DENVER — Whenever Western Athletic Conference basketball coaches convene, Smokey Gaines plays his game.
Gaines will bemoan his situation at San Diego State while other coaches shake their heads.
The script was replayed Sunday when Gaines was talking about 6-foot 8-inch forward Steffond Johnson, who transferred from Louisiana State to SDSU.
"Steffond is going to find it is a different world at San Diego State from LSU," Gaines said. "The problem Steffond will have is adjusting from a major big-time program to an average program like San Diego State."
San Diego State, an average program? Aren't those the same Aztecs who won the WAC Tournament last year to earn an NCAA playoff berth?
Of course. It's just that Gaines won't admit things might be better at SDSU than he makes them out to be.
On the other hand, others in the WAC won't quit when they praise the Aztecs' ability.
"LSU is pretty good, but San Diego State is just as good," Gary Colson, New Mexico coach, said. "If you took San Diego State and put them in Baton Rouge, you'd have a pretty good program."
As SDSU approaches its Nov. 29 opener against Louisiana Tech, Gaines said he isn't certain if he has a better-than-.500 team. It's easy to see his reasoning.
SDSU has lost its starting front line from 1984-85 and has six freshmen on its 12-player roster. WAC coaches and media picked the Aztecs to finish fourth in the nine-team conference.
However, SDSU is still strong in the backcourt where seniors Anthony Watson and Creon Dorsey are leaders. Watson was named to the All-WAC first-team last season when he led SDSU with a 17.5 scoring average.
"I like to play teams that have lost their guards," Coach Don Haskins of Texas El Paso said. "You have to put Smokey's team in as one that can win the league. It starts with their guards. They have two of the best guards in the country, and they have good inside players. They were playing extremely well at the end of last season. That type of momentum always carries."
Though SDSU has a short lineup, it seems to be following a trend in the WAC. The conference's only potentially dominant big men appear to be Dave Feitl (6-11) of UTEP and Rich Strong (6-9) of Colorado State. Feitl often shoots from the outside, and Strong is on a weak team.
Therefore, guard-oriented teams such as SDSU may not be overpowered in the WAC.
"They have great players in Anthony Watson and Creon Dorsey," Utah guard Manuel Hendrix said. "They have one of the toughest backcourts in the WAC. I think teams are going with smaller, quicker guys because we have a 45-second shot clock. You can't walk up the court and take your time."
Gaines has said he will have a running team that often features a three-guard offense. He has even hinted at playing four guards at once.
Two of the four Aztecs who are 6-8 or taller are hurting physically. John Martens has been slowed in practice by postseason knee surgery. Gerald Murray returned to practice late last week after being sidelined with a broken kneecap.
"You can say they lost their whole front line, but they are returning two of the best guards in the conference," BYU guard Richie Webb said. "Plus, Smokey always seems to come up with talented players. I wouldn't discount their chances."
Only Smokey Gaines seems to be doing that.