The Aggies have added a number of players who will be counted on to contribute immediately as one of the Big West’s most dominant programs in recent years finds itself in a new league with stiffer competition.
Gone is versatile forward Spencer Nelson, but the Aggies return a pair of 2005 All-Big West performers in forward Nate Harris and guard Jaycee Carroll. Both scored in double-digits last year, and they will find themselves surrounded by a ton of new faces. Utah State signed 10 players in the offseason — eight of them junior college transfers — and finding the right pieces to go along with three returning starters while adjusting to a step up in competition will be a tough task for veteran coach Stew Morrill.
Harris and 6'10" Matheus Cass, who came on late last season, will provide some scoring and experience in the frontcourt. And they’ll get some help from transfers Chaz Spicer, Durrall Peterson and Chris Session.
Carroll, the Big West Freshman of the Year last year, will handle the 2-guard spot, and point guard David Pak returns, as does his backup, Chris Huber. But the Aggies brought in a pair of junior college point guards in Everett Morgan and Mikel Watson.
Having a bunch of newcomers is nothing new for Morrill, who has certainly built a solid program in Logan. He’s used to reloading every year. But the question this time around is: Can he reload while elevating the program to a new league?
Last year, Utah State and Pacific, the top two Big West programs, were certainly comparable to Nevada and UTEP, the top two WAC schools. But the difference between the leagues is that the WAC is tougher from top to bottom, and that, combined with a tougher travel schedule, provides some hurdles for Utah State to overcome.
3. Hawaii (16–13, 7–11)
How much did the Warriors enjoy Matt Gibson’s scoring — a team-leading 13 points per game — last year? Well, they went out and recruited three point guards in an effort to move Gibson to the shooting guard spot.
Gibson ran the point last year and was able to use his height (6'5") to score against smaller defenders. The Warriors are hoping to get more scoring from him and talented forward Julian Sensley (12.0 ppg and 6.9 rpg) to boost an offense that ranked ninth in the league in scoring (68.6 ppg) a year ago.
Hawaii has an outside shot at contending, but the question marks are numerous. Can the Warriors suitably fill the point guard spot with freshmen Hiram Thompson and Dominic Waters and transfer John Wilder? Can 7'0" center Christopher Botez become more of a threat after averaging just 5.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game? Can Hawaii get more production out of Sensley, whose output over the past two years (12.1 ppg and 7.1 rpg) belies the senior’s talent level?
More will be expected out of junior guard Bobby Nash, and Hawaii is hoping for an immediate impact from 6'8" junior college forward Ahmet Gueye.
The Warriors have some talented pieces in place, but the key will be the backcourt situation. Wilder, from Weatherford College in Texas, might be the immediate answer at the point, but the long-term solution could be Thompson. If Hawaii wants to contend this year, it will need one of the newcomers to step up right away so that Gibson can focus on making the transition to off guard.
4. Louisiana Tech (14–15, 9–9)
Coach Keith Richard knows exactly what he has in forward Paul Millsap. “We have a great player returning in Paul Millsap. As long as he’s here we’re always a recruiting class away from having a really good team,” Richard says.
The Bulldogs, a team that has hovered around the .500 mark in each of the past three seasons, added six players, including four junior college transfers, in hopes of being able to take the next step.
Millsap, a 6'8" forward who is the most prolific rebounder in the nation, is back for his junior year, but three seniors who contributed heavily — Corey Dean, Donell Allick and Wayne Powell — are gone.
That means the Bulldogs will rely heavily on returning starters Millsap and point guard Daevon Haskins until the newcomers find their way. No other returning player averaged more than four points per game a year ago.
Guards Trey McDowell and Jerome Richardson, both junior college transfers, will have to fill immediate roles in the backcourt while forwards Harry Disy and Chad McKenzie must provide support inside to complement Millsap.
While the newcomers are important for Louisiana Tech to battle for the WAC crown, the Bulldogs aren’t doing anything without the production they have become accustomed to from Millsap. The junior has scored in double figures in 33 straight games and has 42 double-doubles in his career. He has averaged 12.5 rebounds per game in his career and is the first player since Kermit Washington in the early 1970s to lead the country in rebounding for two straight years.
5. Boise State (16–18, 6–12)
Boise State nearly made an improbable run into the NCAA Tournament last spring. The Broncos beat Nevada in Reno in the quarterfinals of the WAC Tournament and then advanced all the way to the finals before falling to UTEP.
Now, despite the loss of three main cogs from last season, Boise State is looking to start contending for the league title. But the Broncs may still be a year away.
Returning are backcourt mates Coby Karl (the son of NBA coach George Karl) and Eric Lane, who combined for 22 points per game last year. The guards are both threats from deep and thrive in the up-tempo style of coach Greg Graham.
Graham will need increased production out of forwards Tezarray Banks and Seth Robinson, and Boise State will need to replace the output of Jason Ellis, who scored 10.4 points and pulled down 9.0 rebounds per game.
Junior college additions Kenny Taylor (6'4" shooting guard) and Tyle Tiedeman (6'6" swingman) should make an impact, and Graham might need quick development from freshman centers Kurt Cunningham and Colin Hallberg to replace Ellis in the middle.
