Talent? Last season the NBA drafted three hardship cases from the WAC, all with two years of eligibility left. This year Arizona has Bob Elliott, one of the best big men in college; Utah has the amazing shooter, Luther (Ticky) Burden; and Arizona State, led by Lionel (Train) Hollins, may win the league title.
Contrast? This is a conference where one team can score 106 points and lose by 15 (which Arizona did), and another team can score only 11 baskets and be applauded (which Wyoming did and was). UTEP has been the NCAA leader in defense two years running, but the Miners had one of those typically wacky WAC point-spread differentials with Arizona State last season. UTEP lost at Tempe 73-53, and then won at El Paso 82-48—-a cool spread of 54 big ones.
Balance? The WAC has always been the most balanced of conferences. In 1966 Brigham Young finished 6-4 in the league, yet won the NIT in New York. Only four times in the WAC's 12-year history has the championship been decided earlier than the final day of the season, and just once in the last six years has the champion lost fewer than four games.
Road victories are considered such rarities that the WAC keeps a separate set of statistics entitled "break-throughs." There were 17 last year. The best road record over 12 seasons is owned by Brigham Young, which has won 25 of 70 such league games for an unsparkling .357 percentage. Nobody else is close.
The WAC normally needs a slide rule to compute the playoff possibilities stemming from the conference race. Last March five teams went into the final weekend with a shot at the championship, and if UTEP had beaten New Mexico there would have been a quintuple tie. The year before, four schools were involved in the race on the final day.
Again this winter five schools have a chance at the championship. Arizona probably still has the most physical talent. Arizona State's backcourt is second only to Maryland's in the country. New Mexico has enough intense, hustling types to defend its title with gusto. Colorado State, the dark horse, has inside depth returning from a team that lost five WAC games by a total of 10 points. And UTEP has nasty defense, playground quickness and some of the best coaching anywhere.
Brigham Young, too, enters the 20th century. The Cougars, who pride themselves on recruiting foreign athletes, have gone so foreign this time that Californian Gary Batiste will be the first black basketball player ever at Provo.
Such competition has inspired vast audiences and necessitated the construction of huge, glimmering basketball palaces. Four WAC teams were among the 11 NCAA home-attendance leaders last season. Brigham Young, with the nation's largest (22,670 seats) on-campus facility, led the country two years ago. New Mexico's "Pit" led in 1974. UNM was one of only two schools that drew more than 200,000 at home; the other was UCLA. Overall, the WAC attracted close to one million for home games in 1973-74.
Irv Brown, a much-respected referee from Denver who officiated two of the last three NCAA finals, says, "They do everything in the WAC but ice the puck. The quality of play isn't any better than some places and it isn't any tougher. But they run there, scatter, hold it, fire it, coach the hell out of it, defend it and make noise like crazy. It's my favorite because they have the most fun."
For nine years the WAC stagnated because there were no coaching changes. Then a new breed came in, and Arizona State's Ned Wulk, the lone survivor of the original coaches, started to work harder, primarily on defense. Now, what one of the new leaders calls the WAC's "sagebrush image" is pass�.