By Kevin Sweeney
The WAC continues to teeter on the brink of stability year after year, but the league has strategically landed schools joining the D1 ranks to keep numbers up. The league stands to lose two and gain two following the 2019-20 season, with the departure of UMKC for the Summit League and CSUB to the Big West offset by the arrivals of Dixie State and Tarleton State from the D2 ranks. Both seem like solid adds on paper– like Grand Canyon and Cal Baptist before them, both Dixie and Tarleton have been consistent 20+ game winners at the D2 level. Adds like this should ensure the WAC’s long-term future as long as neither New Mexico State nor Grand Canyon depart anytime soon.
#1. New Mexico State– NMSU has won no fewer than 23 games in a season in the past eight seasons, and has reached the NCAA Tournament in seven of those eight seasons (they lost on a buzzer-beater in the conference tournament in the lone miss). The program that has been built in Las Cruces is one of the most impressive storylines in college basketball, and there’s no reason to expect anything less than dominance by the Aggies once again in 2019-20. Chris Jans may not have the luxury of rotating through 13 rotation players like he did a season ago, but he still has a deep, talented roster with a potential NBA player in Trevelin Queen. Queen didn’t put up the counting stats to be thrown in amongst the elite mid-major players in the country by the average fan, but a closer look indicates just how good he is: a dynamic shot creator, elite defender, and high-level athlete who should have a massive senior season. This team has legit at-large talent, experience, and coaching: the question is whether they can build a resume worth consideration come Selection Sunday.
#2. Grand Canyon– As of publication, we still don’t have final word on a waiver for Jaylen Fisher, a decision that will have quite the impact on GCU’s season and the WAC as a whole. Fisher was a legitimate all-conference player in the Big 12 before knee injuries derailed his career at TCU. It’s certainly not a given that he’d be able to stay on the floor even if he winds up gaining immediate eligibility, but he’d be a conference POY type if he is able to play. Even without Fisher, Dan Majerle has a loaded backcourt: Northwestern transfer Isiah Brown is the type of scoring combo guard who can thrive at a lower level, as is St John’s transfer Mikey Dixon (eligible at semester break). Meanwhile, physical guard Carlos Johnson returns after a terrific season in 2018-19, and there’s plenty of hype surrounding dynamic freshman guard Jovan Blacksher. Where the Lopes could struggle is on the glass– Alessandro Lever isn’t a high-level rebounder at the five, and GCU has little to no depth behind him. Colorado State transfer Lorenzo Jenkins could plug in and fill a roll, and UNLV transfer Louis Bangai might be able to eat some frontcourt minutes as well.
#3. Seattle– After a 12-3 start that featured a pair of wins over Pac-12 schools, the wheels came off for the Redhawks after a pair of injuries to key starters on a team that wasn’t deep to begin with. Losing Delante Jones and Matej Kavas throughout the early stages of conference play led to a 1-9 start in the WAC. That really wasn’t representative of this team, and a bounceback should be in store come January. A core of Terrell Brown, Myles Carter, Morgan Means, and Jones is a very strong one, and sophomore wing/forward Riley Grigsby has breakout potential. Depth remains a concern though.
#4. Cal Baptist– CBU was a pleasant surprise in its first year of Division 1 hoops, finishing over .500 and reaching the postseason thanks to a ridiculous season from Milan Acquaah. The high-usage point guard seemed to wear down during the stretch run a season ago, but he’ll have more help in the backcourt with the addition of a pair of transfers in Brandon Boyd (Idaho State) and Ferron Flavors (Fairfield). That duo seems to compliment Acquaah perfectly: Boyd is incredibly shifty getting to the basket, and Flavors is a long-range bomber who should provide some major spacing. I love the direction of this program under Rick Croy.
#5. Cal State Bakersfield— The Roadrunners lose a star in Jarkel Joiner (Ole Miss) but gain one in De’Monte Buckingham (Richmond). Off-court troubles eventually ended his time at UR, but Buckingham has all the on-court makings of a mid-major star: he impacts the game in so many different ways and can play multiple positions on the floor. I’m fascinated to see how Rod Barnes deploys Buckingham– he might be best served as a playmaking small-ball four, but could also be bumped down to the wing if Barnes elects to go bigger. Even with Buckingham’s ability to create shots, Barnes needs someone to step up as a primary point guard: JUCO import Czar Perry will be critical.
