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WAC Preseason Power Rankings: The road runs through Las Cruces yet again

A steadily improving league should challenge New Mexico State nonetheless.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Clemson vs New Mexico State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Gratefully, the WAC will soon be back.

Not much has changed up top as the league chases the team from Las Cruces, but New Mexico State’s dominance shouldn’t distract from a league that has been steadily been improving as a whole. After bottoming out at third-to-last (31st) in KenPom’s conference rankings in 2014-15, the WAC has finished at 17th and 18th, respectively, the past two years (and that includes a barren run from Chicago State over that period).

As has become the case, Grand Canyon appears to be NMSU’s top challenger, though Seattle and Utah Valley could each make a compelling case as contenders. Further down, UMKC, CSU Bakersfield and UT Rio Grande Valley are locked in a jumble of upward potential. Division I newcomer California Baptist makes its debut, while Chicago State breaks in an intriguing head coaching hire.

It’s never not fun in the country’s most geographically, uh, diverse league, and here’s how we see it shaking out.

1. New Mexico State Aggies (28-6, 12-2 WAC, NCAA Tournament First Round)

Under their third head coach in three years, the Aggies won the WAC regular season and tournament titles last year, reaching the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time since 2012. And now going into his second year, Chris Jans has done nothing but prove he belongs in his role. As he did at Bowling Green, Jans crafted an elite defense last year and was able to unlock another level of Zach Lofton’s well-traveled potential. It doesn’t appear wise to bet against him, especially with a talented roster.

A.J. Harris is the league’s most established returning point guard, and the Aggies will rely on him heavily. He’ll be joined by Utah transfer Jojo Zamora (6.9 PPG, 20.0 MPG in 2016-17) to form a potent defensive backcourt duo. The front court is also loaded with depth, even with athletic redshirt sophomore Johnny McCants sidelined until deep into the season with an injury. Eli Chuha returns for his senior year, and still posted respectable numbers despite a step back season in 2017-18 (8.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG). Denver transfer C.J. Bobbitt (10.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG in 2016-17) also enters the fold, along with a pair of highly regarded JuCo prospects (Ivan Aurrecoechea, Mohamed Thiam) and Robert Brown, a three-star prospect coming off a redshirt year.

There are undoubtedly questions. Lofton and rebounding magician Jemerrio Jones, the WAC’s two best players a year ago, ran out of eligibility. Three-point shooting may be an issue, with Zamora (36.0% on 89 career 3PA) the only semi-proven option. Then there’s the lack of an established high-volume scorer. Still, with a reliable point guard and impressive front court depth, Jans should have the Aggies in the driver’s seat yet again.

2. Grand Canyon Antelopes (22-12, 9-5 WAC, CBI First Round)

The Lopes’ fairytale first season of NCAA eligibility never became a reality. Officially, they were done in by NMSU in the WAC Tournament final. On a more global level, GCU was done in by an offense that never could quite get on track. The Lopes were still able to reel off a five-game winning streak leading up to the league tournament final, primarily on the back of a stifling defense and emerging freshman star.

That star was Alessandro Lever, who broke out during league play (15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG) and was named the league’s preseason POY by both the coaches and media. He’ll be surrounded by as much raw talent as Dan Majerle has had in Phoenix. That includes graduate transfer forward Michael Finke (9.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG), who was a central part of Illinois’ offense for three seasons. The perimeter has intriguing pieces as well, such as ultra-talented junior Oscar Frayer, suddenly eligible Washington transfer Carlos Johnson, well-regarded JuCo transfer J.J. Rhymes and four-star freshman Tim Finke.

The key, however, may be Damari Milstead. After playing lightly as a freshman, Milstead will likely get his first crack at setting up Lever and the rest of the Lopes’ offense. That point guard uncertainty, as well as no clear replacement for the loss of Keonta Vernon’s presence on the glass, puts GCU slightly behind NMSU in the WAC’s initial pecking order. Nonetheless, Majerle has the talent on hand — or as he called it, the “horses” — to challenge for the league.

3. Seattle Redhawks (20-14, 8-6 WAC, CBI First Round)

It was a successful first season for Jim Hayford, as Seattle won 20 games as a Division I program for the first time since the 1968-69 season. The Redhawks will attempt to build on that as they essentially replace four out of their five starters. A slew of graduate transfers — headlined by point guard Jordan Hill — are out of eligibility, while gigantic center Aaron Menzies transferred to Saint Mary’s.

