Wolf Pack again favorite in revamped WAC | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Wolf Pack again favorite in revamped WAC

Scott Sonner

RENO – The Western Athletic Conference has a new look with three new teams and two coaching changes, but the favorite again this year is Nevada and its star forward Nick Fazekas after consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.

The Wolf Pack is ranked 22nd in The Associated Press preseason poll and led by the 6-foot-11 junior Fazekas, who averaged 20 points and 9.4 rebounds a game a year ago. Fazekas is the WAC coaches’ preseason pick for MVP on a squad that also includes last year’s WAC freshman of the year, Ramon Sessions, at point guard.

Nevada coach Mark Fox, entering his second year after replacing Trent Johnson who went to Stanford, believes the combination of a deeper bench and better shooters gives his team the chance to top last year’s school-best record of 25-7.

He also understands the challenge ahead for a university that until last year was more often than not confused with a former powerhouse to the south with the initials UNLV.

“One of the hardest things to do in athletics is win a championship when everyone says you are going to,” Fox said at the WAC’s media day.

“I don’t know if people really know how good this league is,” he said. “There are at least three teams that are NCAA-tournament good. I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves.”

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Two other big men – two-time defending NCAA rebounding champ Paul Millsap at Louisiana Tech and Julian Sensley at Hawaii – are expected to help keep their teams in the hunt.

They should be pressed by Fresno State, where Ja’Vance Coleman joined the two big men as first-team all-WAC team selections last year, and by Boise State, which is led by guard Coby Karl, the son of NBA coach George Karl.

Utah State is the most highly regarded among the conference newcomers, which also include Idaho and New Mexico State, coached by former NBA star Reggie Theus.

Gone from the conference are former WAC members Tulsa, Texas-El Paso, Rice and SMU.

In addition to Sensley, Hawaii returns junior guard Matt Gibson, a second-team all-WAC pick last year who led the Rainbow Warriors in scoring with 13 points per game.

“I think we’ll be much improved. I hope we win the close games we lost last year,” coach Riley Wallace said.

Louisiana Tech’s Millsap averaged 20.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game a year ago. He’s joined by junior college transfer Jerome Richardson, a 6-foot-4 guard picked by the conference coaches as the preseason newcomer of the year.

“I think we have upgraded our talent around Paul. Is it good enough to be a lot better? I don’t know,” said coach Keith Richard, whose team was a disappointing 14-15 last year.

Utah State, which has averaged 25 wins a year while making either the NCAA or NIT each of the past six seasons, landed a pair of players on the preseason all-WAC team – sophomore guard Jaycee Carroll and senior forward Nate Harris, whose career 65 percent shooting clip is a school record. The Aggies lose star big man Spencer Nelson and all three players who were at the small forward position a year ago.

Coach Stew Morrill, entering his 20th year in coaching, said one of the biggest challenges in the new conference will be a “brutal” travel schedule that stretches from Honolulu to Ruston, La.

“We had without question the best home court in the Big West Conference. Now you have a lot of quality home courts,” he said.

Coleman averaged 16.9 points a game last year for the Fresno State Bulldogs, whose new coach Steve Cleveland, formerly of BYU, grew up in the Fresno area.

Donovan Morris, a 6-foot-4 sophomore guard who averaged 11.7 points last year, is the only other returning starter. The Bulldogs lost their top two rebounders, but Cleveland expects 6-foot-7 junior college transfer Quinton Hosley “will have an immediate impact on the league.”

“The depth at the post is going to be something we have to deal with,” he said.

At Boise State, 3-point specialist Karl is joined in the backcourt by returning starter Eric Lane and starting forward Tezarray Banks. Gone is last year’s leading scorer Jermaine Blackburn and leading rebounder Jason Ellis.

“I think the key for us is going to be the inside, how our big guys play,” coach Greg Graham said.

New Mexico State transferred from the Sun Belt Conference, where it was 1-14, 6-24 overall a year ago. The Aggies are led by a pair of returning starters in senior guard Mike Mitchell, last year’s leading scorer with 12.3 points per game, and 6-foot-11 center Trevor Lawrence (9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds).

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Theus, who was an assistant the past two years to Rick Pitino at Louisville. “I think this is going to be a team that is going to play very hard when it’s all said and done.”

San Jose State’s senior swing man Alex Elam, named to the preseason WAC team, is one of three returning starters for the Spartans, who begin the season with a 13-game road losing streak. The Spartans’ biggest loss is leading scorer Marquin Chandler, who averaged 19.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game.

“We’ve got a lot of challenges ahead of us, but I’m really encouraged,” said George Nessman, a former Cal assistant in his first head coaching job.

Idaho has seven new faces on a squad that won only four games on the road over the last two seasons in the Big West Conference and is picked to finish last in its debut in the WAC.

“We have absolutely no intention of staying there, but that’s where we should be picked,” said coach Leonard Perry, who played for the Vandals’ last NCAA tournament team in 1990. His top player is Tanoris Shepard, a 5-foot-11 guard who averaged 12.1 points a game last year. “Our strength this year is going to be on the perimeter.”

On the Net: Western Athletic Conference: http://www.wacsports.com/