Warning: Opponents are closer than they appear.
There’s going to be a lot of nervousness in the Western Athletic Conference over the next month — the amount of time left before the WAC basketball tournament in Las Vegas.
While No. 21 Utah State has all but driven off with the regular-season title at 11-0, plenty of drama is promised in the rest of the standings.
The ninth-place team is left home from the tournament. That was Hawaii last year, but first-year coach Gib Arnold has the Rainbow Warriors in much better position to qualify this time; there’s someone else to check the rear-view mirror for. UH split its road swing through the state of Idaho last week by winning 73-66 at Boise State and falling two days later at Idaho, 75-61.
Nothing is assured. Thanks in part to USU’s dominance and the lack of a clear-cut second-best team, there’s an unusually tight bunching at the WAC waistline.
From second to ninth place, it goes New Mexico State (7-4), Nevada (6-4), Idaho (6-5), Boise State (5-6), Fresno State (5-6), Hawaii (4-7), San Jose State (3-8) and Louisiana Tech (2-9). Every team has five games left to decide its seeding except Nevada (six games).
"Normally, you’ve got an idea of who you want to win and who you want to lose," Arnold said with a chuckle yesterday. "But I don’t know who to cheer for and who to cheer against. I just decided we’ll cheer for Hawaii, and we’ll let everybody else fall where they fall."
Seeding is more important than in seasons past because of a new format to the WAC tournament. The top two seeds get double byes into the semifinals, while the third- and fourth-seeded teams get single byes to the quarterfinals. The fifth- through eighth-place teams would have to win four games in four days, March 9 to 12, to secure the tourney title and automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
In theory, NMSU could still fall to the bottom half, and LaTech — which has played opponents closer of late — could rise to the middle of the pack.
UH (13-10 overall) returns home for its next three WAC games, but the homestand is interrupted by a road trip to UC Davis on Feb. 19 as part of the annual ESPNU BracketBusters event.
Hawaii could still finish anywhere from second to last. A single close WAC win or loss could have dramatic ramifications on the overall conference picture.
As Idaho coach Don Verlin said before his team beat UH, "Utah State is head and shoulders above everybody, and when you put the rest of us all in a hat, I think you can draw out two through nine."
Arnold is embracing the tight competition.
"There’s nothing really nerve-wracking about it. I’m excited about it. I like … I think we’ve played some pretty good ball as of late, and I like our chances of where we are. I think it’s great that we’re coming back home for a few games and you know, I think our guys will be ready for these last couple weeks. I think we’re going to give our greatest effort for these last five games, and hopefully that will carry through the postseason."
Arnold remained on the mainland following the Idaho game. He will stay in the Los Angeles area for recruiting purposes, then return to the islands on Thursday in preparation for Monday’s game against third-place Nevada.
UH plays LaTech and NMSU at home on Feb. 24 and 26, then takes to the road for its final regular-season games, at San Jose State and at Fresno State on March 3 and 5.