2016-17 WAC season preview

Photo: American Sports Network

New Mexico State’s string of four consecutive NCAA Tournament berths ended last season when Cal State Bakersfield won the WAC Tournament title. NMSU will once again be heavily challenged by Bakersfield as well as Grand Canyon, although the Antelopes are ineligible for postseason play. With those three teams battling at the top, this is set up to be the most competitive year the WAC has seen since conference realignment hit in 2013.

1. Grand Canyon

Photo: American Sports Network
Grand Canyon guard Joshua Braun. (Photo: American Sports Network)

Strengths

Grand Canyon could dethrone New Mexico State thanks to the best backcourt in the conference. Redshirt senior DeWayne Russell and junior Joshua Braun are arguably the league’s two best guards, and Braun is the heavy favorite for conference player of the year. The Antelopes also add junior college point guard Shaq Carr and highly touted redshirt freshman Kenzo Nudo, a 6’4″ shooting guard.

Although the Antelopes are still not eligible for the NCAA Tournament, they could get their first regular season conference title this season.

Concerns

The Antelopes’ inside game was already pretty weak, and they lose their best inside presence, 6’6″ forward Grandy Glaze. If Grand Canyon is going to win its first WAC title, it will need to improve on its 48.3 percent two-point shooting from last season. 6’9″ sophomore Kerwin Smith and USC grad transfer Darrion Clark will be the keys to making that happen.

2. New Mexico State

Strengths

The Aggies are shooting for another WAC title under new coach Paul Weir. Senior guard Ian Baker is one of the conference’s best players particularly on the offensive end. Although New Mexico State lost star forward Pascal Siakam to the NBA, most of the supporting cast is back and the program adds a terrific recruiting class. 6’7″ redshirt freshman Jermaine Haley was a five-star recruit on Scout, and junior college transfer Marlon Jones was one of the top recruits in Chicago coming out of high school.

Concerns

There are two main concerns for the Aggies. Losing Siakam leaves a gaping hole in the frontcourt, putting a large load on Tanveer Bhullar, Johnathan Wilkins and Marlon Jones. Secondly, Weir is handling his first head coaching job. It helps that he had nine seasons with the Aggies as an assistant coach, but there could still be some lumps and bumps in his first year at the helm.

 3. Cal State Bakersfield

Strengths

Senior guard Dedrick Basile is a potential all-conference player, and he is also the league’s best perimeter defender. If Damiyne Durham can build on a strong freshman season and three-star recruit Justin Davis makes an immediate impact as anticipated, the Roadrunners have a shot at making their second straight NCAA Tournament.

Concerns

Defense carried Bakersfield last season, particularly on the interior. The Roadrunners ranked in the top 20 nationally in two-point defense, block percentage and steal percentage. However, they lost two great defenders in Aly Ahmed and Kevin Mays. Getting productive minutes from 6’10” transfer Moataz Aly, who averaged 1.5 blocks at Hutchinson Community College, will be critical.

4. Seattle

Strengths

Seattle returns four starters and has two of the conference’s better players in senior guard Brendan Westendorf and senior forward William Powell. Westendorf is one of the WAC’s most well-rounded players and forms a dangerous perimeter attack with senior shooting guard Manroop Clair. Westendorf also hit a wild half court buzzer-beater to beat Chicago State last season.

Concerns

The Redhawks lost starting center Jack Crook, who averaged 10.1 points and 6.0 rebounds. Seattle already has a good rebounder and interior scorer in Powell, but the team could compete for a top three spot if 7’3″ center Aaron Menzies (4.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) can replace Crook’s production.

5. UMKC

Strengths

If anyone is going to compete with Joshua Braun for conference player of the year, it’s probably Martez Harrison. The UMKC senior guard averaged 15.4 points and 4.2 assists last season. Harrison has good company in the backcourt with seniors LaVell Boyd and Dashawn King. Junior college transfer Broderick Robinson should get some quality time as an added shooter, an area of the Kangaroos’ offense that Boyd had to largely carry last year.

Concerns

A lack of quality bigs will prevent UMKC from competing for the conference title. The Kangaroos lost 6’9″ Shayok Shayok (5.2 rpg) and 6’6″ Darius Austin (4.5 rpg), leaving 6’7″ Kyle Steward as the team’s top returning rebounder with 3.9 boards per game. They will need senior center Darnell Tillman to make a big jump in his final season.

 6. Utah Valley

Strengths

The Wolverines have a lot of newcomers, but they also have a steadying veteran presence in junior forward Zach Nelson, who redshirted with an injury last season after starting 28 games as a sophomore. Among the cast of newcomers are some high-impact players, such as Utah transfer Kenneth Ogbe, Xavier transfer Brandon Randolph and BYU transfer Isaac Neilson. If the newbies mesh with the returning players, Utah Valley could have one of the conference’s more talented rosters.

Concerns

The Wolverines finished 12-18 last season and lost their top three scorers in addition to three other key bench contributors. They are relying heavily on the newcomers and Nelson’s health to deliver them to a winning season for the first time since 2013-14.

Photo: Mike Granse-USA Today Sports
Chicago State forward Trayvon Palmer. (Photo: Mike Granse-USA Today Sports)

7. Chicago State

Strengths

Chicago State’s leading trio of Trayon Palmer, Fred Sims Jr. and Clemmye Owens will need to perform at a high level this season if the Cougars are going to avoid another last place finish. Sims struggled with efficiency last season, shooting 36.8 percent on two’s and 31.3 percent on three’s. However, to his credit he had a great turnover rate despite his high usage. And he was also a freshman.

The Cougars also have a pair of solid additions in former Florida Gulf Coast and Auburn guard Brian Greene Jr. and junior college forward Deionte Simmons.

Concerns

This team went 1-28 against Division I competition last season, and it’s mostly the same cast of characters. In addition, coach Tracy Dildy is also the interim athletic director, which only adds more responsibilities to his plate. Without a big breakthrough, it’s hard to see the Cougars finishing anywhere other than 7th or 8th.

8. UT Rio Grande Valley

Strengths

The Vaqueros have a strong duo in guard Antonio Green and forward Dan Kimasa, but after that there are mostly question marks. They will need incoming guards Adrean Johnson, Mike Nwabuzor and Moe McDonald to contribute immediately.

Concerns

After winning only eight games last season, UTRGV loses three of its top four scorers. The Vaqueros were also the worst defensive team in the WAC last year, and they lost two of their best defenders in forwards Shaquille Hines and Dakota Slaughter.

All-League 1st Team

Ian Baker, New Mexico State

Joshua Braun, Grand Canyon

Martez Harrison, UMKC

DeWayne Russell, Grand Canyon

Brendan Westendorf, Seattle

All-League 2nd Team

Dedrick Basile, Cal State Bakersfield

Antonio Green, UT Rio Grande Valley

Zach Nelson, Utah Valley

Trayvon Palmer, Chicago State

William Powell, Seattle

All-Defensive Team

Dedrick Basile, Cal State Bakersfield

Gerard Martin, Grand Canyon

Trayvon Palmer, Chicago State

Hayden Shenck, Utah Valley

Brent Wrapp, Cal State Bakersfield

All-Freshman Team

Justin Davis, Cal State Bakersfield

Oscar Frayer, Grand Canyon

Jermaine Haley, New Mexico State

Adrean Johnson, UTRGV

Lesley Varner Jr., UTRGV

Player of the Year

Joshua Braun, Grand Canyon

Defensive Player of the Year

Trayvon Palmer, Chicago State

Freshman of the Year

Jermaine Haley, New Mexico State

Coach of the Year

Dan Majerle, Grand Canyon

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