Saturday, October 12, 2013

Conference Calling's 2013-14 College Basketball Previews: #27 WAC

Patron saint of All-Name teams everywhere.
In an era where the Big 12 has 10 teams and the Big Ten has 12 (soon to be 14), we're used to conference names being a bit nonsensical. If you're looking for false advertising in your league handles, though, the Western Athletic Conference nearly had the market cornered this offseason.

The WAC is no longer exclusively western, unless you consider Chicago and Kansas City far west outposts. If you do, kindly ask Doc Brown to drag you back to 1845.

The snarky college football jock-sniffer would claim that the "Athletic" part went away when the WAC stopped sponsoring football.

Finally, had it not broken down and invited Chicago State, UMKC and a host of other misfit toys, the conference would have no longer been a conference.

So, credit to the league for doing what it had to do to survive, but this is not the WAC that once gave us stars like Danny Ainge, Tim Hardaway, Keith Van Horn or the immortal Fennis Dembo.

WAC basketball will look extremely different this season (and there's still a domino left to fall when Idaho heads for the Big Sky in 2014), but it could surprise us all. There will be no return to 1998's four-bid status, though. Ever.

More on who should get this year's bid after the jump.

(All statistics and rankings via unless otherwise noted.)

1. New Mexico State

--Over a full season, it's hard to see any of the other WAC schools knocking the Aggies off the perch. Once the conference tournament rolls around, anything can happen, but opponents will need some courage to tip it off with State's humongantuan frontcourt personnel.

While forwards at a school like Duke or Kentucky seem like Ferrarisslick, fast and high performanceNew Mexico State's personnel seem more like military personnel carriers, big enough to carry whole other teams on their backs. 7'5", 360-pound Sim Bhullar could press for conference player of the year honors if he improves last season's 46% foul shooting.

Pictured: New Mexico State practice. Sim Bhullar at right.
Bhullar's "little" brother Tanveer is a 7'3", 335-pound freshman. Junior Tshilidzi Nephawe stands 6'10" and 270 pounds in his own right, and he's the runt of this litter. He averaged 7.2/5.2 over nine games before missing the rest of the season with torn thumb ligaments.

And just because every pair of big guys needs a skinny dude to squeeze between them on a road trip, senior Renaldo Dixon is also 6'10", but only carries 215. Good luck driving on this bunch.

Look for guard Daniel Mullings to take most of the preseason conference POY picks (but not ours) after leading the Aggies in points, assists and steals in his sophomore year. The defensive pest averaged 2.6 swipes per game over his final eight.

If the Aggies reach their fourth tournament in five years, the school's biggest challenge will be in keeping coach Marvin Menzies from getting poached by the major-conference programs.

2. Cal State Bakersfield

--The Roadrunners are a defending conference champion migrating to the WAC. Granted, that conference was "Independents" and the only opposition was New Orleans, but take yer accomplishments where you find 'em, I say.

This season, Bakersfield joins a new league in which it's David to New Mexico State's Goliath. Where the Aggies will rise or fall with the giants up front, CSUB will bring a talented group of guards with a few all-conference candidates.

Returning double-digit scorers Brandon Barnes and Javonte Maynor are both capable perimeter shooters who inexplicably struggle from the foul line. Barnes is much more the slasher, while Maynor is a career 38% three-point gunner. Seniors Zach Lamb and Issiah Grayson were double-digit men in 2011-12 before missing most of last year with injuries. Both are highly capable at the point.

Top those guys off with ex-UC Davis Aggie Tyrell Corbin and juco sharpshooter Jaylin Arrington (44% from three last season), and this backcourt could very easily be the WAC's best.

There's some good size up front, but not much proven production. Oklahoman Tyler Smith, Englishman Abdul Ahmed and Egyptian Aly Ahmed (no relation) all stand 6'9" or taller, but none have played a minute of D-I hoops. Offensive punch is likely to come from 6'7" senior Corey Hall and Gardner-Webb transfer Stefon Johnson. Johnson brings career averages of 7.3/5.3, while Hall averaged 10.7 rebounds per 40 minutes.

Coach Rod Barnes has NCAA tournament experience, having been there three times with Ole Miss. Now that Bakersfield isn't stuck in independent hell anymore, don't discount his chances of getting another school to the dance.

3. Utah Valley

--UVU coach Dick Hunsaker has won 63% of his games in Orem, and that includes the always-awkward Division I transition period. His name has to go on a shortlist of the most underappreciated coaching jobs in America. In the Wolverines' first WAC season, Hunsaker brings back only four of his nine rotation players, but all four are true seniors rather than juco products.

Coach's kid Holton Hunsaker will man the point after a very solid 56% true shooting season. Hunsaker made 36% from three and 90% from the line as a junior. Defensive pest Taylor Brown and another solid shooter, Keawe Enos, will support him in the backcourt along with juco sophomore Hayes Garrity.

6'9" center Ben Aird is the primary workhorse for Hunsaker's club, and has been a force since he first arrived on campus three years ago. The Bountiful, Utah product set career highs in nearly every category as a junior, including points (15.1), rebounds (9.0), blocks (1.9) and FG% (57.5). To top it off, he hung a trip-dub on NJIT in January, only the second in program history. Expect Aird to push New Mexico State's duo of Mullings and Bhullar in the WAC Player of the Year race.

Juco forward Chad Ross and ex-Utah State player Mitch Bruneel expect to be the primary support for Aird up front. Ross was nearly a double-double man for Waycross (Ga.) CC, while Bruneel averaged 4.1 PPG as a freshman on 59% effective shooting that included a 40% mark from three. Two redshirt freshmen provide depth, and true frosh Marquis Salmon will show the athleticism that made him a strong high school volleyball player.

