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2014-2015 Western Athletic Conference Preview

New Mexico State should once again be the conference favorites, but could a new set of challengers give the Aggies a run for their money?

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

1. New Mexico State Aggies | 26-10, 12-4 (NCAA 2nd round exit)

Key Departures: Sim Bhullar (10.4 ppg), Renaldo Dixon (8.5 ppg), Kevin Aronis (7.6 ppg)

Key Returners: Daniel Mullings (16.8 ppg), DK Eldridge (11.2 ppg), Tshilidzi Nephawe (11.1 ppg)

Newcomers: Braxton Huggins (G), Rashawn Browne (G)

The Aggies managed to go out with a bang by losing a close overtime match to San Diego State in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2013-2014 despite losing the regular-season conference title to Utah Valley and needing the automatic bid to punch their ticket to the dance. However, the Aggies are back this year and look as strong as ever.

2013-2014 WAC player of the year Daniel Mullings heads a group of senior studs who return to New Mexico State's lineup. DK Eldridge and Tshilidzi Nephawe are the other two returning starters and both had very strong campaigns last year and look to improve upon them. The newcomers (which also includes five freshman coming off of redshirt seasons) should be able to fill the holes left by the three departures.

The Aggies will surely miss Sim Bhullar, the 7-5 giant who declared for the NBA draft. However, his brother Tanveer looks to fill in his shoes and will have a chance to provide size and strength down low for years to come.

2. Seattle Redhawks | 13-17, 5-11 (WAC 1st round exit)

Key Departures: Clarence Trent (7.5 ppg), D'Vonne Pickett, Jr. (7.3 ppg), Luiz Bidart (2.0 ppg)

Key Returners: Isiah Umipig (19.5 ppg), Deshaun Saunderhaus (10.6 ppg), Jarell Flora (9.5 ppg)

Newcomers: Theo Turner (C), Jadon Cohee (G), Jack Shaughnessy (G), Manroop Clair (G), Aaron Menzies (C)

If you've got Isiah Umipig, you've got a chance. Expect to see the Redhawks utilize Umipig as the go-to man in their offensive battle plan again this year. The star guard has yet another year under his belt and has another chance to carry his team to the big dance, challenging Mullings for player of the year consideration in the process.

Seattle returns almost everyone (including its three top scorers) from last year's team and brings forth some interesting newcomers, including 7-3 giant Aaron Menzies. With him and many others, Head Coach Cameron Dollar should have a whole host of weapons at his disposal and an experienced group who have had years to adapt to Dollar's playbook.

3. Grand Canyon Antelopes | 15-15, 10-6 (CIT 1st round exit)

Key Departures: Killian Larson (17.2 ppg), Demetrius Walker (16.9 ppg), Blake Davis (7.8 ppg)

Key Returners: Jerome Garrison (16.5 ppg), Daniel Alexander (12.7 ppg), Sam Daly (7.1 ppg)

Newcomers: Isaiah Juarez (G), Matt Jackson (F), De'Andre Davis (G), Kerwin Smith (F), Boubacar Toure (C), Adrian Carrion Armas (G), Gerard Martin (G), Miroslav Jaksic (F)

Although Grand Canyon won't be eligible for postseason play besides the CIT until 2017-2018, the 'Lopes could be a force and a spoiler in the WAC this season. A whole host of newcomers join a solid lineup of players headed by Jerome Garrison and Daniel Alexander. The most notable of those newcomers is DeWayne Russell, a transfer from Northern Arizona University who averaged 14.4 ppg in 33.3 mpg two years ago before sitting out last year due to transfer eligibility rules. He'll bring a whole new punch to this team for the next two years.

Losing Killian Larson, the do-it-all star forward for the Antelopes in 2013-2014, is certainly going to hurt the team and likely keeps them from being a serious threat to the Aggies in 2014-2015. In order to truly compete, one or more of the newcomers is going to have to step up as a solid post option for GCU, where Daniel Alexander is the lone returner from last year. Toure and Jaksic are each 6-11 and should one or both develop more quickly than expected, could give the Aggies something to think about. Otherwise, the undersized 'Lopes are looking at a second place finish at best.

4. Utah Valley Wolverines | 20-12, 13-3 (NIT 1st round exit)

Key Departures: Holton Hunsaker (14.2 ppg), Ben Aird (11.8 ppg), Keawe Enos (7.8 ppg)

Key Returners: Zach Nelson (10.5 ppg), Mitch Bruneel (10.3 ppg), Hayes Garrity (8.7 ppg)

Newcomers: Donte Williams (G), Jaden Jackson (G), Alex Carr (G), Dayon Goodman (F), Boston Gubler (F), Leland Miller (F)

Utah Valley surprised people last season by capturing the WAC regular season title in 2013-2014, and look to be a possible challenger for the very same honor again this season. The Wolverines have plenty of size to compete with anyone between returners Zach Nelson and Mitch Bruneel and 6-10 junior college recruit Leland Miller.

