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WAC Preseason Awards: Lopes and Mark Pope headline the group

NCAA Basketball: Grand Canyon at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

It’s old hat for the player getting our top preseason award.

During his time at Grand Canyon, Josh Braun has been a two-time all-league first teamer, and was tabbed by the media as the 2016-17 preseason POY. The senior guard is a decorated guy, and can add one more item to the trophy courtesy of Mid-Major Madness (how exciting for him).

He’s joined in the award parade by new teammate Casey Benson, while the coach that gets honored may come as a surprise to some.

Here are our 2017-18 WAC preseason awards:

Player of the Year

Josh Braun, Grand Canyon

Without a doubt, the WAC’s story of the year will be GCU’s quest to truly put national attention on “college basketball’s best party” with an NCAA Tournament bid. There’s a good shot that happens because of Braun. The 2016-17 WAC Preseason Player of the Year missed the entire month of December (nine games) with a knee injury, but lived up to the hype when he returned. Braun notched the highest scoring average of his career (17.5 PPG), and scored in double figures in all but one game in league play.

He’s a three-point threat, and his slimmed-down frame should make him a better defender and better free throw generator (not that either part of his game was a problem). Losing Dewayne Russell will hurt, but playing alongside Oregon transfer Casey Benson and an improving Oscar Frayer should ensure defenses can’t clamp down on him. Braun may not lead the WAC in scoring, but he’s the most dangerous offensive player in the league.

Coach of the Year

Mark Pope, Utah Valley

Among the WAC’s upper tier, Pope is sort of crashing the party. NMSU is the league’s model program, CSUB has already broken through and GCU has all the resources and energy in the world. UVU, however, should be right there with those three teams in 2017-18. Pope has already put his mark on UVU, deploying an unashamedly up-tempo pace and developing players on their second chances. This included a massive improvement last season from BYU transfer Isaac Neilson. If the Wolverines excel next season, it’ll be because of further development from Neilson, point guard Brandon Randolph and a host of other transfers. That development would be due in large part to Pope and his staff, and that’s why he narrowly gets the nod as preseason Coach of the Year.

Newcomer of the Year

Casey Benson, Grand Canyon

Benson is not Dewayne Russell, and never will be. But that’s fine, because the Oregon transfer brings experience to a backcourt needing to replace its dynamic lead guard. The senior lived two lives in his time in Eugene: first as a dependable facilitator (3.1 APG/0.6 TOV in 2015-16), then as a dangerous floor spacer (41.6% 3P in 2016-17). Dan Majerle will likely need him to wear both hats at different times this season, and he should excel after three years at a flourishing high major program.

All-WAC First Team

Josh Braun (Sr., Guard), Grand Canyon

He’s very good, see above.

Eli Chuha (Jr., Forward), New Mexico State

Chuha went from a sparingly-used freshman to sophomore star. He was the most efficient scorer in WAC play, leading the league in both true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. And he was no slouch on the glass, finishing second in offensive rebounding percentage (16.4%) and fourth in defensive rebounding percentage (21.6%) against league competition. The Aggies backcourt has high potential, but will rely on either players coming off injury (Sidy N’Dir) or suiting up for the program for the first time (A.J. Harris, Zach Lofton). That could put the onus on Chuha to carry the team offensively more than may be expected. He should be up for the challenge. Last season he scored in double figures in 12 straight games from Nov. 30 to Jan. 14.

Jemerrio Jones (Sr., Forward), New Mexico State

The JuCo transfer was one of the WAC’s biggest surprises in 2016-17. A member of the all-newcomer team, Jones made an impact all over the place for a 28-win NMSU squad. He nearly averaged a double-double in somewhat limited minutes (24.5 MPG), scoring 9.7 points and grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game. Rebounding is his forte, but what makes him especially valuable is that he gives Chris Jans flexibility. The senior takes care of the ball and can operate as a point forward if needed. If the Aggies want to play fast — as they did at times last year — Jones is at home in transition. And if they want to play slow, he’s another playmaking option and potential frontcourt mismatch. Like last year, he might yield a starting spot to Johnathon Wilkins. But that shouldn’t obscure how valuable a player he is.

Nick Dixon (Sr., Guard), UT Rio Grande Valley

From a cold numbers perspective, Dixon’s KenPom page screams his value. It’s littered with yellow, as the senior finished in the top-11 in league play in 12 of the 17 rate or percentage stats that the site lists. This added up to a masterful season, where Dixon was a potent scorer (18.8 PPG) that got to the free throw line at will, and pitched in all over the court. But the story of Dixon’s season goes beyond the numbers. The journey to 2016-17 included a multi-year layoff from competitive basketball, two NCJAA Div. II All-American seasons and a departure from the UTRGV program in 2015-16 for personal reasons. Of all the compelling stories in college basketball, Dixon’s is right up there. He could well lead the WAC in scoring in 2017-18, though he’ll need to do it without his backcourt running mate. Antonio Green transferred to Middle Tennessee, and his 94 made three-pointers freed up space for Dixon all season. Adversity, however, has not held Dixon back.

