It would be an overstatement to call the Western Athletic Conference, home to Wyoming (page 20), unprecedentedly strong. After all, in the 1980-81 season the conference had eight players (Danny Ainge, Tom Chambers and Michael Cage among them) who would go on to play in the NBA, and three schools (Brigham Young, Utah and Wyoming) that each won at least 24 games. But while the WAC's current rosters may not stock the play-for-pays with quite so many studfish, at least four members of the conference should win 20 and go on to the NCAA tournament. It is with only mild hyperbole that new San Diego State coach Jim Brandenburg says, "The WAC could have the four best teams in the West."
The way Wyoming coach Benny Dees has it figured, he'll end up tending sheep if the Cowboys he inherited from Brandenburg don't win more games than they play. If that were possible, this is the team that could do it—and not just because of stars like Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner. Give credit also to the Pokes' role players: defenders Jon Sommers and Sean Dent and spot shooters Reggie Fox and Turk Boyd.
Last spring New Mexico felt left out and left off. "Ridiculous," sputtered coach Gary Colson when the Lobos, despite a 25-10 record, weren't offered an NCAA bid. (A law-firm schedule—Winthrop, Brown, et al.—consigned them to the NIT.) Just as upset was forward Hunter Greene, who led the WAC in scoring and steals yet didn't make the all-conference first team. Forward Charlie Thomas was playing well at Wake Forest two years ago, but grades sat him down. Now in Albuquerque, the 6'7" Thomas joins two 7-footers: 7'1" Luc Longley from Australia and 7-foot junior Rob Loeffel.
Imagine a redshirt program in which the shirts aren't red but white—with starched collars. Thanks to eight former missionaries, Brigham Young is again the WAC's longest-in-the-tooth team. Twenty-two-year-old Mike Smith (see box) returned from a mission last year and shot almost as if he hadn't missed a day of practice. Another shooter, Andy Toolson, 21, is back after a two-year hiatus in Chile. Forward Jeff Chatman can also stick it, while guard Marty Haws is a national-caliber sprinter.
It's hard to count out UTEP, winner of or sharer in the last five regular-season conference titles. But the Miners have experienced adversity since their gallant NCAA loss to Iowa in March. Jeep Jackson suffered a fatal heart attack in May, and Chris Sandle and Chris Blocker were involved in a nightclub fracas in September. Coach Don Haskins has suspended Sandle, UTEP's best forward, until at least January; Blocker was disciplined but not suspended. Wayne Campbell is the Miners' one rock; a sixth-year senior, he redshirted one year of his own volition and took off a second because of injury.
In the Kansas juco all-star game two years ago, Watkins Singletary outscored Keith Smart (now with Indiana) and out-'bounded Harvey Grant (Oklahoma). Singletary is ready to try to push Utah past its 17-13 mark of last season. With him are Mitch Smith, a 6'8" forward forced to play center, and veterans Jimmy Madison, a forward, and Gale Gondrezick, a guard.
It has been 33 seasons since Colorado State won 20 games, but now three Rams representing 42.7 points a game greet new coach Boyd Grant, who habitually won 20 at Fresno State during the early '80s. The anchor is Pat Durham, the WAC's leading rebounder and shot-blocker last season.
Either they're making cockpits bigger than they used to, or there's a hoops fan in the Pentagon. Air Force suddenly has four 6'8" recruits to go with the seven full-or part-time starters back from last season. During a summer tour of the South Pacific, coach Reggie Minton began putting all the parts together. The Falcons' best: sophomore guard Ray Dudley, the WAC's Newcomer of the Year.
Why did Brandenburg leave that powerhouse in Laramie for San Diego State, where four starters from a 5-25 team were due to return? The challenge? The perks? The weather? Whatever, the Aztecs lost six lettermen, though not guard Tony Ross, who sank 104 three-pointers last season.
Frank Arnold guided Hawaii to a league record of 3-29 in two seasons, then bolted for an assistant's job at Arizona State. Riley Wallace arrives in Honolulu from Seminole (Okla.) J.C., with 6'9" Billy Bolds in tow, to succeed Arnold, but he'll have only six scholarship players eligible until January. Luckily one of them is Chris Gaines, a 17.1-points-per-game scorer last season.
This is the nation's most distended league, stretching from El Paso to Honolulu, from Laramie to San Diego. It's also one of the few you can't routinely catch on cable TV, which, in addition to being a shame, may be the reason more than a million fans show up in WAC arenas each season. This season's million will recognize many faces, because in 1986-87 an underclassman led each statistical category in the conference except assists. Give them a few years, and players like Greene, Durham, Dembo, Leckner and Mitch and Mike Smith may even surpass the Class of '81.
The long arms of Leckner should put the Pokes at the top of the WAC's 20-win club.