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UTEP Favored to Repeat As WAC Titlist : Coaches and Media Agree: Aztecs Should Finish Fourth

December 31, 1985|STEVE DOLAN | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Whenever Western Athletic Conference basketball coaches convene, sad songs are the order of the day.

One minute, a coach talks about how difficult the season will be for his team, and in the next breath, he'll talk about what little respect the WAC receives.

So it was when conference coaches had their annual preseason meeting last month in Denver.

Don Haskins of Texas El Paso discussed how difficult it would be to repeat as regular-season champion because he had lost both of his starting guards. And then, Haskins went into the can't-get-any-respect routine.

Others soon jumped on the lack-of-respect bandwagon.

Ladell Andersen of Brigham Young mentioned that the WAC was 9-3 against Pacific 10 teams in the 1984-85 preseason yet still didn't get any respect.

That lack of respect can be justified this season, however, as the WAC was 3-9 against Pacific 10 teams.

But there are other reasons for WAC coaches to blow their horns. UTEP upset fifth-ranked Georgetown, 78-64, four days ago, and BYU handed Weber State its first loss in 10 games, 88-86, in overtime three days ago.

"I think when our conference does something good, it goes unnoticed a lot of times," Andersen said. "When UTEP beat Georgetown, that was pretty big for our league. Georgetown was rated No. 5 and is a former NCAA champion. Maybe UTEP should be in the top five because it has only lost one game. Sometimes, you don't get any respect out here in the wilderness."

UTEP is 11-1 after defeating Alabama, 74-62, Monday night in the championship of the Sun Bowl tournament. The Miners lost their first game of the season to Washington, 82-53.

Haskins said the Miners "looked like we couldn't have beaten a junior high team" when they played the Huskies.

Anybody who can't beat a junior high team obviously will not get respect on the major-college level.

According to Haskins, WAC basketball has not received its due respect for some time. Four years ago, the Miners did not receive an NCAA or National Invitation Tournament berth despite finishing 20-8. UTEP had twice beaten WAC champion Wyoming during the season.

"That year, there were 41 teams from the East and seven from the West in the NCAA tournament," Haskins said. "In all fairness, there have been times where we got a chance and didn't take advantage. We beat Tulsa in the NCAA tournament last year, then we didn't play worth a darn against North Carolina State. To get respect, you have to beat somebody."

WAC coaches seem to have little respect for Villanova, last season's NCAA champion. Haskins said Villanova would not have made the NCAA playoffs last year if its 18-10 record had been achieved in the WAC.

Nobody mentioned, however, Villanova undoubtedly would have been better than 18-10 if it played in the WAC instead of the Big East Conference.

"I really believe Villanova wouldn't have gotten to the NCAA if it played in this conference last year," said Smokey Gaines, San Diego State coach. "There's no doubt about it."

When the WAC season begins this week, there is no doubt that UTEP is the team to beat. The Miners tied for the WAC championship in 1982-83 before winning the last two regular-season championships. However, SDSU earned an automatic NCAA berth last season by winning the first WAC postseason tournament.

UTEP was picked by WAC coaches and media to win the conference in a preseason poll. Coaches chose Utah second and New Mexico third, and the media selected New Mexico second and Utah third. The consensus choices from fourth through seventh were SDSU, Wyoming, Brigham Young and Colorado State. Air Force was picked eighth by coaches and last by the media, and Hawaii was picked eighth by the media and last by coaches.

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