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WAC Preseason Power Rankings: The league’s upper half is loaded

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Baylor vs New Mexico State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first year of the fully-formed WAC.

With Grand Canyon finally eligible for the NCAA Tournament, the league can finally stretch its wings as far as possible. The Lopes should be good, but the same can be said for three other teams vying for the top spot.

The latter half of the league has just as much intrigue, with programs on the upswing welcoming fresh faces (UMKC, UTRGV) and an accomplished coach taking over a program packed with potential (Seattle).

Here’s how we see the league shaking out in 2017-18:

1. New Mexico State

2016-17 record: 28-6 (11-3, second place tie)

New Mexico State is trying to remain at the top of the WAC hill with a new coach. Heard that one before? A year after a new coach took the reigns in Las Cruces, it’s happening again. Paul Weir rode a 28-win debut season and NCAA Tournament appearance to the head job at New Mexico. As if the Rio Grande Rivalry wasn’t heated enough already. In steps Wichita State assistant Chris Jans, who had success in his one year as head coach at Bowling Green before being let go when a video showing him acting inappropriately surfaced.

With that in his past, Jans — a proven coach from an impressive coaching tree — inherits a talented roster. Most notably, it includes the WAC’s best frontcourt in offensive rebounding machine Eli Chuha (12.4 PPG, 8.9 RPG) and versatile forward Jemerrio Jones (9.7 PPG, 8.4 RPG). The pair, along with experienced big Johnathon Wilkins (17.6 MPG), give the Aggies the advantage in the paint every night in league play. The backcourt is also loaded with talent. Slashing guard Sidy N’Dir led the team in scoring (13.7 PPG) before suffering a season-ending foot injury after nine games. He’s joined by Ohio State transfer A.J. Harris, a lightning quick guard that should make a difference on both ends of the floor. And Jans augmented the talent, landing reigning SWAC POY Zach Lofton after the guard transferred from Texas Southern.

There are, however, plenty of questions in a league that will be as difficult as it’s been in its current configuration. No team lost a more valuable duo than WAY POY Ian Baker, who graduated, and Braxton Huggins, a wing who exploded as a junior and transferred to Fresno State. Those two helped fuel the WAC’s most efficient offense in 2016-17. Harris likely steps in for Baker at the point, and that’s a tall order for a player still very much looking to prove himself at the college level. And beyond the six mentioned above, Jans will need a bevy of newcomers, especially in the backcourt, to play important minutes.

Still, the Aggies have as talented a starting five as almost any mid-major. Chuha might be the WAC’s second-best player, and will be a handful on both ends of the court. NMSU just had a resoundingly successful season under a first-year head coach. The Aggies seem primed to do it again.

2. Utah Valley

2016-17 record: 17-17 (6-8, fifth place)

NMSU is the league’s standard bearer. GCU is its glitziest program. CSUB has had more recent success than anyone. Utah Valley may, however, quietly be its best team in 2017-18. The Wolverines are looking to ride momentum of solid CBI road wins over Georgia Southern and Rice to the program’s best season since it won the WAC regular season title in 2013-14. If things break right, they should have the pieces, and the experience, to do just that.

The Wolverines have become known for their break-neck tempo under Mark Pope, and that’s not likely to change. But they should get equal credit for their defense, which improved throughout 2016-17, and made life especially difficult for opponents in the paint. That should only get more difficult as senior forward Isaac Neilson (9.1 RPG, 1.6 BPG) is joined by massive Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang (1.3 BPG in just 8.0 MPG in 2015-16). Neilson, Manyang and senior Zach Nelson form a more than solid frontcourt. The backcourt is anchored by talented Xavier transfer Brandon Randolph, who struggled at times last season, but should be better after a year running the point in the fast-paced attack. In between there are shooters galore, including Kenneth Ogbe (40.8% 3P%) and Conner Toolson (31.8% 3P%), who has plenty of potential despite not quite living up to his marksman reputation last season.

If there’s a knock on UVU, it might be that they lack a player that can break down defenses at any time. Jordan Poydras and Ivory Young best fit that mold, but both ran out of eligibility. There are also some questions still waiting to be answered on the roster. Can Randolph take better care of the ball? Can Neilson stay consistent for an entire season? Can Toolson be the premier shooter so many think? Is Manyang really a difference-making talent? If too many of those are answered in the negative, UVU could have another inconsistent season that belies the potential on the roster.

But 2016-17 did end on a positive note, and a roster rife with high major transfers and a distinct identity looks poised to do damage this season.

3. Grand Canyon

2016-17 record: 22-9 (11-3, second place tie)

Let’s get this out of the way: putting the Lopes third is done by the slimmest of margins. They have everything a team needs to win the WAC regular season and tournament titles in a year of mammoth importance for the program. Dan Majerle also probably doesn’t get enough credit for the job he’s done. Just because he’s a big, flashy name didn’t guarantee any coaching success. Yet GCU, while in purgatory, has never had a losing conference record, and has finished as a top-152 KenPom team the past two seasons.

