By Kevin Sweeney
The WAC title race has an interesting twist this season, as one of the top teams in the league in Grand Canyon is ineligible for the postseason. Grand Canyon’s transition to Division I has gone incredibly well, with the Antelopes having won 27 games last season, but they still have 1 more year in their 4-year transition to full D-I status, meaning that they can’t make the NCAA Tournament. The Antelopes still will have plenty of big games this season, with trips to Duke and Arizona as well as home dates with Louisville and San Diego State scheduled. With the Antelopes ineligible for postseason play, the door is certainly open for another WAC contender to take control of the league and make a run to the “Big Dance”.
- New Mexico State
- Grand Canyon
- Cal State Bakersfield
- Utah Valley
- UT-Rio Grande Valley
- Chicago State
Champions: New Mexico State- The Aggies were the best team in the WAC last season, going 13-1 in conference play, and I expect the same to be the case this season. While they lose Pascal Siakam, a first round pick in the NBA Draft who is now starting for the Raptors, they bring back their other four starters as well as multiple other significant pieces. They also have an outstanding group of newcomers headlined by redshirt freshman guard Jermaine Haley, who had numerous high-major offers and received a 4-star grade from rivals.com The Aggies have tremendous size, with 7 players standing at least 6-7. Those big men are headlined by Tanveer Bhullar, who is 7-2 and has lost over 50 pounds since enrolling 3 years ago. NMSU should be loaded, and first year head coach Paul Weir has an excellent chance to begin his head coaching career with an NCAA Tournament berth.
Dark Horse: Cal State Bakersfield- Great guard play is usually a recipe for success at the mid-major level, and the Roadrunners have the best set of guards in the conference. They have 4 outstanding guards who each have different roles in the offense. Dedrick Basile is the star of the group, a do-everything scorer who hit a buzzer-beater to send the Roadrunners to the NCAA Tournament. Damiyne Durham hit nearly three 3-pointers per game last season as a specialist off the bench, while Jaylin Airington is an excellent slasher who also rebounds well for a guard. Brent Wrapp is the distributor in the group, averaging over 4 assists per game last season. The question for Bakersfield will be the frontcourt, where they lose their top two rebounders from an already-thin group. JUCO transfer Moataz Aly and Mississippi State transfer Fallou Ndoye will be looked to provide some stability up front for the Roadrunners. If they can, Bakersfield has an excellent chance to repeat as conference tournament champs.
Preseason First Team:
- G: Ian Baker-New Mexico State
- G: Joshua Braun-Grand Canyon
- G: Martez Harrison-UMKC
- G: LaVell Boyd-UMKC
- G: Dedrick Basile- Cal State Bakersfield
Player of the Year: Joshua Braun- Braun is the type of player I love to root for. A 6-4 small forward, Braun received just one scholarship offer out of high school, from a school that had never played at the Division I level. Now, he’s the best player in the WAC, and with 2 seasons of eligibility remaining, has a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament in his senior year. Braun doesn’t wow you with any one area of his game, but lots of things well. He shot 39% from downtown last season while also knocking down 87% of his free throws. He does an excellent job of getting to the charity stripe, averaging nearly 7 free throw attempts per game last season. He has a chance to be a rare 50-40-90 player, a huge distinction for shooters that entails making 50% of field goal attempts, 40% of 3-point attempts, and 90% of foul shots. If Grand Canyon pulls some upsets early this season, expect Braun to be the main reason why.
Newcomer of the Year: Oscar Frayer (Grand Canyon)- Frayer represents the future for Grand Canyon. Head Coach Rick Majerle convinced Frayer, a 4-star recruit out of high school, to sign with the Antelopes over the likes of Oregon State, Cal, and St. Mary’s. The 6-6 wing is incredibly athletic, possessing the ability to play above the rim in ways that most mid-major players can’t. He also has a nice stroke with his jump shot. Frayer should immediately make an impact on the wing for the Antelopes, who seem to have the talent to put together a special season.