#6. Utah Valley– The dynasty that is NMSU kept Mark Pope from getting the national attention he deserved for the job he did building UVU from the ground up. Although he departs for in-state foe BYU this offseason, Pope indubitably left the program in a SIGNIFICANTLY better place than how he found it, and that’s all you can ask for. Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen takes over despite a lack of college coaching experience, and he inherits a roster that departs its top four scorers from a season ago. Oklahoma State transfer Brandon Averette should star in the WAC, a shifty PG who thrives getting to the rim and distributing. Athletic wing Isaiah White has to take the next step in his junior campaign after showing flashes during his first season in Orem, while Utah transfer Brandon Morley will look to lock down the post. How Madsen looks as an in-game coach is a question that needs to be answered as well.
#7. UTRGV– Winning 20 games at UTRGV is no small achievement, and Lew Hill deserves all kinds of credit for building a program like this. The Vaqueros have a steady PG in Javon Levi and a talented wing Lesley Varner, but more help is needed for this team to replicate its strong 2018-19 campaign. A trio of JUCO imports in Chris Freeman, Anthony Bratton, and Rob McClain could help: McClain was the LeBron James of Division 2 JUCO ball a season ago, averaging a patently absurd statline of 23 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals while shooting 57% from the field and 39% from downtown.
#8. UMKC– Former Wright State head man Billy Donlon takes over at UMKC in the program’s final season in the WAC. He inherits a roster that lacked talent and loses its best player in Xavier Bishop, but a pair of grad transfers should help keep the Kangaroos relevant in year one. BYU transfer Jashire Hardnett will run the show– a slashing point guard who is also a very solid defender. Meanwhile, two-time grad transfer Javan White moves back down to a more comfortable level after failing to getting any minutes at Clemson. Donlon is a strong defensive coach who could be able to win some games in year one if he can instill his principles right away.
#9. Chicago State– I do think we’ll see some improvement from the Cougars in year two for Lance Irvin, and not just because there’s nowhere to go but up. Irvin is a tactful recruiter who has brought in some nice pieces from the JUCO and prep circuits to revamp this roster. I’m bullish on freshman guard Rajeir Jones, a well-regarded recruit out of the DMV who screams 3&D. Hill College import Xavier Johnson can really hit shots, and the presence of him and Jones should give room for the likes of Christian Jacob on the inside. Wins will still be hard to come by, but I think Irvin is the right man for this brutally difficult job.
All-Conference First Team:
- Terrell Brown (New Mexico State)
- Terrell Brown (Seattle)
- Carlos Johnson (Grand Canyon)
- Trevelin Queen (New Mexico State)
- De’Monte Buckingham (Cal State Bakersfield)
*Note: Jaylen Fisher is on this list if eligible
Player of the Year: Trevelin Queen (New Mexico State)
Like I mentioned above, Queen is the most underrated player in college basketball. Without having time to adjust into the system after joining NMSU in December, Queen was still able to work his way into a valuable role into the rotation to the point that by the end of the year, he was the best player on the team. His JUCO numbers show he’s more than capable of taking on a bigger scoring load, and I expect him to do so this season. The only thing standing in the way of him winning this award might be his own teammates– it may be tough for him to put up the traditional counting stats necessary for this honors.
Breakout Player: Isaiah White (Utah Valley)
White was a plug-and-play starter out of JUCO for Mark Pope a season ago, and now presumably will take on a much larger role this season. Hitting his threes at a 39% clip after that being a perceived weakness in his game at JUCO was a very encouraging sign, given White has elite physical tools to get to the rim. I’d like to see him continue to improve as a finisher, but it wouldn’t’ surprise me if White winds up leading the Wolverines in scoring this season.
Newcomer of the Year: De’Monte Buckingham (Richmond)
This award likely goes to Jaylen Fisher if he gets a waiver and can stay healthy, but Buckingham is also a terrific add for the conference as a whole. It’s rare for mid-majors to land such versatile all-around players, and Buckingham’s ability to impact the game in so many different ways should allow him to be a star in the WAC.