2020-21 32×32: WAC Preview

It’s game week across America! I appreciate all of you for supporting my work this year, and I can smell college basketball in the air! We wrap up our preview series with the two “W” conferences: the WAC and the WCC. Today we dive into the WAC, a league that could have some issues in pandemic times due to the challenges of travel restrictions and how spread-out the league is requiring some commercial air travel. Now that NMSU has a home, it appears the league is ready for takeoff. Let’s dive deep:

  1. New Mexico State – The New Mexico State Aggies of Phoenix (trademark pending) finally hit the practice court, albeit in a different state due to COVID restrictions in New Mexico. While those struggles could hurt chemistry for a team with lots of newcomers, this team should still be far and away the favorite to take home the WAC crown yet again. A talented returning group led by outstanding wing Jabari Rice is a good place to start: Rice made massive strides from his freshman year to become the team’s leading scorer as a sophomore, improving his shooting efficiency and turning into one of the better all-around players on the west coast. Big man Johnny McCants is another veteran who really impacts the game thanks to his tenacity on the glass, an area the Aggies shined a season ago. Well-traveled combo forward Donnie Tillman brings incredibly high upside given his size and skill level, even if he didn’t make the impact some expected at UNLV. Add in a dynamic group of newcomers from the JUCO world like former Mizzou PG CJ Roberts and a healthy Wilfried Likayi, and this is once again one of the deeper rosters in all of mid-major basketball. Past off-court transgressions aside, Chris Jans is a terrific ball coach who I have no doubt will have his team well-prepared for the season despite all the challenges the program has faced with COVID restrictions.

  2. Grand Canyon – Despite not necessarily being a natural regional fit, it’s clear to me that Grand Canyon upgraded on the coaching front by hiring Bryce Drew to replace Dan Majerle. What Majerle did to make this program highly relevant nationally coming up as a little-known D2 program was impressive, but things really stalled in recent years despite the talent level being high. In some ways, it felt like the culture of the program had become more about the GCU brand than GCU basketball, and a guy like Drew with coaching in his blood should be able to press that reset button. Plus, Drew is an accomplished recruiter who will be able to leverage the school’s incredible facilities and fanbase nationwide. What he does with this year’s group will be interesting to watch, as the cupboard certainly isn’t bare. The backcourt duo of Jovan Blacksher and Mikey Dixon should be a good one – Blacksher has work to do as a shooter but lived up to the considerable hype surrounding him out of Shadow Mountain and has the chance to be a program great, while Dixon is a high-level shot-maker who’ll give this offense some explosiveness. Add in a returning all-conference big man in Alessandro Lever, and that’s a pretty darn good place to start. I’m expecting a strong senior season from Oregon State transfer Sean Miller-Moore on the wing: while not a shooter, he ‘s a pogo-stick athlete who is great around the rim. And while I’ve never been high on Oscar Frayer, a new situation under a new coach could be the reset he needs to finally tap into his remarkable talent. If anyone has the talent to significantly challenge NMSU, it’s the Lopes. Can Drew right the ship at a program with such high upside?

  3. UTRGV – Lew Hill continues to do a remarkable job of building a program at one of the tougher places to win in America, following up 2018-19’s 20-win campaign with a 9-7 WAC finish in 2020. He should have a competitive squad once again thanks to a star at the point guard spot in Javon Levi and some key transfers. Levi posted the highest assist rate in America last season, a high-level passer who loves to share the ball and probe the defense. He’s not the most efficient shooter, but he does a nice job picking his spots and is also a heck of a perimeter defender. While he loses his two best scorers to distribute to from a season ago in Lesley Varner and Jordan Jackson, there’s still enough talent here to make the Vaqueros interesting. Stony Brook grad transfer Jeff Otchere isn’t the most skilled offensive player, but he is capable of changing a game on defense with his ability to protect the rim and should get plenty of easy looks from Levi in ball screens. Meanwhile, I’m bullish on the addition of WKU transfer Marek Nelson, an active forward with a nose for the ball who was in the rotation for the Hilltoppers and should play a key role for the Vaqueros. Getting consistent scoring from the wing will be critical – perhaps Rickey Nelson (Weber State) can help out there. But Hill will have this team scrapping and clawing all season long.

  4. Cal Baptist – The early pro departure of Milan Acquaah leaves quite the challenge for Rick Croy’s Lancers, but a transfer-heavy batch of newcomers will be expected to step in for a program that has won 37 games in its first two years of D1 play. The Lancers will be largely reliant on guys who are relatively unproven at the D1 level, so this ranking is as much a statement of trust in Croy as it is anything else. Figuring out how to score post-Acquaah is priority numero uno: the talented guard was one of the higher-usage guys in the country, and there isn’t a guy on this roster who can come close to that type of production. Veteran Ty Rowell will likely step into a bigger role, but the likes of Elijah Thomas (Saint Mary’s) and Jermaine Miranda (Hofstra) really need to give this group some scoring pop. I’m intrigued by what a pair of reclamation projects in the frontcourt in Gorjok Gak (Florida) and Russell Barlow (TCU) could bring – neither fit the mold of big scorers, but both have the combination of size and athleticism that is hard to find in the WAC. I trust Croy to have these guys competing, but there will be a learning curve with so many unproven faces.

