By Brian McInnis
Ladies and gentlemen, the first day of men's basketball official practices is upon us.
While teams on the East Coast must wait until after the stroke of midnight to practice (or conduct Midnight Madness) early Saturday morning, Hawaii benefits from the time difference to get in a full practice at a reasonable hour tonight, starting at 6:30 p.m. It will be open to the public at lower campus, should anyone want to check out Gib Arnold's second-year team.
In the spirit of a fresh season (and full disclosure) here's my selections in the Western Athletic Conference preseason media poll that I just submitted, with some notes on my reasoning.
I'll go last to first among the eight teams.
No. 8: Louisiana Tech. One of two WAC teams with a new head coach. Former Ole Miss assistant Michael White will have his work cut out to rebuild this program. Not only were the Bulldogs last in the WAC (2-14) last year, they lost their top two scorers in guard DeAndre Brown and forward Olu Ashaolu (who transferred to Oregon in the offseason).
No. 7: Fresno State. A sign of how disappointing center Greg Smith's sophomore season was: despite being the Bulldogs most talented player by far, he couldn't manage to lead Fresno in the scoring column, putting up just 11.7 ppg. Smith got some bad advice and jumped early to the NBA (or tried to; he wasn't drafted). Sophomore guard Kevin Olekaibe put up 12 ppg last year and is about the only known commodity back. FSU also has a new coach in Rodney Terry.
No. 6: Idaho. Give the Vandals and coach Don Verlin credit for their 9-7 WAC finish last season. Talent-wise, they were at a disadvantage pretty much every game, and so it probably will be again this year. But it will be difficult for UI to replicate its success with efficient center Kyle Barone (10.5 ppg, 61 percent FG) its best returning option. Sharpshooter guard Jeff Ledbetter and the rest of the Vandals frontcourt must be replaced.
No. 5: San Jose State. A fifth-place finish is probably the best-case scenario for the Spartans, but I'll give it to them here because of two solid starters returning in forward Wil Carter and guard Keith Shamburger. Though the best backcourt in the WAC in Adrian Oliver and Justin Graham is gone, Carter is good for a double-double per game and Shamburger set the SJSU freshman scoring record last year.
No. 4: Hawaii. Tempting to vote the Rainbow Warriors third or better with their returning talent, but several things have to go right for a finish like that. Senior guard Zane Johnson must build on his great junior season (15.8 ppg, UH single-season record for 3-pointers made) and junior center Vander Joaquim must be the All-WAC big man many think he can be. Questions about frontcourt depth must be answered and newcomers Shaquille Stokes and Hauns Brereton will be counted on to add a scoring punch. Improvement over last year's fifth place (8-8) finish is expected in a weak WAC.
No. 3: New Mexico State. The Aggies lost last year's top player, forward Troy Gillenwater, but get back undersized interior beast Wendell McKines from a year lost to injury. All indications are he's fully back and highly motivated to average a double-double. Combined with a proven point guard in Hernst LaRoche, that should be good enough for NMSU to contend for the WAC title until late into the season.
No. 2: Nevada. No excuses for the Wolf Pack this year after it failed to utilize its considerable talent in 2010-11. Its entire starting five is back, including four effective scorers in point guard Deonte Burton, shooting guard Malik Story and forwards Olek Czyz and Dario Hunt. That's 91 percent of UNR's scoring back. Talent-wise, the Pack also has the most by far.
No. 1: Utah State. It's a testament to the Aggies' system and coach Stew Morrill that a team from Logan, Utah, can lose basically its entire roster and still be expected to win the league. The only returning starter is All-WAC guard Brockeith Pane, and the only other rotation player back is uber-athletic forward Brady Jardine. But the Aggies' 10 newcomers (five JUCO transfers, five freshmen) are said to be loaded with talent, and once they buy into Morrill's system, it should be a fifth straight WAC title for USU, at least until another team proves otherwise.
Oh, the other part of the ballot is the player preseason picks. Here were mine for player of the year, newcomer of the year, and the All-WAC team.
Wendell McKines, New Mexico State F; Zane Johnson, Hawaii G; Brockeith Pane, Utah State G; Dario Hunt, Nevada F; Malik Story, Nevada G.
If there were a second team, here would be my picks without having seen any of the newcomers out there:
Vander Joaquim, Hawaii C; Deonte Burton, Nevada G; Brady Jardine, Utah State F; Kyle Barone, Idaho C; Hernst LaRoche, New Mexico State G
Player of the Year: Wendell McKines, New Mexico State F. Comment: USU's Pane won't have the numbers to justify it, even on what (should) be the WAC's best team. Nevada has too much talent across its roster for one player to be singled out for this honor. If UH has a big year, Zane Johnson will vault into consideration.
Newcomer of the Year: Shaquille Stokes, Hawaii G. Comment: Baby Shaq can light it up; he submitted double figures in each game on the China trip. The key for him will be how fast he can get comfortable with a Division I halfcourt game.