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If you, like most other discriminating college basketball fans, found yourself wishing over the past few seasons that the pantywaist, hoops-poor West would simply break loose from the North American continent and float away to become a mid-Pacific island of ongoing three-on-three tournaments, where spectators play Trivial Pursuit ( UCLA '60s edition) over wine coolers and avocado canap�s, well, you just might reconsider.
At the very least, you might spare the Mountain West. Take a look at Provo, Tucson and Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Boise and El Paso, not to mention the AP and UPI polls, and you'll see why this oft-neglected region is acting a bit chesty these days. With no help from the Pac-10's Pac-thetic 9, the West, at the end of last week, was home to four Top 20 teams: consensus No. 1 Arizona, undefeated Brigham Young, 19-1 Nevada-Las Vegas and 17-4 Texas-El Paso. New Mexico and Boise State are having terrific seasons. Computer whiz Jeff Sagarin's ranking of all 291 Division I teams has Arizona, UNLV and BYU among the top eight, with the mighty Lions of Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles a comer at No. 19.
This unrest in the West is largely due to the resurgent Western Athletic Conference. Wyoming started the season with a Top 10 spot in most polls. New Mexico is the only team so far to beat Arizona. And BYU (see box, page 40) swept consecutive road games against Wyoming, New Mexico and UTEP. That famous utterance of Brigham Young himself—"This is the place!"—has taken on new meaning in the Rockies.
Most telling, the WAC's ranked teams weren't summarily banished to the poll purgatory of "Others receiving votes" just because of a loss or two. Indeed, Wyoming's gifted but enigmatic Cowboys, who are still trying to dope out new coach Benny Dees's ways, had to lose four games before being dropped from several Top 20s. That's because the pollsters have taken into account the fact that the Cowboys' WAC vanquishers ( New Mexico, UTEP, BYU and Colorado State) are a combined 59-15.
Can these guys play? As they say out West about almost everything, you bet. Only the Big East has as many as five teams with at least 13 wins each, and at a recent Wyoming- UTEP game, there were no fewer than 14 pro scouts looking on. The WAC has 12 of its top 15 scorers back from last season, and its best crop of NBA prospects since 1981, when Charles Bradley, Danny Vranes and Tom Chambers all went in the first round. When bids to the NCAA tournament go out on March 13, the WAC should get four, perhaps even five. "In '81 we had strong people," says New Mexico coach Gary Colson. "This year we have strong teams."
Think of the WAC as a sort of posse in high tops, vigilantes pushing through the saloon doors, determined to get their Top 20 recognition without benefit of gaudy TV exposure. You think you've got a fast team? The WAC will sic Utah on you to play walk-it-up—and watch out for high-scoring power forward Watkins Singletary. Or maybe Colorado State will come after you, under the baton of coach Boyd (Tiny) Grant, and keep the score in the 40's, guaran-dang-teed. Prefer to pound away under the boards? Try taking it to Wyoming's front line of Eric Leckner, Fennis Dembo and Jon Sommers or UTEP's tough Tim Hardaway and Chris Sandle.
Like to play on the road? Check into the Pit, the below-ground arena in Albuquerque, where the elevation (5,200 feet above sea level, then 86 feet down into the earth) is posted in the visitors' locker room, and the crowd is so crazy that Colson has to use t'ai chi to calm down his team to a functional emotional level. Better yet, take the WAC's warm-port swing to supposedly weak San Diego State and Hawaii. New Mexico, giddy from beating Wyoming and Air Force in the Pit, in addition to braising Arizona, did, and lost twice. So intently had UTEP coach Don Haskins prepared before his team's five-point win in Honolulu, he said, "I had an oceanfront hotel room and never pulled back the drapes."
And if you're considered the best team in the land, the WAC wants you to meet Brigham Young. "I think BYU is better than Arizona," says Colson. "Not because they're from the WAC, but because its game is inside-oriented and Arizona is a perimeter team. I'm not sure anyone in the country could beat BYU on a neutral floor."
?Big Sky front-runner Boise State was 16-2 at week's end and playing defense that was not only hurting other teams, but also the local economy. The Wendy's outlets in Boise offer a free Big Classic burger and a Frosty to spectators at home victories in which the Broncos hold their opponents to fewer than 50 points. Coach Bobby Dye's charges have fired up the grill six times, putting Wendy's in hock for a potential 51,140 patties, or roughly one for every two people in town.