Anybody who had Louisiana Tech winning the Western Athletic Conference regular season championship in their office pool may want to strongly consider taking the trip to Las Vegas for the conference tournament — because there may be more winnings to make.
Despite their surprising run to the WAC championship game last season, the Bulldogs were only expected to make modest strides in 2012-13, picked to finish fourth by both the coaches and the media in the pre-season WAC polls.
Instead, in just his second season in Ruston, La. Tech coach Michael White has his team on a 14-game winning streak and a perfect 13-0 in conference play, on top of the WAC by 1 1/2 games over New Mexico State and Denver teams La. Tech has beaten once already.
The Bulldogs will spend the weekend in the Pacific Northwest, having taken on Seattle Thursday night and facing Idaho on Saturday night, two teams that gave La. Tech a handful earlier in the season in Ruston.
Idaho was picked by coaches and media to finish just behind La. Tech, but finds itself a spot lower in the conference picture because of recent struggles. Seattle is where it was expected to be — in the gutter. Regardless, these are big road games for the Bulldogs as they look to potentially get in the conversation for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
Having that conversation in year two alone puts La. Tech ahead of the curve in the tenure of the second-year coach, White said.
“To be honest I’ve been dodging that question all year, and we probably are,” White said during La. Tech’s weekly press conference. “If you’d asked me in the summer if I’d be pleased with 21-3 I would have told you I’d throw a parade, you’d be in the first float throwing candy.”
Hired in March of 2011, White inherited a program that finished 12-20 in 2010-2011. Less than a year later he had that team in the conference championship game after downing No. 4 seeded Utah State and No. 1 seeded Nevada in consecutive games.
White’s transformation of the Bulldogs comes from having one of the deepest rosters in the conference. Five players average more than 20 minutes a game, but ten players average double figures, with none averaging more than 30 minutes a game.
Only sophomore guard Raheem Appleby averages double-digit scoring.
“Our best three or four guys, if you can find them, couldn’t care less about how much they’re scoring. They’re a lot more concerned with the betterment of the team and program,” White said. “They understand if we win, we all win. If we can win a championship, go to the NCAA Tournament, then La. Tech wins.”
Like any mid-major program the Bulldogs rely on some junior college contributors, but White said his staff has brought the chemistry together.
“It’s the kids that are simply on the roster, the kids that have been here and the ones that we have signed. We’ve made it a point to sign high character guys who want to be coached, who want to get along, who have aspirations of winning championships,” White said.
While the ultimate prize eluded La. Tech in an 82-57 loss to New Mexico State in last season’s conference championship game, it’s clear that it’s still the goal this time around, even though the program could even ultimately be on the NCAA Tournament bubble for an at-large bid.
“At the end of the day, if we’re in the conversation in the next couple of weeks to win a (NCAA) championship, then so be it. Obviously the biggest goal every year is to win three games in three days (in the WAC tournament). We’re going to have an opportunity to do that,” White said.
Currently La. Tech’s RPI, a statistical index the NCAA Tournament selection committee considers during selection, sits at 50, according to RealTimeRPI.com.
Last season the lowest ranked RPI to get an at-large bid was Virginia at No. 53, in 2011 it was USC at No. 67, in 2010 it was Minnesota at No. 62. Looking at mid-major conferences, La. Tech may take solace from Virginia Commonwealth’s at-large bid in 2011 with an RPI of 49.
Last season’s WAC regular season champion, Nevada, finished with an RPI of 67, and without winning the conference tournament it was relegated to using its automatic bid to the NIT from winning the regular season conference crown.
There are more factors than just RPI, such as quality out-of-conference wins and the strength of conference opponents. La. Tech’s best quality win is its Dec. 8 triumph over Southern Mississippi.
It doesn’t help La. Tech right now that it decided to cancel its BracketBuster game, due to the fact it’d have to go on the road.
“In hindsight that may have been a mistake on my part,” White said. “I didn’t just bet on being 21-3, with a chance at playing a big RPI game. I’m not sure we would have gotten it anyway.”
The next highest RPI’s in the conference is New Mexico State at 81, with Denver at 109. Neither team is realistically in the conversation for at-large bids.
White believes the conference is a one-bid league at the moment.
“Right now, yes, I do,” White said. “We can continue to do what we’re doing and maybe reel off a few more and may be in the conversation. But I know if we don’t beat Seattle (on Thursday evening) we won’t be in that conversation.”
The sure fire way to get in is to win three in a row in Las Vegas.
“We want to win the conference tournament. We still want to have a good record, we still want to go to the NCAA Tournament,” point guard Kenneth Smith said. “If we lose a game or not we still want to win the conference tournament, because we want to go to the NCAA Tournament.
“We have more pressure whether coach says there is or not on our back in every game. We know there’s pressure on each game.”
The NCAA Tournament selection committee would likely categorize a slip up on the road to Seattle or Idaho as a “bad loss”, hurting its RPI and opportunity to grab an at-large bid.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Massey said they look at the big picture every now and then.
“At the same time, we focus on the next game,” he said. “Each and every game that we play is our big game. We try to make sure we get the win and strive forward.”
Sean Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org