By Kevin Sweeney
While still somewhat-tenuously constructed, the WAC finally appears to have some sort of D1 stability. New Mexico State and Grand Canyon can carry the conference, while Seattle and UVU are on the rise. Meanwhile, reports have the WAC aggressive in recruiting D2 schools to join the D1 ranks with them, with talk of the WAC becoming a football conference (presumably FCS) once again.
#1. New Mexico State
One of the nation’s most consistent mid-major programs, NMSU seems to just reload year after year, no matter who the coach is. Chris Jans has helped continue that tradition, bringing in a pair of top-10 JUCO prospects along with a pair of impact transfers fresh off sitting out a year to bolster an NMSU club that returns a pair of key contributors in AJ Harris and Eli Chuha from an NCAA Tournament team. Mohamed Thiam and Ivan Aurrecoecha both come from the JUCO ranks having put up big numbers, and should give the Aggies a fearsome front line to pound teams on the glass. Meanwhile, Utah transfer JoJo Zamora, who briefly committed to GCU in his transfer search, should provide some big-time scoring punch next to Harris in the backcourt. I don’t see this team skipping a beat.
#2. Grand Canyon
In what was supposed to be the breakthrough season in the first year of D1 eligibility for Dan Majerle’s club, the ‘Lopes failed to live up to expectations. The key flaw: GCU couldn’t get any dribble penetration, as perpetual knee injuries hindered Josh Braun’s effectiveness and Oregon grad transfer Casey Benson proved more game manager than shot creator. With both gone, this is a new-look GCU club, one reliant on a frontcourt featuring preseason POY Alessandro Lever and Illinois grad transfer Michael Finke. PG questions loom with sophomore Damari Milstead and D2 grad transfer Trey Dreschel both candidates to start, while scoring guards JJ Rhymes, Carlos Johnson, and Oscar Frayer will all rely on their strength and athleticism to get to the rim. Spacing is a concern, but Majerle has continued to assemble talent and should have a dangerous club for the 2018-19 season.
After building an incredibly successful program at Eastern Washington, Jim Hayford is looking to do the same at Seattle. A trio of talented transfers become eligible after sitting out the first year of Hayford’s tenure, as Dashawn McDowell (SMU), Delante Jones (American) and Myles Carter (Seton Hall) join a group that already features Matej Kavas. Carter likely will replace Aaron Menzies as the “1-in” in Hayford’s 4-out, 1-in offense, but none of the transfers will be more important than McDowell. A former well-regarded recruit, McDowell’s athleticism should be an asset at either guard spot, and Hayford could really use another guard who can handle the ball next to Morgan Means.
#4. Utah Valley
The job Mark Pope has done with this UVU program has been superb, building the Wolverines into a WAC contender among GCU and NMSU. Losing one year wonder big man Akolda Manyang hurts, but UVU still has plenty of talent to make some noise this season. A pair of transfers in Bailey Steele (Eastern Michigan) and Connor MacDougall (New Mexico) will take over up front for Manyang, while the Toolson cousins will continue to provide strong production on the wing.
#5. Cal State Bakersfield
CSUB was one of the worst shooting teams in college basketball last season, shooting a putrid 30% (342nd nationally) from downtown. That’s a troubling stat given how guard-reliant the Roadrunners are, though CSUB does have some excellent guards at his disposal in Damiyne Durham and Jarkel Joiner along with Rickey Holden. Joiner has all-conference upside– a prolific high school scorer who showed flashes but was a bit of a a ball-stopper as a freshman. Rod Barnes’ club goes smaller and more athletic this season, but will need good production from JUCO import Darius Williams up front to maintain the rebounding edge they held last season.
Lew Hill’s club loses high-usage scoring star Nick Dixon, a crushing blow to a club that didn’t have a ton of scoring depth to begin with last season. I like what Hill has done to his frontcourt, adding athletic forward Solomon Hainna next to Terry Winn to make a very athletic unit that should be able to get up and down in UTRGV’s up-tempo system. However, Hill will need a guard to give them some serious scoring punch in Dixon’s absence. Perhaps that guy is Greg Bowie, who showed promise as a freshman but will have to up his efficiency.
Kareem Richardson has been unable to build much momentum at UMKC, and his club is coming off a brutal 2017-18 headlined by a midseason loss to D2 William Jewell. They also committed the cardinal sin of WAC basketball: they lost to Chicago State. The good news for Richardson and company is they were incredibly young last season, with guys like Xavier Bishop, Brandon McKissic, and Marvin Nesbitt all back. JUCO forward Jamel Allen should also give this team a boost. However, another 20+ loss season could put Richardson on the hot seat.
#8. Cal Baptist
The more exciting of the 2 new D1 clubs this season, CBU has engineered a rapid rise to D1 after only moving from NAIA to D2 in 2010. Randy Bennett disciple Rick Croy has done a great job at the D2 level, and I’m confident he can make the Lancers a winner in the WAC with time to recruit, as CBU has great facilities and appears committed to building a winner at the D1 level. For this year, look out for combo guard Jordan Heading, a senior who averaged over 14 points and 5 assists last season.
#9. Chicago State
After spending months looking for a replacement for Tracy Dildy, CSU finally landed on Lance Irvin to run their program. For a program with such poor resources, Irvin is actually a strong hire: his family began the famed Mac Irvin Fire AAU program in Chicago and he has been an assistant at several D1 programs. Plus, he actually wanted the job. The talent level is still very low, and they return no one who averaged more than 6 points per game last season.
Not good, Bob.
All Conference First Team:
- JoJo Zamora– New Mexico State (6.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.1 apg, .455/.360/.811 in 2016-17 at Utah)
- Conner Toolson– Utah Valley (12.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, .454/.395/.810)
- Oscar Frayer– Grand Canyon (9.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, .482/.366/.547)
- Matej Kavas– Seattle (15.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.2 apg, .474/.464/.791)
- Alessandro Lever– Grand Canyon (12.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.2 apg, .453/.321/.766)
Player of the Year: Alessandro Lever (Grand Canyon)
Lever just got better and better as the season went on last season, averaging almost 19 points and 6 rebounds per game in the season’s final 10 games. He has to get smarter and eliminate needless fouls, but Lever is a legit high-major talent who should continue to improve into his sophomore season.
Breakout Player: Greg Bowie (UTRGV)
If this breakout comes true, it will have come out of necessity for Lew Hill’s club. Without Nick Dixon, the Vaqueros desperately need someone to score the basketball. Bowie could be that guy after averaging 7.5 ppg as a freshman. A few promising performances, like his 18 points vs Seattle in January or his 14 points and 6 boards against NMSU, give me reason for optimism.
Newcomer of the Year: JoJo Zamora (New Mexico State)
NMSU has at least 3 players worthy of being in the discussion for this award, but I’ll roll with Zamora, who I’m betting on having a massive year in his only year at NMSU. Zamora can really score the ball, and played a key role for a good Utah team in 2016-17 before electing to transfer for his final year of eligibility.