As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. We continue with the Western Athletic Conference.
This isn't your father's WAC. Heck, unless your a fan of an incoming school, this isn't even your WAC! Founded in 1962, the WAC was a respected conference with a tradition of multiple at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. This year's WAC is on a whole different level. No schools remain from that original '62 group. In fact, only two schools have been in the WAC for longer than one year. Idaho and New Mexico State, both of which joined in 2005, and Idaho is leaving for the Big Sky at the end of the school year.
That's a bleak picture, but it looked even bleaker. 11 schools have left the conference over the past three seasons. Because of that turnover, it seemed the conference would be whacked by realignment. Fortunately, six schools decided to join the WAC this season and with that the storied league stayed alive. Cal State Bakersfield, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, Missouri-Kansas City, Texas Pan-American and Utah Valley, welcome to the WAC.
The positive from all this realignment mess, other survival of course, is that the WAC will be one of the most interesting conferences to watch this season. New Mexico State, barring complete meltdown, will run away with the league. Every other team has just about equal chances of coming in second, last or somewhere in between. That said, here are my predictions and they will be 100% correct by the end of the season.
1. New Mexico State Aggies
Last Season: 24-11 (14-4), 3rd regular season. Lost NCAA Round of 64 to Saint Louis.
Key Departures: Bandja Sy (11.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Tyrone Watson (10.3 ppg)
Top Returners: Daniel Mullings (13.8 ppg), Sim Bhullar (10.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Tshilidzi Nephawe (7.2 ppg)
The Aggies were stuck behind Louisiana Tech and Denver during last year's regular season and those two teams are gone this season. That's not why the Aggies are the favorite to win the league. It's because they're very good and very big. Per KenPom, the Aggies were the eighth tallest team in the country last season and the best at utilizing their height.
So, how does Marvin Menzies' staff go about replacing a 6' 5" and 6' 8" player? By bringing in a 7' 3", 300lbs player, of course! Freshman Tanveer Bhullar joins his 7' 5", 360lbs brother, Sim. Last year's breakout Bhullar brother led the WAC in field goal percentage, blocks per game and block rate. This Aggie frontcourt is more than just a family affair. Tshilidzi Nephawe played just nine games before being sidelined with a hand injury. He was granted a medical redshirt and will be back for a second go at his senior season. Reserve upperclassman Renaldo Dixon, who is 6' 10", will help keep the frontcourt humming when the Bhullars need a breather.
The backcourt is stout as well. Daniel Mullings can score, he was the leading scorer last year, but he's also a strong defender with a knack for snatching the ball. Sophomore point guard K.C. Ross-Miller is coming off a solid first campaign. With all the big bodies and able scorers on the floor, Ross-Miller should have no problem running the offense.
2. Utah Valley Wolverines
Last Season: 14-18 (3-5), T-3rd Great West
Key Departures: Nick Thompson (10.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 4.2 apg), Alfonzo Hubbard (11.6 ppg) [Missed final 13 games].
Top Returners: Ben Aird (15.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Holton Hunsaker (13.2 ppg), Jason Johnson (9.7 ppg)
The Wolverines managed through last season with just ten players on their roster. They will do the same this year. Fortunately for head coach Dick Hunsaker, the ten guys on his squad are all pretty good. Seniors Ben Aird and Holton Hunsaker, both of whom were named to last year's all-Great West team, will lead the charge once again this year. Incoming freshman Marquis Salmon out of Los Angeles looks to contribute immediately. Fellow freshman Eli Robison should also contribute, and illustrates why this under-manned team is such a threat in the WAC. Robison has been out of high school for three years. A redshirt season and LDS mission to Ukraine have kept the 2010 Deseret News 4A MVP off the court. The Wolverines are an old team; six of the ten players are upperclassmen, four are seniors and many have served LDS missions. That experience is bolstered by schedules that have included strong teams like Washington State, Santa Clara, Weber State and Utah State last season plus Arkansas, Wyoming and Montana two years ago. They could well be the only team to beat the Aggies this season.
