State vs. Fresno State or Louisiana Tech, 6:00 p.m. PST

Idaho or Nevada vs. San Jose State or New Mexico State, 8:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 13

Championship Game, 7:00 p.m. PST

Kevan Lee covers the Boise State Broncos with timeliness and hilarity at One Bronco Nation Under God (OBNUG)

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