How do you sum up a league as vast as the Western Athletic Conference? With 16 teams split into two divisions distributed over five time zones, the WAC can be captured in four words: "Snow, desert, tropical fruits," says Rice coach and conference newcomer Willis Wilson, whose Owls were one of six teams that joined the WAC this season. "We experience it all."
Of course, that leaves out high altitude and jet lag, which are also part of the WAC experience. The conference is so spread out that its westernmost member, Hawaii, is closer to Tokyo than it is to Houston, where the Rainbows must travel to meet easternmost conference foe Rice. And six WAC schools (Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming) are perched at least 4,500 feet or higher, which causes some visiting teams experience oxygen deprivation—unless they believe, as TCU coach Billy Tubbs does, that in basketball "altitude is never a factor, because it's played indoors."
"Road games in this conference are tough," says Tulsa senior shooting guard Shea Seals, who played his first three college seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference. "The crowds are huge, and every game is like a championship game."
Certainly that could be said of the game between Seals's unranked Golden Hurricane and No. 13 New Mexico on Sunday. At stake? For Tulsa, to keep pace with first-place Utah in the WAC's Mountain Division, and for New Mexico, preservation of its 24-game home winning streak in the infamous Pit, the Lobos' subterranean lair, which is a mile high but still 37 feet below ground level in an Albuquerque mesa.
How big a home court advantage does the Pit provide? If the Lobos had been playing anywhere else on Sunday and shot 28.3%—their worst percentage in 12 years—and seen their star senior shooting guard, Charles Smith, throw up on the sidelines because of the flu, they probably would not have beaten Tulsa. The 57-51 victory gave New Mexico a 9-3 league record and moved it into a second-place tie with the Golden Hurricane in their division. "It's tough playing in [the Pit], because at times it's so loud that you can't hear your coaches, you can't hear your teammates," says Seals, who dropped in 25 points nonetheless. "They have great fans."
That home court support helps offset the fact that the Lobos have gotten only five top-100 recruits in the last five years. One of them, Smith, decided to come to Albuquerque from Fort Worth four years ago because, he says, "I wanted to help a mediocre team become one of the elite." Smith, a 6'4" wisp called Spider because of his nearly 7-foot arm span, has done his part in two ways: Through Sunday he had averaged 15.9 points per game for his career (he broke New Mexico's alltime scoring record in early February), and as a sophomore he earned the admiration of 6'8" Albuquerque High star Kenny Thomas, another top-100 player, who decided to become a Lobo, he says, "so I could play with Charles Smith."
Thomas, a sophomore forward-center and All-America candidate, is the Lobos' force under the basket, while Smith and junior forward Clayton Shields make up one of the best three-point-shooting tandems in the nation. That power triangle has taken the Lobos to a 20-4 record, but, says Shields, "we still haven't played up to our potential."
One team in the WAC that has played over its potential is Hawaii, a preseason pick for conference doormat that at week's end was leading the Pacific Division by one game (over Fresno State) with a 10-2 record. The Rainbows were particularly impressive during an ill-starred road trip last week. Despite troubles that included a bus crash outside of Denver (no one was injured), the suspension of three reserves for breaking team rules and the loss of starting center Seth Sundberg, who was found to have a lacerated spleen from an elbow he took last week, the Rainbows swept Wyoming and Colorado State with only seven players. Against the Cowboys, the Rainbows came from five points back with 20 seconds left to send the game into OT before going on to win by two. Star guard Anthony Carter scored 32 points. "It was unbelievable," said Hawaii coach Riley Wallace. "This is a special bunch of guys."
If the Rainbows continue to sparkle, and if Jerry Tarkanian's Fresno State team, which lost to lowly Air Force last weekend to drop to 16-9, gets a grip on itself, the WAC could send as many as five teams to the NCAAs. Come March, that's the only conference record that really matters.
Perfectly In Tune