That progression should only continue in 2017-18 with, finally, the biggest prize in play. Josh Braun (17.5 PPG), with his size, shooting and slashing ability, is the league’s best offensive player, and second-best may be a mile away. He’s a continual match up problem, and is now paired with an experienced, steady combo guard in Oregon transfer Casey Benson. Oscar Frayer (7.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG) oozes athleticism and potential on the wing, and Gerard Martin is a first-rate defender that doesn’t get enough credit. And down low, Keonta Vernon (9.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG) may be undersized, but is an explosive athlete in his own right. There’s a lot to like, as the bones of a tough defense and versatile offense are in place.

So why third place? For one, Frayer struggled against the WAC’s better teams a year ago, and needs to take that step from talented prospect to established star. There’s also potential depth problems in the frontcourt behind Vernon and Martin, as the Lopes will be relying on lightly-used junior Kerwin Smith, and a pair of freshmen bigs in Roberts Blumbergs and Alessandro Lever. Benson can handle point guard, but Majerle will likely want him off the ball at times. This means that one of sophomore Fiifi Aidoo, senior Shaq Carr or freshman Damari Milstead must step up in such an important position. And that highlights the biggest loss from last year: dynamic point guard Dewayne Russell (21.2 PPG, 5.4 APG). He turned in an incredible season and was a model of consistency.

That, however, doesn’t mean that GCU doesn’t have a championship core. They absolutely do, and it’s punctuated by the league’s best player in Braun.

4. CSU Bakersfield

2016-17 record: 25-10 (12-2, 1st place)

The ‘Runners turn every game into a “rock fight.” That’s how one former league assistant described CSUB’s defense, which has ranked in the top-51 nationally in KenPom efficiency the past two seasons. The team rode that tough-as-nails defense to a regular season title and spot in the NIT semifinal last season, but lose three key players in departing seniors Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile and Matt Smith. All were members of either the all-WAC first or second teams in 2016-17.

That doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of CSUB, as Rod Barnes still has a roster capable of rock fighting its way to the top of the standings. It starts with senior point guard Brent Wrapp, who does a little of everything (4.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.6 APG) and might be the most underappreciated player in the conference. His assist rate has ranked in the top-four in the league in each of his three seasons, but the player that’ll start alongside him in the backcourt — Damiyne Durham — doesn’t always need to be set up. The former Baylor transfer is an electric, fearless shooter, capable of carrying a team with a hot streak. He seemingly has a constant green light from Barnes, which could lead to a scoring title as he steps into a bigger role.

The bones of CSUB’s defense rest with their frontcourt. Senior center Moataz Aly is an elite rim protector that could lead the conference in blocks. Fellow senior forward Shonn Briggs (7.4 PPG) is a bruising, mobile forward that was arguably the team’s best player in its run through the NIT. They’re backed up by Fallou Ndoye, a talented 6’11’’ center began his career at Mississippi State. Barnes also has two players coming off redshirts and a large incoming class highlighted by Oxford, Miss.-native Jarkel Joiner, one of the best prep scorers last season.

There’s something that feels wrong placing the ‘Runners fourth. Barnes seems to have built a sustainable program with a clear defensive identity that won’t fall far even with key players departing. The three departing seniors, however, were the core of the team’s hyper-successful two-year run, and there is a natural regression there. But the cupboard isn’t bare, and CSUB is just as much a contender as the three teams above it on this list. If the returners transition smoothly to expanded roles, and Durham especially translates his offensive explosiveness over more minutes, it would be no surprise to see the ‘Runners claim another regular season title.

5. Seattle

2016-17 record: 13-17 (5-9, 6th place)

The seemingly perfect fit that was Cameron Dollar in basketball-rich Seattle just never quite worked out. The eight-year coach was let go after ushering the Redhawks into the WAC, and through the bulk of their Div. I transition. In steps Jim Hayford, who had a good run over six years at Eastern Washington, including an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015 and some recruiting home runs (Tyler Harvey, Jacob Wiley, Bogdan Bliznyuk).

He inherits a sneakily talented roster at SU. It’s headlined by a pair of bigs in Matej Kavas and (the especially big) Aaron Menzies. Kavas is the reigning WAC Freshman of the Year, whose long distance game (41.3% 3P% in WAC play) fits perfectly in Hayford’s three-point heavy system. Menzies is one of the WAC’s most intriguing players. The 7’3’’ center was dominant at times, like when he dropped 35 points and 11 rebounds on Louisiana Monroe, but missed the final 16 games with a foot injury. If healthy, he could be a game changer and one of the best mid-major centers. The backcourt also has a building block in speedy sophomore point guard Morgan Means (6.7 PPG, 2.1 APG), and infusion of experience with Weber State grad transfer Richaud Gittens (20.0 MPG, 7.3 PPG) and Wisconsin grad transfer Jordan Hill (10.2 MPG).

