Friday, April 23, 2010

WAC Is Being Decimated By NBA Defections

The WAC was fairly strong this past season. It was rated the 11th best conference by Sagarin, which is the highest it's been since 2006-07, when the conference was led by a Nevada team that was led by three future NBA Draft picks (Nick Fazekas and Ramon Sessions were drafted at the end of the season, and Javale McGee went in the first round the following season). While only Utah State was an at-large quality team this past season, the conference did end up with four teams in the RPI Top 80, and it ended up with two Tournament teams when Utah State was knocked off in the WAC tournament and earned an at-large bid.

Heading into 2010-11 it seemed to me that Utah State would be improved, and I picked them to easily win the WAC, but I also picked New Mexico State, Fresno State and Nevada to all be quality teams behind them. But only days after the 2009-10 season ended, New Mexico State lost star Jahmar Young to the Draft. Nevada then lost Armon Johnson and possible lottery pick Luke Babbitt. And today comes the news that Fresno State will lose its leading scorer and rebounder Paul George to the Draft.

Certainly this means that Utah State will now go from being the WAC favorite to being the heavy, heavy WAC favorite. But there are downsides to being in a weakened conference, which is that you've got to go almost undefeated to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid if you get upset in the conference tournament. It's worth noting that the Selection Committee basically admitted that Utah State got bumped up a few spots in the "S curve" beyond where their overall resume deserved because the Committee had respect for the 14-2 record they put up in the WAC, and that if not for that extra respect they might have gotten left out. Will they get the same respect for going 14-2 next season? Unlikely. I think they'll need a big scalp or two in their out-of-conference schedule to firm up their resume just in case.

As for the rest of the conference, one winner out of this is Louisiana Tech, a team that finished in fourth place this past season but lost a lot to graduation. They have a lot of young talent but I thought 2010-11 would be a rebuilding season for them as they primed up for the 2011-12 season. But with the other teams I put ahead of them losing so much to the Draft (I had picked Louisiana Tech to finish fifth in the WAC in 2010-11), there's no reason the Bulldogs can't surprise people again and actually finish higher than they did in 2009-10.


Daniel said...

I don't see how Utah St. will be the "heavy, heavy favorite". Yes Nevada did lose Babbitt and Johnson to the draft. But they also received commitments from Deonte Burton (an ESPN top 100 recruit) and Illiwa Baldwin. Deonte will be an instant improvement at the point over Armon and can be a game changer right away. Baldwin will give them the big man that they have lacked since McGee left. Nevada also acquired Olek Czyz, who transferred from Duke, also an ESPN top 100 recruit in 2009. The loss of Nevada's top scorer in Babbitt is a definite setback, but they will make up for it with Czyz, Burton, and Baldwin. Nevada will be a team with much more depth in 2010-11. They will not be foreced to keep they're starters on the floor for the entire forty minutes. It's gonna come down to the wire, but I think Nevada will give Utah St. a run for their money.

Jeff said...

At the moment I do agree with you that Nevada is probably the second best team in the WAC, but you're over-estimating the incoming players. Would you mind giving a link to somebody who has Deonte Burton rated as a Top 100 recruit? ESPN has him listed as the 43rd best shooting guard, and neither or ranks him (Scout has him as a 2-star recruit, Rivals has him as a 3). Of course, Armon Johnson wasn't highly rated when he came in, and the reports I've seen on Burton say that he'll be a quality WAC guard at some point, but to project him to get 15.8 points and 5.6 assists per game, with 50% shooting from the field (as Johnson had this past season) as a true freshman is extremely optimistic.

Olek Czyz was a player who was fairly highly recruited out of high school, but he couldn't get off the bench at Duke. And Baldwin may be tall, but considering his stats in junior college (13 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game) it's a reach to project him to be a force right away in the WAC. If anything, Philip Johnson (who is only an oral recruit last I checked... not sure if he signed yet) is more likely to immediately contribute down low than Baldwin. And remember who they're replacing: Babbitt is the best recruit that Nevada has landed in recent memory, and absolutely dominated the WAC.

I'm not saying Nevada is going to fall off a cliff - I think right now that they're narrowly ahead of New Mexico State for second place in the WAC. But I don't see how three players who have never played regular minutes in Division I and barely sniffed attention from BCS schools this past season (Burton got attention from Marquette, Jackson got it from Illinois and DePaul, and Baldwin got it from South Carolina) are going to be as good as two outstanding WAC stars. And when you include graduations, Nevada will lose four of their top six scorers and minutes earners.

And so when you consider that Utah State was already clearly better than Nevada in 2009-10, and that Utah State will probably be improved in 2010-11, I just don't see how Nevada will seriously challenge them.

But on the plus side, when you consider how old Utah State will be in 2010-11 (they will start either four or five seniors), you have to figure they'll have a big drop-off the following year. If Nevada's youngsters develop then they could be back on top of the WAC in 2011-12.