3. Seattle Redhawks
Last Season: 8-22 (3-15), 10th WAC
Key Departures: Chad Rasmussen (9.6 ppg), Prince Obasi (8.3 ppg, 4.3 apg)
Top Returners: Clarence Trent (9.8 ppg), Deshaun Sunderhaus (9.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg), D'Vonne Pickett (7.0 ppg, 3.3 apg)
Seattle's first year in the WAC was a disappointment. The Redhawks finished the non-conference slate at 5 and 5 but fell apart from there. Were they shellshocked by the rigors of the WAC (Seattle had been transitioning to D-I as an independent for the previous three seasons) or was simple lack of talent to blame? Either way, the Redhawks are facing a slate of teams this season that look much like they did last year, new and relatively talentless. As is the case with Idaho, Seattle rises in the rankings because Louisiana Tech, Denver and Utah State are gone.
If the Redhawks are to earn their spot higher on the WAC ladder, rather than just inherit it, a couple things need to happen. First, their efficiency must improve. Last season Rasmussen was the only Redhawk with an offensive rating above 100 (102.1). If their starters can raise their offensive ratings at the very least into the mid-high 90s the Redhakws will be able to outscore most WAC teams. Why? Because head coach Cameron Dollar likes to play fast. His teams played so fast that in his first three seasons they ranked second, fifth and first nationally in possessions per forty minutes. Last season's team couldn't quite keep up, coming in at 23rd. If this team can pick up the pace they'll make a strong statement to their new rivals.
4. Chicago State Cougars
Last Season: 11-22 (3-5), T-3rd Great West, Great West Tournament Champions.
Key Departures: Jeremy Robinson (8.5 ppg)
Top Returners: Quinton Pippen (10.4 ppg), Matt Ross (10.1 ppg), Jamere Dismukes (9.4 ppg, 3.4 apg), Nate Duhon (9.1 ppg)
Chicago State is an example of realignment gone weird. CSU's campus is on the east side of a city that isn't in the west side of the country, yet they now play in the Western Athletic Conference. College football, look at what you've done!
The Cougars might be from the eastern half of the country but that won't keep them out of the top half of the WAC. Jeremy Robinson, one of two seniors last year, is the only starter no longer with the team. This year's senior class looks nothing like last year's, because there are nine seniors this year. Just because a team has a surplus of returning upperclassmen doesn't mean they'll be improved. If the returning players aren't good why would the team get better? Well, in this instance there is room for improvement. Only one of the returning players, reserve junior Clarke Rosenberg, has spent his whole career on the South Side. For most of the roster, 2012-13 was their first season in a Cougar uniform. Simply put, these guys didn't know each other last year. Starting lineups changed on a daily basis as Tracy Dildy tried to mesh all of his new faces. This year, the Cougars know each other and they know things like where their teammates prefer to catch the ball. So the Cougars are experienced, but they're also going to be hungry. With nine seniors, this is basically the whole team's last year of eligibility. It's now or never in Chicago.
5. Idaho Vandals
Last Season: 12-18 (7-11), 6th WAC
Key Departures: Kyle Barone (17.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg), Mike McChristian (8.4 ppg), Mansa Habeeb (5.6 ppg)
Top Returners: Stephen Madison (14.2 ppg), Connor Hill (12.1 ppg)
Idaho finished sixth in the WAC last season. Of the five teams ahead of them, only New Mexico State returns. Ascension by subtraction.
Last year's Vandals had one of the nation's most efficient players in center Kyle Barone (126.4 offensive rating). He's gone, along with fellow starters Mike McChristian and Habeeb Mansa. There's no panicking in Moscow, however, because head coach Don Verlin always finds a way to run an efficient offense out on the floor. Stephen Madison, who was less efficient than Barone but was more involved in the offense, returns along with Connor Hill. That backcourt duo will keep the Vandals efficient once again. Senior point guard Glen Dean will be key to pushing that backcourt unit and this team over the edge. The graduate transfer from Utah took care of the ball in 21 starts for the Utes last season. This is the Vandals last shot at a WAC championship as they're moving to the Big Sky next season.
6. Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners
Last Season: 14-16, D-I Independent
Key Departures: Stephon Carter (15.9 ppg), Tyrone White (10.7 ppg), Adam Young (7.5 ppg).