The team did, however, take a hit when three-point marksman Zach Moore transferred to UC Santa Barbara late in the offseason. The junior would’ve been another multi-year player that fit into the style Hayford will likely want to play. Nonetheless, Kavas and Means provide a solid foundation from which Hayford can build. With the experience he’s added on short notice, the Redhawks won’t be a pushover. If they get a healthy season with another step forward from Menzies, they won’t be a team anyone in the WAC’s upper half will look forward to playing.

6. UT Rio Grande Valley

2016-17 record: 10-22 (2-12, 7th place)

The Vaqueros have the pieces to be drastically better in Lew Hill’s second season in charge. It starts with Nick Dixon, whose incredible personal journey led to a second-chance at UTRGV under Hill. The senior guard blossomed into one of the league’s best players in 2016-17 (18.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.4 APG) and is a legitimate POY candidate in his final season. Dixon and Hill’s up-tempo style make the Vaqueros entertaining, but an improved defense make them more competitive. UTRGV finished last in the league in defensive efficiency last season, allowing opponents to rack 86 points or more 13 times. Hill has been harping on that side of the ball this offseason, and thinks that the natural continuity “Year Two” brings with staff, system and players will help. Junior Terry Winn should also give the defense a boost, as the bruising forward had a great freshman season at UTEP in 2015-16 (10.0 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.3 defensive win shares). Hill talked about his importance:

“He's what we're missing,” says Hill. “He's the tough guy. He's the tough guy. He's the glue, he's the rebounder. He's the force. That's what we need. Every basketball team needs one."

Offensively, the Vaqueros will need to replace Antonio Green, who transferred to Middle Tennessee. The high volume-shooting guard hit the most three-pointers in the WAC a year ago (111), opening up the court for Dixon. But Hill still has plenty of options. Athletic sophomore wings Lesley Varner (14.8 MPG) and Xavier McDaniel (18.9 MPG) should be pressed into expanded roles. Starting point guard Lew Stallworth (3.6 APG) also returns, giving UTRGV valuable experience at that position. All in all, the Vaqueros seemed primed for a jump, which would be a great sign with a new arena opening for the 2018-19 season.

7. UMKC

2016-17 record: 18-17 (8-6, 4th place)

The Roos spot this far down the list does not reflect where the program is as Kareem Richardson enters his fifth season. UMKC loses more significant pieces than any team in the WAC, all of which were seniors. This included LaVell Boyd, who blossomed into one of the league’s best players in 2016-17, and four other key seniors that averaged at least 16.9 minutes per game. The group carried the Roos to their Div. I postseason appearance in the CBI, validating the positive momentum Richardson has generated. But with them gone, he must now prove that he can do it again.

The leading returner is senior guard Broderick Robinson, who served as a defensive stopper and three-point shooter a season ago. He may be the default go-to player, but sophomore guard Isaiah Ross could be poised for a breakout season. Though he played just 17.2 minutes per game as a freshman, he has big-time potential from three (36.4% on 154 3PA) and, maybe more importantly, little fear. Ross drilled two giant three-pointers late to seal the Roos’ CBI win over Green Bay. He’s joined by another promising sophomore in the backcourt in speedy point guard Xavier Bishop, who should be at home running the Roos’ up-tempo attack.

In a sea of unknowns, UMKC’s biggest question mark is the frontcourt. Richardson will likely rely on an unproven group of junior Aleer Leek (7.8 MPG), sophomore Jordan Giles (6.8 MPG) and 7’2’’ JuCo transfer Mo Ahmed. If anything, Richardson, who is not shy about going with a big rotation, should have plenty of players to work with. This includes Robert Knar — a transfer from Northern Iowa — and five freshmen, highlighted by big-bodied St. Louis guard Brandon McKissic. If he can find the right combination, UMKC could be a harder out than many anticipate.

8. Chicago State

2016-17 record: 6-26 (1-13, 8th place)

It has not been pretty for the Cougars lately with a 1-27 WAC record over the past two seasons. The most productive frontcourt player over that span, Trayvon Palmer, is out of eligibility. That makes a third-straight last place finish a possibility for CSU. But that doesn’t mean the Cougars won’t be demonstrably better in 2017-18. Tracy Dildy got a big boost, and pleasant surprise, when leading scorer Fred Sims (18.8 PPG) pulled his name out of the NBA draft. That gives CSU an established all-league talent that Dildy will surround with more athleticism than he’s had since the Cougars’ first season in the WAC, when they went 8-8 in league play.

The longtime coach is especially excited about Chicago League standout Travon Bell (Mather) and Div. II West Florida transfer Jelani Pruitt. He said the pair of guards, both of whom are coming off a redshirt year, were consistently the best players in practice last season. JuCo transfer Anthony Harris was a hit in CSU’s trip to the Bahamas, adding another athletic option on the perimeter. Sophomore forward Patrick Szpir (17.8 MPG) and senior guard Glen Burns (22.2 MPG) round out the roster with experience. An ascent up the standings may not happen this season, but the defense should be markedly better and, in the big picture, Dildy is recruiting well. Better days could be ahead for the Cougars.