Nanooks look to defend Top of the World title

Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2003

ANCHORAGE, Alaska The University of Alaska Fairbanks proved to be rude hosts last year at the BP Top of the World Classic, the nation's northernmost college basketball tournament.

After winning just four games the season before, the Nanooks defeated Wisconsin-Green Bay, Nebraska and Weber State to become the first Division II school to win an eight-team tournament involving Division I teams.

It was also the first time the host Nanooks had won the tournament, which started in 1996.

UAF will try to do it again this year, opening Thursday night against Texas-San Antonio.

''We're getting there,'' said UAF coach Al Sokaitis. ''We're probably a little bit better than I thought we'd be but not as good as we need to be.''

In the finals last year, the Nanooks shot 54 percent from 3-point range, 26-for-31 from the free throw line and harassed Weber State the eventual Big Sky Conference champ into 24 turnovers. UAF went on to a 20-8 season and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

The team is built largely on Alaska talent, including Top of the World Most Valuable Player Brad Oleson, a product of North Pole High School. Oleson scored 17 points, pulled down nine rebounds and flew around the court setting picks and diving after loose balls against Weber State.

The Nanooks also return point guard Chris Smith, plus other Alaska-grown talent: 6-2 guard Ryan Jones of Valdez, 6-6 forward Justin Bourne from Lathrop High in Fairbanks, 2002 Alaska High School Player of the Year Andrew Smith of Bartlett High in Anchorage, and 6-4 swingman Zac Forsyth of Palmer.

Lost through graduation was Steve Towne, a constant 3-point threat, and 6-9 center Jason Williams. Sokaitis said people are wondering who will replace Williams, the Nanooks' all-time leading shot blocker, as an enforcer in the middle.

''I'd be interested to know that too,'' he said. ''We have some candidates, but it's a beauty contest without winners yet.''

The Nanooks open the tournament against a Texas-San Antonio team that finished 10-17 last season. The Roadrunners return three players who started every game last season, including LeRoy Hurd, who averaged 17.6 points per game and lead the Southland Conference in scoring.

Binghamton faces St. Mary's, Washington State plays Virginia Military Institute and Idaho State pairs off with Rice in the other opening round games.

Alaska fans will have someone to cheer for when Binghamton takes the floor. The Bearcats starting center is junior Nick Billings, who lead Kodiak to Alaska's state championship in 2001.

A year ago, the seven-foot, 235-pound Billings was credited with 117 blocked shots, second in the nation behind Connecticut's Emeka Okafor. Billings averaged 9 points per game but just 6.7 rebounds. Binghamton competed in the America East Conference and finished 13-13 overall.

The Bearcats will have their hands full with St. Mary's, a team on the rise in the West Coast Conference. The Gaels are projected to finish as high as third behind Gonzaga and Pepperdine.

Third-year coach Randy Bennett guided St. Mary's to a 15-15 record last season, the best since 1997, with an emphasis on defense that limited opponents to 64.1 points per game.

Washington State has averaged just eight victories the past five years playing in the Pac-10 conference but starts the year optimistic with the hiring of a highly respected coach, Dick Bennett.

Bennett, another disciple of hard-nosed defense, led a formerly woeful Wisconsin Badgers team to a Final Four appearance in 2000, then abruptly retired eight months later just before the 2000-01 season.

The Cougars best player is 6-foot-6 guard Marcus Moore, who considered entering the NBA draft last year but decided to return for his senior season. He averaged 18 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.66 steals per game last season.

Virginia Military Institute finished 10-20 last year, a season disrupted when sophomore Jason Conley, the nation's leading scorer the year before, transferred to Missouri at midseason. Two players, 6-6 forward Radee Skipworth, who averaged 18.6 points and 5.8 rebounds, and senior point guard Richard Little, return for VMI.

Rice finished 19-10 a year ago but couldn't garner a postseason bid.

The Owls return leading scorer and rebounder Michael Harris, a 6-6 forward who lead his team in scoring and rebounding off the bench. Point guard Rashid Smith lead the Western Athletic Conference in assists.

Idaho State was 15-14 last year, the first winning season since 1996-97. The Bengals were 7-7 in the Big Sky Conference.

Scott Henry, a 6-7 forward, returns with his team best 11.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. But Idaho State suffered a blow when it lost guard David Schroeder and his 10.8 points per game with a torn ACL on its opening night practice.

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