Last year’s tournament run aside, the season was a disappointment after a 23–10 mark in 2003-04. But with Karl, Lane and Banks returning, the Broncos are poised to take another step forward this year. And with a relatively weak league after Nevada, the Broncos could find themselves in the thick of things late in the season.
6. Fresno State (16–14, 9–9)
More than anything, Fresno State is looking for some stability out of its program after coming off two straight seasons of off-the-court problems and NCAA violations.
Former BYU coach Steve Cleveland, a Fresno native, is now at the helm, and the first-year coach will be hoping his talented backcourt can carry a Bulldog team that has some frontcourt issues.
Fresno State lost center Mustafa Al-Sayyad to graduation, and the only real size returning is 6'9" forward Hector Hernandez. Cleveland will need help from newcomers James Tchana (6'8", 275) and Renato Cesar (6'9", 230). The Bulldogs lost prep recruit Eric Van Vliet (6'10", 250), who had signed with the team prior to last season but then asked to be released from his scholarship during the coaching change. He landed at Montana.
One player who should make an immediate impact is versatile forward Quinton Hosley, a former junior college All-American. And the Bulldogs do have talented guard Ja’Vance Coleman, who arrived on the scene last year to average 16.9 points per game. The flashy shooting guard will have some talent around him in sharpshooter Donovan Morris, who averaged 11.7 points last year and connected at a 43 percent clip from behind the arc.
Cleveland will need to find a dependable point guard, and he has two likely candidates in Kevin Bell and Dekyron Nicks. Bell was a part-time starter a year ago who had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, while Nicks averaged 11.2 assists in junior college.
7. New Mexico State (6–24, 1–14 Sun Belt)
Former UNLV and NBA star Reggie Theus takes over a New Mexico State program that has had its struggles in recent years. And Theus knows he has some work to do before the Aggies, 6–24 last season, are able to contend in the WAC.
“When I look at the team and I think about what we have, being realistic, I think it’s a three-to-four year project,” Theus says. “But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be very competitive and make great strides in the meantime. Being competitive and fighting for a conference championship is really what it’s all about.”
Theus’ immediate charge is to find some depth with an otherwise thin roster. He signed six players over the summer months, but all six are four-year transfers and have to sit out this year.
And it appears the Aggies will be without 2004-05 leading scorer Duane John, who was indefinitely suspended over the summer for violating a team policy.
The backcourt will get a much-needed boost from Elijah Ingram, a 5'11" guard who sat out last year as a transfer from St. John’s. Ingram, who averaged 13.2 points pet game in 2003-04, will give the Aggies a scoring presence on the perimeter.
Up front, the Aggies have plenty of bodies but are largely unproven. Junior college transfer Supo Jegede will be asked to contribute immediately, and Theus will need some help from freshman forwards Chinemelu Elonu and Kevin Ford.
The Aggies do have 6'11" center Trevor Lawrence returning. He was a part-time starter a year ago who averaged 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds.
8. San Jose State (6–23, 3–15)
George Nessman has a lot of work to do in his first year as a Division I head coach. A former Cal assistant, Nessman had a successful run in the California junior college system (209–104 in 10 seasons at two schools), but he faces a major rebuilding project with the Spartans, who lost talented forward Marquin Chandler (19.6 ppg) to graduation. Nessman inherits a program that does not return a double-digit scorer or a rebounder with more than five per game.
San Jose State will need increased production across the board, especially from returning starters Alex Elam, a swingman who was second on the team with 9.8 points per game, and 6'11" center Matt Misko, who averaged 6.2 points and 4.9 rebounds.
With Nessman’s background in the junior college ranks and the Spartans’ track record of bringing in transfers, the surprise signing in the offseason was that of 6'4" swingman Devonte Thomas from Fremont, Calif. Thomas is the first Bay Area prepster to sign with San Jose State in 21 years.
“Devonte is a symbol of where we want to go with our recruiting efforts. We are building a program here at San Jose State and signing local high school seniors every year figures prominently in our plans,” Nessman says.
9. Idaho (8–22, 6–12 Big West)
As rough a short-term future as San Jose State has, things might be bleaker in Moscow, Idaho. The Vandals are making the step up to the WAC and doing so with four new starters and without their top four scorers from last year’s team that finished 8–22.
The optimist, however, would say that coach Leonard Perry has a clean slate to work with. Perry signed four junior college transfers to add immediate depth and has a pair of prep prospects coming in to a team that struggled mightily last year.
The transfers will obviously be needed to contribute immediately. Forwards Rashad Jennings and Igor Vrzina are both 6'8", while guards Brett Ledbetter and Keoni Watson add scoring from the outside.
Freshman Jarod Haynes returns at point guard, where he started 20 games and dished out 80 assists. Swingman Dillon Higdon and guard Tihon Johnson also return. But sophomore Mike Kale, who saw 10 minutes per game last year, is the main returning frontcourt player.
The Vandals will take their lumps this year, but a new conference brings new recruiting opportunities for Perry. And with a young team, there is plenty of room for growth.