Top Returners: Brandon Barnes (12.1 ppg), Javonte Maynor (10.5 ppg)
The Roadrunners are entering their seventh season in D-I. During their first six years, they've played some pretty tough schedules. In part because of that, they've only managed one season with a winning record. Things should continue along that path once again. The team that nearly made it to .500 last year, and beat Seattle and Utah Valley (twice), is not the team we'll see this year. Three starters are departing including their entire starting front court. The Roadrunners were a short team last year and with their starting bigs departing, they're even shorter this year. It's not all bad news in Bakersfield... The Roadrunners, and their McDonald's endorsed blue court, have a conference to call home now.
7. Grand Canyon 'Lopes
Last Season: 23-8 (14-4), T-2 PacWest Conference (Division II), Lost in first round of D-II NCAA Tournament.
Departures: Joshua Lowery (13.3 ppg), Braylon Pickrel (8.9 ppg)
Top Returners: Killian Larson (11.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Jerome Garrison (8.2 ppg)
Grand Canyon University in Phoenix has dealt with more controversies than D-I basketball games. The for-profit school, the only in D-I, has drawn criticism from the Pac-12 for putting earnings over education. There are also questions about why former Phoenix Suns player Dan Majerle was brought in to replace head coach Russ Pennell, which our own Parks Smith attempted to shed light on. Aside from those two controversies, there isn't much to be known about the 'Lopes. They ran up the best overall record in the PacWest last year but were blown out by 32 points the only time they faced a D-I opponent last season (Utah State). Talent wise Killian Larson will be the top returner, he could average a double-double. They add Demetrius Walker, who was dismissed from New Mexico last February, who is eligible immediately because he has already earned his degree. Walker avereaged 15.4 minutes and 5 points per game.
8. UMKC Kangaroos
Last Season: 8-24 (5-11), T-7th Summit League
Key Departures: Tyler Estan (11.4 ppg), Thomas Staton (9.9 ppg)
Top Returners: Fred Chatmon (7.4 ppg. 7.3 rpg), Nelson Kirksey (7.4 ppg)
The Kangaroos joined The Summit League in 1995 (it was then the Mid-Continent Conference) after a half-decade transition to D-I. While The Summit, like nearly all conferences, has seen some upheaval recently, it's far more stable than the WAC. It's also a better league. Granted, last season the WAC was significantly better had far more exposure than The Summit. But, if you've read this far in the WAC preview, you know this WAC is not that WAC. So why did UMKC jump ship? I don't know, but the athletic department seems ready for a new start. Kareem Richardson earned the top job in Kansas City. His last gig was in Louisville where he helped Rick Pitino and the Cardinals win a national championship. His first year is going to be rocky as the 'Roos two leading scorers are departing. Thomas Stanton graduated and Tyler Estan transferred.
It won't be long until Richardson can make the program his own; seven players, barring unforeseen medical redshirts, will exhaust their eligibility after this season. It's the start of a major rebuild in Kansas City. Give it a few years before picking the Kangaroos to make their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
9. Texas-Pan American Broncs
Last Season: 16-16 (5-3), 2nd Great West
Key Departures: Brandon Provost (15.0 ppg), Aaron Urbanus (10.7 ppg), Jesus Delgado (9.9 ppg), Ruben Cabrera (5.9 ppg)
Top Returners: Justin Leathers (7.3 ppg), Shaquille Hines (4.0 ppg), Josh Cleveland (4.0 ppg)
Dan Hipsher takes over the top job at UT-Pan American as the Broncs transition into their fifth conference since 1980. Things won't go easily in Edinburg as four of last year's top six scorers are gone. Senior forward Justin Leathers is the teams leading returner in standard statistics. Lauri Toivonen, who started in the frontcourt alongside Leathers last season, is the only returning player with an offensive rating over 100.0 (Provost and Delgado both posted offensive ratings over 100.0 last season). This was a bad offensive team last year that kept itself afloat from beyond the arc. Provost shot 43.3% on 183 attempts and Urbanus 34.5% on 177 attempts. Freshman wing Alex Majewski will help make up for some of that lost production. What was a bad offense last year doesn't look to improve this year. Give coach Hipsher a break in his first season, it's going to take a couple of seasons before the Rio Grande Valley will have good college hoops.