Before last season, New Mexico State and Grand Canyon hoped that graduate transfers were the answers to some of their most glaring questions.
Could Zach Lofton replace the scoring punch the Aggies had lost on the perimeter? Could Casey Benson stabilize the Lopes’ point guard position with Dewayne Russell and all his dazzle out of eligibility? How things turned out — Benson was merely solid while Lofton was transcendent — played a part in NMSU winning the regular season and tournament titles.
Ahead of this season, it seems like you can make an even more definitive statement: newcomers will decide the WAC in 2018-19. Yet again, the conversation starts with NMSU and GCU.
The Aggies are hoping that some of Lofton’s perimeter minutes — both as a scorer, three-point shooter and defender — can be replaced by Utah transfer JoJo Zamora. The redshirt senior was a regular on a 20-win Utes team two years ago, pitching in solid production alongside Kyle Kuzma (20.0 MPG, 6.9 PPG, 36.0 3P%). NMSU will also be without WAC POY Jemerrio Jones, and will be turning to a trio of newcomers to replace his absurd work on the glass.
Alongside Denver transfer C.J. Bobbitt, the Aggies will give minutes to highly-rated JuCo prospects Ivan Aurrecoechea and Mohamed Thiam. Chris Jans talked about the pair during WAC media day.
“There are high expectations for both of those guys, and I’m sure they have them for themselves as well,” he said. “As a coach, you understand there’s going to be a transition and they’re going to take their bumps and bruises, and they’re both trying to figure it out. But eventually, and I don’t know when they eventually will be, they’re going to have a big impact. Hopefully that’s in the first year.”
Expectations are also sky high in Phoenix, where the most important player — Alessandro Lever — is not a newcomer. However, some vital members of the supporting cast will be suiting up for the Lopes for the first time.
That includes Illinois graduate transfer forward Michael Finke, whose spot-up game should produce big numbers this season. Trey Dreschel, a transfer from Div. II Western Washington, could also factor at point guard, creating a 6’6’’ matchup problem at a position cloaked in uncertainty. And recently-eligible Washington transfer Carlos Johnson and JuCo signee J.J. Rhymes will both be relied on on the perimeter.
If NMSU and GCU are the league favorites, then Utah Valley and Seattle live in a tier just below, both with rosters capable of challenging for a league title. Newcomers factor heavily there too, with the Redhawks welcoming a trio of impact transfers — Delante Jones (American), Dashawn McDowell (SMU), Myles Carter (Seton Hall) — that sat out last year.
“We had an awesome scout team everyday [last season],” Seattle coach Jim Hayford said. “A lot of times you’re going against a scout team and it might be four or five walk ons, but we had guys we could teach the other team’s plays to and they were as hard to guard, or better, than a lot of our opponents.”
For UVU’s part, the Wolverines lose a guy we barely knew — Akolda Manyang — after one year of resounding eligibility. The center finished in the top-25 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, defensive rebounding percentage and block percentage, and replacing that with one player is a tall task. But the Wolverines do add experience to the frontcourt with New Mexico graduate transfer Connor MacDougall, and Eastern Michigan transfer Baylee Steele. Steele is especially intriguing, considering his lone year of eligibility was spent with an established star (James Thompson IV) at his same position.
All four teams have backbones made up of returning players. The primary drivers have been there before for each program, whether it’s A.J. Harris and Eli Chuha at NMSU, Lever and Oscar Frayer at GCU, Matej Kavas at Seattle or the Toolson cousins at UVU. But it’s newcomers that’ll decide the key questions for the Aggies (perimeter scoring, rebounding), Lopes (rebounding, point guard play), Redhawks (scoring, interior presence) and Wolverines (interior presence).
Whomever finds positive answers may be in the driver’s seat for a WAC title in 2018-19.