  5. Seattle – After a tenure that began with a 20-win season, things have stalled a bit in the past two seasons for Jim Hayford at Seattle. And with significant attrition from last season’s 7-7 WAC finish, another middling campaign might be the best-case scenario for the Redhawks in 2020-21. Versatile wing Riley Grigsby is a good piece to start with – while he really struggled shooting the ball (despite high volume), he’s an effective slasher with significant defensive upside. He definitely made strides last season after a steady freshman campaign, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him blossom into an all-conference-caliber player for Hayford’s club this season. He’ll be paired with another versatile forward up front in the well-traveled Daron Henson, who spent last season at Washington State. Henson’s best asset is his ability to stretch the floor, which will provide a much-needed spark to this offense. But the ceiling of this team will likely be defined by a pair of newcomers at guard in Darrion Trammell and Angelo Stuart, both JUCO imports. Stuart can really score and comes from a traditional JUCO power in Mineral Area CC, where he averaged over 17 points per game and shot 40% from 3. Meanwhile, Trammell represents more of a true PG and boasted an impressive A/TO ratio while at City College of San Francisco.

  6. Utah Valley – Year two of the Mark Madsen era in Orem will feel a lot like a year one: while the roster is without a doubt Madsen’s to have shaped at this point, it’s a group FULL of newcomers that doesn’t return a single starter from last season. So in this weird, disjointed season, can Madsen piece together a competitive roster? It’s starts with the transfers he brings in: I’m most excited about Georgia Tech import Evan Cole, a smart player at the 4-spot who was never going to be a star at the ACC level but always seemed to have significant promise as a mid-major player (he was once committed to Kevin Keatts at UNCW before opening up following the coaching change). A Cole/Fardaws Aimaq frontcourt could be a good one in this league – Aimaq is without a doubt unpolished on the offensive end, but he can protect the rim and has long arms. UAB import Jordan Brinson and a pair of former BYU guards in Colby Leifson and Blaze Nield will be needed to provide some scoring pop as well. Projecting what this team’s potential is is quite the challenge with so many guys adapting into new roles and new teams. The Wolverines could surprise with a top-half finish, or they could drop below the D2 imports below them. 

  7. Dixie State – One of two D2 newcomers in the WAC this season, Dixie State begins its four-year transition into D1 after winning 23 games in its final season at the D2 level. They do so with a roster that features four returning starters, the type of experience any coach would love to have when embarking on a new challenge like this. The leader of this group is a senior star at the forward position in Hunter Schofield, an impressive all-around player who can play inside and out and will be a matchup problem in the WAC as a senior. I’m also excited about junior wing Frank Staine, who shot a blistering 45% from deep last season and has great size at 6-6 on the wing. The guy who might key Dixie’s D1 infancy is Dason Youngblood, an experienced combo guard who struggles to shoot the ball but will likely take full-time PG duties this season. Youngblood did a great job taking care of the ball last season, but will have an even more critical role this season in an offense that really emphasizes passing.

  8. Tarleton State – Billy Clyde Gillespie is back at the D1 level, as Tarleton State makes the bold gamble to take on a coach with plenty of baggage (to put it kindly) with hopes of jumpstarting a basketball program into new heights. It’s hard to imagine much immediate success though with such a newcomer-heavy roster. Tarleton returns just three players who accumulated statistics last season, making this a start-from-scratch rebuild for Gillespie and company. I’m excited about young guard Isaiah Range, who put up impressive numbers last season for the Texans and should be a centerpiece of this new offense. But projecting out much of this rotation is akin to throwing darts at a wall blindfolded. Four of the newcomers played for Gillespie at Ranger College, which should give them the inside track to minutes right away. The big beneficiary there might be Montre Gipson, an undersized scoring guard who averaged 9.6 points per game on a 28-3 Ranger team. Would Gillespie finding a way to win big despite all these new faces stun me? No. But it’s hard for me to buy much year one stock given how hard it is to figure out who is even going to be on the floor.

  9. Chicago State – The build continues for Lance Irvin at Chicago State, one of the more difficult places to win in the country. Irvin has talked this summer and fall about continuing to build up more competitive depth inside his program, and it seems to me like he’s on the right track on that front: beyond a pair of seniors in Xavier Johnson and Andrew Lewis in the backcourt, younger guards like Isaiah Lewis and Rajeir Jones look like long-term players. Simply having eight returning players is a win for Irvin and company. Can five newcomers give this program a further shot in the arm? 7-foot freshman Lou Demuth is certainly raw, but he’s a worthwhile talent gamble for a program that has to find diamonds in the rough. Meanwhile, JUCO imports Levelle Zeigler and Jordan Polynice could also bring something off the bench for the Cougs.

All-Conference First Team:

  • Javon Levi (UTRGV)
  • Jovan Blacksher (GCU)
  • Jabari Rice (NMSU)
  • Donnie Tillman (NMSU)
  • Alessandro Lever (GCU)

Player of the Year: Jabari Rice (NMSU) – As I mentioned in my NMSU capsule, Rice’s development arc from being force-fed minutes as a redshirt freshman into one of the league’s best players as a sophomore was unbelievably impressive to watch. Can he make another jump as a junior? Rice is as well-rounded a guard as they come in mid-major basketball, capable of hitting outside shots, scoring efficiently at the rim, and getting to the stripe. Add in his steady defensive work, and he’s the best player in this conference.

Breakout Player: Jovan Blacksher (GCU) – If he isn’t a household name yet, Jovan Blacksher Jr will be one soon. I was so impressed by his fearlessness as a freshman, unafraid to drive and take contact despite standing just 5-11, 155 pounds. He’s incredibly shifty and does a great job getting teammates involved. If he can improve as an outside shooter, the sky is the limit for him under a new coach in Bryce Drew.

Newcomer of the Year: Donnie Tillman (NMSU) – Tillman simply is more talented than the types of guys that wind up in the WAC, a skilled 6-7 forward who can play multiple positions. And if there’s anyone who can get the most out of him, it’s Chris Jans. Jans will have Tillman playing harder than he has ever played and get him to refocus on the basics while fitting into a team construct on offense. If he gets back the shooting stroke he had as a sophomore at Utah, watch out.

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