The lone returning starter is Matej Kavas (15.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG), whose 46.4 three-point percentage led the WAC and was eighth-best nationally last season. He’s been the perfect fit for Hayford’s offensive system, and will be complemented by a pair of now-eligible transfers. Redshirt junior guard Delante Jones (career 11.8 PPG, 35.3 3P%) was the Patriot League Freshman of the Year in 2015-16, while fellow redshirt junior forward Myles Carter is a former three-star prospect who spent two seasons at Seton Hall. Junior Morgan Means will likely assume the bulk of point guard minutes after solid campaign (8.6 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.4 TOV). Hayford was also able to add talent from the prep levels, with a pair of three-star prospects (Rip Economou, Trey Hopkins).

If there’s a league dark horse it might be the Redhawks, who for many have been the WAC’s sleeping giant. Kavas demands defensive attention, and now has high-ceiling, experienced players around him in Jones and Carter. This team was not cobbled together last minute like last year, and with the upgrade in talent, could see an offensive boost that makes it a factor throughout the season.

4. Utah Valley Wolverines (23-11, 10-4 WAC, CBI Quarterfinals)

Quietly, Utah Valley put together a very nice season last year. The Wolverines finished the year in the KenPom Top 100 (92) for the first time, rolled out a top-75 offense nationally and had their best league record (10-4) since 2014. Plenty of firepower, however, is gone from that team, including point guard Brandon Randolph and interior, rim-protecting force Akolda Manyang.

A pair of Toolsons help ease those losses. Conner (12.1 PPG, 39.5 3P%), a senior, and Jake (10.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG), a redshirt junior, provide a solid foundation as the cousins are both solid two-way perimeter players. There’s also potential in the front court, with Connor MacDougall — a graduate transfer who sat out last season at New Mexico with an injury — and Eastern Michigan transfer Baylee Steele both eligible. Mark Pope also brought in a slew of JuCo transfers, and has a semi-experienced option at point guard in senior Ben Nakwaasah (17.1 MPG). Freshman forward Wyatt Lowell, the rare UVU high school signee, may be a player worth watching after grabbing a three-star ranking from multiple outlets.

The Wolverines certainly don’t have the talent they did a year ago, but the Toolson duo provides a reliable backbone and Pope has not only proven that he can identify and, more importantly, develop older college players, but also adapt his style of play to fit the roster he has. With all this working for them, the Wolverines shouldn’t slip down the standings too far, and should still be considered a legitimate threat to end up on top.

5. UMKC Kangaroos (10-21, 5-9 WAC)

After losing five seniors, an undersized UMKC team took an expected dip in 2017-18. The roster turnover allowed a slew of young players to get significant experience, which could pay dividends this season.

Any sudden rise up the standings begins with junior point guard Xavier Bishop. He took a big leap forward in 2017-18, registering the second-best assist rate among returning league players (24.0%), while significantly cutting down his turnovers. He’s an efficient slasher despite his small size, and a further uptick from long range could make him one of the league’s most dangerous offensive players. Junior forward Jordan Giles (10.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG) made similar strides, and has depth with him in the front court with senior Aleer Leek, and transfers Danny Dixon (George Mason) and Brandon Suggs (Bethune-Cookman).

The team’s upward potential most prominently lies with the wave of backcourt players Kareem Richardson appears to have at his disposal. Along with Bishop, there’s a group of sophomores that got experience last year (Marco Smith, Brandon McKissic, Tony Jackson, Marvin Nesbitt, Jr., Steve Dulley). All of these players were also forced to guard up a position with UMKC’s size limitations, particularly late in the year. That perimeter depth — especially with quality defenders like McKissic and Smith — should make the Roos’ up-tempo pressure system more effective. With an emerging lead guard and increased size, a mid-league finish doesn’t seem far-fetched.

6. CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners (12-18, 5-9 WAC)

If you’re looking for a sure bet, consider Rod Barnes being able to whip together a competitive defense. After losing some major pieces, the eighth-year CSUB head coach still cobbled together a middle-of-the-pack defense nationally per KenPom last season. It wasn’t like the top-50 units he’d swarmed teams with the two years prior, but it was still a respectable showing that can only be expected to get better in 2018-19.

Leading the way will be an enviable guard trio of senior Rickey Holden (10.7 PPG, 2.8 APG), sophomore Jarkell Joiner (10.4 PPG, 3.4 RPG) and senior trigger-man Damiyne Durham (12.9 PPG). Durham did not take the leap many expected last year, the but shot-happy guard remains as dangerous a scorer as there is in the WAC. His struggles from deep were emblematic of a team that shot under 30 percent from three as a unit. That should improve for Durham and Joiner, whose offensive potential was on full display as a freshman, and whose efficiency should get better.

Replacing Moataz Aly will be a challenge, as the shot-blocking senior played a big role in a defense that made it difficult for opponents at the rim. But Barnes has earned the benefit of the doubt that he can find defensive production from forwards Greg Lee, James Suber and JuCo transfer Darius Williams, as well as an array of experienced wing options (Justin Edler-Davis, Taze Moore, Justin McCall). With some progression from the backcourt talent, CSUB could nip at the heels of the league’s upper tier.