Damiyne Durham (Jr., Guard), CSU Bakersfield

Durham has averaged 21.6 minutes per game over his first two seasons in Bakersfield. That number should go up significantly in 2017-18, and for that we should all be thankful. The lengthy junior has zero shame letting it fly from deep. Sometimes it pays off, like when he staked the ‘Runners to an early lead in their huge Feb. 9 win against NMSU. Other times it does not, like his one-for-10 outing from three in the NIT semifinal against Georgia Tech. But he is what he is, and that includes being the most talented, pure scorer in the WAC. Like Brent Wrapp and Shon Briggs, Durham takes on a bigger role as several key seniors leave. His offensive ceiling should at the very least keep a retooling CSUB in the conversation.

All-WAC Second Team

Isaac Neilson (Sr., Forward), Utah Valley

Neilson put on 30 pounds — in a good way — after transferring from BYU and sitting out the 2015-16 season. It paid off during his first year at UVU. The senior big led the WAC in offensive rebounding percentage (16.6%), defensive rebounding percentage (26.8%) and block percentage (8.1%) during league play. He didn’t become the centerpiece of the Wolverine offense, but he didn’t have to with so many weapons around him. He also didn’t wilt against the best competition, with big games against BYU (26 points, 9 rebounds), Utah (28 points, 15 rebounds), Grand Canyon (14 points, 16 rebounds) and New Mexico State (14 points, 10 rebounds). Mark Pope said in December that Neilson was playing more minutes than he’d like, and that may have wore on him as the season went on. That shouldn’t be as much of an issue this year, as Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang can share some of the rim protecting burden. That should mean a fresher, and even better, Neilson.

Casey Benson (Sr., Guard), Grand Canyon

He should have a big impact, see above.

Matej Kavas (Soph., Forward), Seattle

Former coach Cameron Dollar finally let Kavas loose once WAC play rolled around. It paid off. The smooth wing torched the conference with his high release, hitting 41.3 percent of his 63 three-point attempts in league play. He also took great care of the ball, registering the lowest turnover rate in the WAC. All as a freshman. He may never be a threat in the post despite his 6’8’’ frame, but he should be able to develop as more of a playmaker under Jim Hayford. The reigning WAC Freshman of the Year is yet another reason the first year coach arrives in Seattle with plenty to work with.

Keonta Vernon (Sr., Forward), Grand Canyon

Vernon didn’t have Josh Braun’s preseason hype or Dewayne Russell’s dazzling numbers. But he was still important to the Lopes, and is the key piece of their front court in a pivotal 2017-18 season. The senior was a solid pick-and-roll partner for Russell while contributing across the board. In WAC play, he landed in the top-7 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, as well as steal percentage. And as one of the strongest players in the entire conference, the undersized forward should only improve around the glass. If New Mexico State is the biggest roadblock to an NCAA Tournament bid in GCU’s first season of eligibility, Vernon is the Lopes’ best counter to the Aggies’ talented bigs.

Brent Wrapp (Sr., Guard), CSU Bakersfield

Wrapp is another ‘Runner that didn’t get top billing last season. Amid calling him a glue guy and floor general, Rod Barnes talked about the rising senior’s importance. “He’s not the guy, or even the guy that’s next to the guy, but then he’s probably the most important guy on the team,” Barnes said in an interview last March. His stats — over any of his three seasons — are not gaudy. Yet he may be the league’s most likely triple-double waiting to happen on a given night. He does everything well, from on-ball defense to running an offense. The metrics love him, as he finished in the top-ten in league play in assist rate, steal percentage and block percentage. The more traditional stats should love him more next season as he, like Briggs, handles more responsibility with Jaylin Airington and Dedrick Basile gone.

All-WAC Newcomer/Rookie Team

Casey Benson, Grand Canyon

Third time he’s mentioned in this post. There’s a reason why.

A.J. Harris, New Mexico State

Former four-star recruit steps into Ian Baker’s considerable shoes after transferring from Ohio State.

Akolda Manyang, Utah Valley

Center with big-time rim protecting potential should have immediate impact on a contending UVU squad.

Zach Lofton (Sr., Guard), New Mexico State

Reigning SWAC Player of the Year averaged 16.8 points per game at Texas Southern last season. Will look to replace some of the scoring, albeit in different ways, that left with Braxton Huggins.

Terry Winn (Jr. Forward), UT Rio Grande Valley

Physical forward fills a big need for the Vaqueros. Averaged 10.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game over two seasons at UTEP.

Brandon McKissic (Fr., Guard), UMKC

Bonus for the heavy dose of Benson. St. Louis prep guard is a prime candidate to seize the opportunity with so many fresh faces and open roles at UMKC.