In the Western Athletic Conference’s current configuration, New Mexico State has been the perennial team to beat.
The Aggies have won five out of the last seven WAC championships and have played in each of the last six title games. This year, the Aggies still figure to be at the top of the conference, but that doesn’t mean they can coast to another championship.
WAC Preseason Power Rankings:
1 New Mexico State
The Aggies went through a major change over the offseason by losing Pascal Siakam, the WAC’s most dynamic player and the team’s biggest threat, to the NBA. To make matters worse, head coach Marvin Menzies took the UNLV job, leaving New Mexico State without its on-court and sideline leaders from 2015-16. That leaves Ian Baker as the only guy who can be counted on as a major contributor for this year. The rest of the team is young but has the potential to improve in the early season with games against Arizona State, UC Irvine, Long Beach State, and New Mexico. Still, despite their losses, New Mexico State has the most talented team in the WAC and takes the top spot until someone can prove more deserving.
2 Grand Canyon
Led by former NBA All-Star and Phoenix-area legend Dan Majerle, the ‘Lopes have developed a culture of toughness and grit, which resulted in a school-best 27 wins last year. To build on that, Grand Canyon will look to newcomers Oscar Frayer and Shaq Carr to contribute immediately, while DeWayne Russell and Josh Braun continue to lead the way. With early season games at Duke, Arizona, and Penn State, and games at home against Louisville and San Diego State, Grand Canyon should go into the conference season battle-tested.
3 Cal State Bakersfield
The Roadrunners had some great games against New Mexico State and Grand Canyon last year, and coach Rod Barnes has his team believing it belongs in the hunt this year. With strong guard play, Bakersfield should be a team that will be in every game and will give New Mexico State and Grand Canyon run for their money as the two best teams in the conference. Players to watch this year: Dedrick Basile, Damiyne Durham, and transfer Fallou Ndoye.
Seattle might be the toughest team in the WAC to figure out. On one hand, head coach Cameron Dollar is known as a great recruiter and has brought in some solid talent. Then again, the Redhawks might not have the depth or maturity to become a true threat to the more talented and better coached teams. Watch out for Brendan Westendorf, the 41 percent three-point shooter with a flare for the dramatic.
5 Utah Valley
The Wolverines have an ex-NBA player of their own on the sidelines in second-year coach Mark Pope, who is coming off a 12-18 debut campaign. Expect a similar year from Utah Valley this season, not because it hasn’t improved, but because it will be hard to show much progress in a league with heavy hitters New Mexico State, Grand Canyon and Bakersfield. But just like Seattle, Utah Valley can be the thorn in the side of any team in this league, and the Wolverines are exactly the type of team capable of pulling off an unexpected three-game winning streak in March.
6 Texas-Rio Grande Valley
Former Oklahoma assistant Lew Hill has his work cut out for him in his first season at the helm of UTRGV. The Vaqueros finished 8-22 last year and ranked 347 out of 351 Division I teams in KenPom. It seems that with a practically new roster on hand, they have nowhere but up to go. UTRGV will have plenty of questions on the roster, but at least a new, promising young coach should be given a long leash to figure things out. As a consolation, UTRGV does have the best looking jerseys in the WAC. It’s the little things.
7 University of Missouri Kansas City
This team, under the leadership of Karem Richardson, has had some tough times. Often thought of as a WAC contender, those hopes have never materialized, and the Kangaroos have not finished above .500 since 2011. Aside from 2015 WAC player of the year Martez Harrison, there isn’t much else of note on UMKC’s roster. The team will likely be even worse this year. Their saving grace: Internal problems at Chicago State will keep the Kangaroos from being be the worst team in the WAC.
8 Chicago State
On paper, the Cougars appear to be the worst team in the WAC by a significant margin. Chicago State is dealing with budget problems as a university, and that has wreaked havoc on its athletic department. In fact, it’s unclear for how long the school will even stay open. Given that, you have to feel bad for Tracy Dildy, who has done the most with what little he has as head coach. The Cougars didn’t win a game in WAC play and only won four games last year, with just one coming against a Division I team.