7. UT Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros (15-18, 6-8 WAC, CBI First Round)

There was improvement across the board for Lew Hill and the Vaqueros a season ago. UTRGV upped its overall win total by five games, posted a respectable league record (6-8), picked up some nice non-conference wins and was considerably better defensively. That trend, however, will need to continue without Nick Dixon, who led the WAC in scoring (20.3 PPG) and usage percentage, while finishing third in effective field goal percentage (50.9%).

Hill will need to replace a whale, as Dixon carried UTRGV’s offense while he hunted for free throws and racked up points. Javon Levi had a solid freshman season, as the point guard posted a league-leading 31.4 assist rate during conference play. While that may be affected with an elite scorer like Dixon gone, Levi does have some weapons around him. On both ends of the floor, the team will likely run through senior Terry Winn. The UTEP transfer lived up to his bruising billing (9.6, 6.8 RPG, 26.4 DR%), and figures to post better shooting numbers after a down season from the floor. Sophomore guard Greg Bowie (7.5 PPG) is also back after an encouraging debut season in a big role.

The Vaqueros welcome in a number of intriguing transfers, such as guard Tyson Smith (Loyola University Chicago), and forwards Ndene Gueye (St. Bonaventure) and Solomon Hainna (Evansville). That should provide depth to surround the young backcourt and Winn. Hill is relentless with pushing the pace, giving the program a clear identity. Losing Dixon and third-leading scorer Xavier McDaniel will hurt, but the Vaqueros, like UMKC and CSUB, are all neck-and-neck to challenge for the middle of the league.

8. California Baptist Lancers (28-6, 17-3 PAC West, NCAA Division II Tournament Elite Eight)

Welcome to the big show, CBU! Well, kind of. The Lancers will make their Division I and WAC debut in 2018-19, but must wait the dreaded four years before being eligible for postseason play. They will have some history to rely on, as sixth-year coach Rick Croy — a former Saint Mary’s assistant — has guided CBU to an 82 percent winning percentage and five Division II NCAA Tournament appearances (including an Elite Eight a year ago).

The Lancers’ inaugural year will feature a solid senior backcourt, including last season’s second-leading scorer Jordan Heading (14.1 PPG) and Wyoming transfer Jeremy Lieberman (4.8 PPG, 22.6 MPG in 2016-17). Redshirt junior center Zach Pirog (Omaha) is another player with Division I experience and he’ll team with junior forwards Bul Kuol (3.9 RPG, 38.3% on 107 3PA) and De’jon Davis (8.2 PPG, 5.0 RPG) in what could be a reliable front court.

Predicting CBU’s season is a tough nut to crack. Grand Canyon was a middling Division II program, went to back-to-back Division II NCAA Tournaments, jumped up and immediately went 10-6 in the WAC (with admittedly plenty of built-in resources). CSUB, on the other hand, was a bona fide Division II power but took quite some time before finally finding its footing under Barnes. The Lancers may sway more to the GCU side of the equation, particularly with a new arena in the their back pocket. Croy has said all the right things about program building, and if nothing else, the Lancers arrive at the big show with some semblance of a foundation in place.

9. Chicago State Cougars (3-29 1-13 WAC)

It’s a new era on the South Side, as Tracy Dildy was let go after eight seasons. In steps Lance Irvin, a local fixture that inherits a program that has posted a 2-40 league record over the past three seasons. It’s been a scramble for Irvin, who was named head coach in mid-August, filling the final vacancy in the country.

The son of Mac Irvin — the founder of Chicago AAU powerhouse Mac Irvin Fire — has a long resume of Division I coaching experience as an assistant. In his first crack as a head coach, he’ll likely rely heavily on senior wing Anthony Harris (5.8 PPG, 2.6 RPG), sophomore forward Cameron Bowles (4.7 PPG, 2.7 RPG) and sophomore guard Travon Bell (5.0 PPG). In his short time on the job, Irvin has added some legitimate size in JuCo transfers Noah Bigirumwani (6’10’’) and Christian Jacob (6’8’’).

It’s hard to project what style Irvin will employ given his array of Division I stops. For what it’s worth, when asked who his biggest influences are, he lists Larry Eustachy’s penchant for toughness and physicality, and Quin Snyder’s offensive philosophy before anything else. What is clear is that in a tough situation, CSU was able to capture some excitement. Irvin’s local connections and bona fide resume make him an intriguing hire. Long term, the far more interesting thing to track will be how he upgrades the roster throughout the year, particularly by leveraging his local connections. A few wins here and there on the court certainly wouldn’t hurt either.