By Kevin Sweeney
The WAC has been slowly recovering from getting crushed by the last round of conference realignment, with intrigue around the league seemingly growing every year. That should only increase this season, with Grand Canyon’s transition into D1 complete and the Lopes finally eligible for the NCAA Tournament. They should be a top contender to reach the Big Dance, but they’ll face stiff competition from perennial power New Mexico State and some other solid challengers for the WAC title in what should be a very fun one-bid league to watch.
- New Mexico State- Chris Jans took over for Paul Weir this offseason at the helm of this NMSU program and did a wonderful job bringing in talent. The headliner of that group is Zach Lofton, a grad transfer from Texas Southern who was the SWAC POY last season. Jans also inherits a strong core, featuring talented guard Sidy N’dir, versatile point forward Jemerrio Jones, and double-double machine Eli Chuha. The Aggies deserve to be the favorite in the wide-open WAC.
- Grand Canyon- The graduation of DeWayne Russell certainly hurts, but this team has the depth and talent necessary to be an NCAA Tournament team. Dan Majerle brings in a terrific recruiting class and an experienced grad transfer in former Oregon guard Casey Benson to compliment WAC POY favorite Josh Braun and breakout candidate Oscar Frayer.
- Utah Valley- Kind of the forgotten man in the WAC title race, I’m a big believer in this UVU team to win 20 games and be a factor in the WAC. 5 of the Wolverines’ top 6 scorers return, and UVU adds a trio of transfers who could make an impact immediately. One guy to watch is Akolda Manyang, a 7-footer who transferred in from Oklahoma who should be a force down low in the WAC on both ends of the floor.
- Cal State Bakersfield- CSUB loses a lot of scoring punch from last year’s roster with the graduations of Jaylin Arrington, Dedrick Basile, and Matt Smith, but do have a solid returning core highlighted by POY candidate Daminye Durham, a solid point guard in Brent Wrapp, and forward Shonn Briggs. Look for a pair of newcomers in JUCO guard Ricky Holden and Jarkel Joiner to get provide some much-needed scoring as reserves. Also, the fact is we shouldn’t bet against Rod Barnes considering the job he has done at CSUB building this program into a consistent WAC contender.
- Seattle U- You have to love the job Jim Hayford has done so far at Seattle U, landing several talented transfers and recruits to put the program in great shape for years to come. For this year, he’ll have to rely on a talented center in Aaron Menzies and a trio grad transfers in Jordan Hill (Wisconsin), Richaud Gittens (Weber State), and Josh Hearlihy (Vermont) to try and climb the WAC standings.
- UTRGV- The Vaqueros have an outstanding scorer in Nick Dixon, a guy who is always capable of going off for 30 points if he gets rolling. The x-factor is Terry Winn, the UTEP transfer eligible at the midseason mark, who has the talent to be an all-WAC player.
- UMKC- UMKC is almost entirely unproven with the graduation of 5 starters from a season ago, but Kareen Richardson does bring in some intriguing newcomers highlighted by 3-star guard Brandon McKissic that will have to carry the load. If the freshmen don’t live up to expectations, it could be a very ugly season.
- Chicago State- This is probably the hardest place to win in college basketball at this point. The Cougars do have a star in Fred Sims who should put up huge numbers, but it will be hard to climb out of the league’s cellar without getting some help from the rest of the roster.
Champions: New Mexico State
The Aggies have the most talented core in the conference, with the additions of Lofton and Ohio State transfer AJ Harris to a group that already included Sidy N’Dir, double-double machine Eli Chuha, and do-everything point forward Jemerrio Jones. Jones is kind of the piece that makes all of this work, a great and versatile defender whose passing ability will free up Harris to score more at times. Meanwhile, N’Dir and Lofton’s games mesh perfectly, with N’Dir’s shooting ability complimented well by Lofton’s ability to get to the rim, using his physical frame to bully defenders. The forgotten man at times is Chuha, who very well might be the best player in the WAC. He provides an extremely efficient scoring threat in the low post and dominates on the glass. The question here is the transition of a new coach for the second straight offseason, as well as the reliance on a young group of newcomers to make up bench depth. However, this team has the talent not only to win the WAC but also challenge a high-major come March Madness.
Dark Horse: Utah Valley
As I mentioned earlier, I’m super high on this UVU team as one that could be in it until the end for the WAC title. There’s a lot of roster versatility for Mark Pope to work with, with the equally-appealing potential for twin-tower lineups with Manyang and Isaac Nielson or going small with one of the bigs at the 5 and 4 guards surrounding him. One area where they must improve is ball security, as they ranked last in the conference in turnover margin a season ago. However, the addition of BYU transfer Cory Calvert should help the Wolverines in that category. This is the year for Pope to lead UVU into true contender status in the WAC.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Joshua Braun (Grand Canyon)
- G: Nick Dixon (UTRGV)
- G: Sidy N’Dir (NMSU)
- G: Damiyne Durham (CSUB)
- F: Eli Chuha (NMSU)
Player of the Year: Joshua Braun (Grand Canyon)- Braun has been so key to this transition process at GCU, and now as a senior he has a chance to cap off his career with a WAC Player of the Year award, but more importantly, an NCAA Tournament berth. An elite shooter and crafty playmaker, Braun has an outside shot to get to 2,000 career points. His health will be critical though, as he has struggled with knee injuries throughout his GCU career.
Breakout Player of the Year: Oscar Frayer (Grand Canyon)- A high-major athlete who plays above the rim, Frayer’s upside on the wing is scary. He jumps out of the gym and is an improving shooter, the one aspect of his game he really struggled in as a freshman. I expect a big year from the sophomore, who I see as a future star in the WAC.
Newcomer of the Year: Zach Lofton (New Mexico State)- Lofton was highly sought-after on the grad transfer market this offseason, but he chose NMSU over a slew of high-major offers. He’s a proven commodity at the D1 level, a tough guard who can score at will on opposing defenses, and should be an excellent piece at the WAC level.