The concern for Utah Valley this year will be with its guards. After Hayes Garrity the position has a whole lot of question marks. How will the junior college transfers and freshmen pan out at that position? That will determine how far this team can make it this year.

5. UMKC Kangaroos | 10-20, 7-9 (WAC 1st round exit)

Key Departures: Nelson Kirksey (13.1 ppg), Trinity Hall (10.1 ppg), Fred Chatmon (7.9 ppg)

Key Returners: Martez Harrison (17.2 ppg), Frank Williams, Jr. (9.2 ppg), Isaac Kreuer (2.3 ppg)

Newcomers: Kevin Franceschi (G), Deshon Taylor (G), Brandyn Moultrie (G), Collin Jennings (G), Thaddeus Smith (C), Darius Austin (G), Juan Roman Rivas (F), Noah Knight (G)

The good news for UMKC: Last year's leading scorer, Harrison, is only a sophomore this year. The bad news: the rest of the team is filled with unknowns. Frank Williams, Jr. is the only other returning starter surrounded by a whole lot of freshmen and transfers. Because of how young this team is, they're the hardest one to project in the conference. It seems as if 2015-2016 is a better year to look at as one where this team will be competitive in the conference. The losses from the year before will make it difficult for them to finish with a top three spot, but Harrison could emerge as a player of the year candidate and one or two of the new players could break out and that would be all the team would need to make the season exciting. We'll have to wait and see.

6. Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners | 13-19, 5-11 (WAC 2nd round exit)

Key Departures: Issiah Grayson (17.0 ppg), Brandon Barnes (9.5 ppg), Stefon Johnson (6.0 ppg)

Key Returners: Aly Ahmed (8.9 ppg), Javonte Maynor (8.8 ppg), Tyrell Corbin (4.8 ppg)

Newcomers: Matt Smith (F), Brent Wrapp (G), Cortez Conners (G), Dashawn Richmond (G), Jaylin Airington (G), Bray Barnes (F)

There's a whole lot of turnovers here for the Roadrunners. The team projects to once again be one of the conference's bottom-dwellers due to the team's inexperience. Aly Ahmed returns as the team's leading scorer, but he's going to be needed more on the defensive end for this team. They'll have to find Grayson's replacement pretty quickly if they hope to make noise in the conference this year.

7. Chicago State Cougars | 13-19, 8-8 (WAC 1st round exit)

Key Departures: Quinton Pippen (15.2 ppg), Matt Ross (11.9 ppg), Nate Duhon (9.4 ppg)

Key Returners: Clarke Rosenberg (14.0 ppg), Rahjan Muhammad (5.8 ppg), Jared Dimakos (2.3 ppg)

Newcomers: Sean Hill (G), Joshua Meier (F), Anthony Glover (G), Trayvon Palmer (G), Elijah Robertson (G), Sharieff Medlock (G), Montana Byrd (G), Jawad Adekoya (G), Jesse Tesmer (F)

The Cougars shocked the conference by finishing with a top-half record in WAC play despite their poor non-conference play last season. This is a completely different team from that one and this is really a developmental year for the Cougars who have Rosenberg as the only returning starter. There's no doubt he'll be the go-to player this year, which makes things a little more certain for them than for a team like Bakersfield. But on the flip side, almost everyone else around him is a new face. Let's see if they can shock us again with another successful campaign in WAC play.

8. Texas-Pan American Broncs | 9-23, 5-11 (WAC 1st round exit)

Key Departures: Javorn Farrell (16.1 ppg), Justin Leathers (6.1 ppg), Josh Cleveland (5.4 ppg)

Key Returners: Shaquille Boga (14.0 ppg), Shaquille Hines (12.8 ppg)

Newcomers: Everett Osborne (G), Elijah Watson (G), Mike Lopez (G), Isaiah Hobbs (G), Moe McDonald (G), Andreas Bigum (F), Dan Kimasa (F), Joaquin Pistokache (G), Christopher Ikuenobe (F)

Boga and Hines are the only two players at all returning from last year's team that finished last place in the WAC. Unfortunately, that's just not a very impressive resume for this team. It's impossible to see them as anything better than maybe the seventh or eighth best team in the conference. Anything else would be a pretty big surprise.