By Kevin Sweeney
In the aftermath of Texas Southern grad transfer Zach Lofton’s commitment to New Mexico State on Monday, the debate of who will win the WAC this coming season has exploded. Over the past couple of days, I’ve spoken with college basketball writers Joshua Lovern (Mid-Major Madness), Connor Hope (Busting Brackets), and Kyle McDonald (covers Utah Valley for KSL), as well as countless fans of WAC basketball through Twitter. While I’ve tried to give my best take on the WAC race, it is difficult to express what you want to say in 140 characters. Thus, I figured I’d put together my full thoughts on what should be an excellent title race with any sort of character limit. Here we go:
To me, there are 3 teams that have enough talent and experience to be considered legit contenders for the WAC title: Grand Canyon, New Mexico State, and Utah Valley. When I woke up on Monday morning, I was fairly solid in my pick of Grand Canyon as WAC favorites, though I thought both challengers had a real chance at claiming the crown. However, Lofton’s commitment to NMSU left me waffling on my original pick. Here’s my in-depth look at each team:
THE CASE: Finally eligible for the postseason after completing the 4-year transition period to full Division 1 status, Grand Canyon has a great chance to win the WAC in its first season of NCAA Tournament eligibility. While superstar guard DeWayne Russell graduates, the Lopes still bring back a lot of production from last season’s squad, including WAC Player of the Year candidate Joshua Braun. GCU also brings in a talented recruiting class headlined by 3-star point guard Damari Milstead. Plus, they add a veteran leader in Casey Benson, a grad transfer guard who spent the first 3 seasons of his career as a key role player at Oregon. Finally, they should get talented big men Matt Jackson and Boubacar Toure back from injuries that cost each their 2016-17 season.
So why GCU? Grand Canyon is deep, talented, well-coached, and hungry. While no one player can replace Russell, Benson should be a double-digit scorer who takes care of the ball (career 3.25 assist-to-turnover ratio), while Milstead should provide scoring punch as either as 6th man or starter. Rising sophomore forward Oscar Frayer oozes potential and is a definite breakout candidate this season. GCU should be able to go 10 or more deep, a huge advantage when you consider the toll the extensive travelling in the WAC takes throughout the season.
New Mexico State
THE CASE: The fact that NMSU is still in the thick of the title talk in the WAC given what they have lost this offseason is a credit to the job Chris Jans has done since he arrived in Las Cruces to replace Paul Weir. After Weir departed, multiple players transferred and others were released from their letters of intent to play for the Aggies this season. However, Jans has brought in a trio of talented JUCO players in 6-6 wing Wayne Stewart, 6-2 guard LaMarcus Lee, and 6-0 PG Marquiez Buchanan, along with Lofton and 2017 recruits Kortrijk Miles and Gabe Hadley.
All of the sudden, NMSU has what is in my opinion the best starting 5 in the conference in Ohio State transfer AJ Harris, talented guard Sidy Ndir, Lofton, and returning frontcourt players Jemerrio Jones and Eli Chuha. Now, the question is the bench. If the 5 newcomers can help the Aggies have some usable depth (something that was an issue last season), New Mexico State is likely the best team in the WAC. The question is: can all these new pieces mesh with each other with a new coach in Jans running the show? If they can, it will be another special season in Las Cruces.
THE CASE: The forgotten man in what really is a 3-horse race is UVU. Mark Pope has assembled a roster full of players who transferred from high-major programs, and now in his 3rd year will have his full roster at his disposal. A nice core of guards in Conner Toolson (11.9 ppg), Kenneth Ogbe (10.6 ppg), and Brandon Randolph (10 ppg) returns along with a double-double machine in Isaac Neilson, while the Wolverines add a pair of impact transfers in former Oklahoma center Akolda Manyang and former BYU guard Jake Toolson. This UVU roster has excellent length and multiple guys who can hurt you on the offensive end. Per teamrankings.com, UVU ranked 9th in the country in tempo last season, so they certainly have the ability to get up and down. However, now that a center in Manyang is eligible, the best play may be to slow down and allow the frontcourt pairing of Neilson and Manyang to do work against the smaller bigs the rest of the WAC will trot out there.
While the 2 aforementioned squads will likely get the majority of the press, Utah Valley is a team that could surprise a lot of people in the WAC.
- New Mexico State
- Grand Canyon
- Utah Valley
Now I’ll start by saying that I have easily put any one of the 3 teams in any one of the spots, and that it wouldn’t surprise me if 1 game or less separates these 3 teams. However, I’m going to go with New Mexico State. Harris and Lofton will be impact newcomers, and if Ndir can stay on the floor he is an all-league talent. The talented JUCO players in Stewart, Lee, and Buchanan will be solid contributors right away as well.
The regular season title race will likely be decided by road games. Whichever team can steal a road win against the other 2 top contenders and can avoid a road slip-up against the rest of the conference will likely be in the drivers seat.