The Wolverines can threaten the top of the standings if Hunsaker, Enos and Bruneel can spread the floor. If Aird gets room to work, a WAC scoring title could be within his reach. Injuries or failure to adapt to conference opposition will absolutely doom this roster, however.

4. Idaho

--Even with the WAC Player of the Year on the roster, the Vandals struggled to a 12-win season. This year, they need a crew of new guards to perform like veterans, or history could repeat itself.

Perimeter defense was Idaho's undoing last year, forcing only 270 turnovers--fewest in America--and allowing 35.5% three-point shooting. Coach Don Verlin has to make it work with a largely new backcourt led by returning sniper Connor Hill and ex-Eastern Washington and Utah playmaker Glen Dean.

Dean played under Vandal assistant Kirk Earlywine when Earlywine was the head man at EWU, and made himself an All-Big Sky selection in two seasons there. Hill was both the most prolific and efficient three-point shooter in the WAC (87-196, 44.4%), and his shooting will be key until a true post presence emerges.

Swingman Stephen Madison will be the Vandals' other top scoring option. He was an efficient threat last season, ranking in the league's top 10 from both the floor (48%) and the line (73%). That was with the departed Kyle Barone around to keep the defenses honest, though. If Madison can get his own shot, look for him on the All-WAC team.

Newcomers will comprise the rest of the rotation, with juco PG Mike Scott likely to duel with Dean for that position. Scott averaged 12.7 points and 4.7 assists for Antelope Valley College last season. Freshman forward Jordan Scott was a near-double-double man as a senior (18/9.8), and should be capable of playing against WAC bigs after a lifetime of driveway games with brother Josh, who's a breakout candidate as a sophomore at Colorado.

In the post, four guys stand 6'9" or taller, but seldom-used senior Joe Kammerer is the only one with D-I experience. Redshirt freshman Ty Egbert was a two-star prospect in 2012. Someone at least needs to be able to take up space and get rebounds, with a shot-blocking element essential if the guards can't keep opponents in front of them. The Vandals simply have too many questions to be considered contenders right now, but there is considerable upside.

5. Chicago State

--Cougar fans, don't take the fifth-place pick as a slight, because this team is easily the WAC's most experienced. Eight of last season's 10 rotation players return, including the leaders in practically every major category.

Forward Matt Ross and swingman Quinton Pippen return, and both could push for all-conference honors. Pippen has been an NJCAA All-American and won Defensive Player of the Year last season in the Great West. He settles for threes more often than a 6'4", 205-pound wing should (63% of shots came from deep), especially one who's capable of pulling 4.2 RPG like he did last season. If he attacks the rim more often, he could be a 15-PPG scorer in the WAC.

Ross is a capable rebounder who can play a good stretch-4 game, sinking 36% from past the arc as a junior. He went for 20 and 10 against DePaul (not that difficult, but still Big East). While he can be a good defensive presence in the post, he won't stay there on offense.

Freshman Quron Davis (6'9", 235) who teamed with Jabari Parker at Chicago's Simeon HS, may get first crack at a post role. Senior Aaron Williams, like Ross, is a capable rebounder on both ends who likes to settle for jumpers. The only returnee who took more than half his shots at the rim is 6'5" senior Markus Starks. Unfortunately, he's not a finisher, making less than half of those rim attempts.

The backcourt returns veterans Nate Duhon, Jamere Dismukes and Clarke Rosenberg, the latter two being capable perimeter threats. All three are willing and skilled passers, and Duhon ripped 2.8 SPG against Great West opponents. Defensive stopper Corey Gray will also see plenty of time.

There are questions about the upside of a team that's got this many seniors, but it's not like this nucleus is fully responsible for the 74 losses over the last three years. Dismukes, Duhon, Pippen, Ross and Williams were all juco newcomers last year. If the team adapts to new competition well and fully congeals with each other, CSU could push for a top-three finish.

6. Seattle

--Seattle landed in the WAC like Lindbergh's piss-tank once thudded down in France. Despite a solid defense, the Redhawks simply could not score enough to escape the league's basement. Top shooting threat Sterling Carter leaving in midseason didn't help. Luckily, reinforcements are arriving.

The backcourt will be boosted by the addition of Cal transfer Emerson Murray and Cal State Fullerton import Isiah Umipig. Umipig was nearly a 60% true shooter in each of his first two seasons, ranking among the Big West's top 10 scorers in 2011-12.  While Murray never saw consistent minutes in the Pac-12, he's a willing shooter who should find a few more open looks in the WAC.

Other guard options are defensive pest D'Vonne Pickett and wing Jarell Flora, a good shooter who's waaaaaaaay too prone to turnovers (23.3% TO rate last year, and he's not a point guard). Brazilian sophomore Luiz Bedart could also see time as a sniper off the bench (67.2 TS%).

Up front, senior Clarence Trent and sophomore Deshaun Sunderhaus could prove to be the WAC's best forward duo by year's end. Trent is a jack-of-all-trades sort, capable of making plays on either end but not dominant in any particular facet. He regressed as a primary option and often found his minutes cut by foul trouble. Sunderhaus showed himself capable of scoring anywhere from 15 feet in, led the team in blocks and put up rebounding percentages very similar to Trent's.

6'11" sophomore Jack Crook is one of three big Englishmen off the bench, and he was a capable rebounder last season, if just short of worthless offensively.

Umipig's impact will be key to reducing the pressure on Trent and Sunderhaus, and they both need to excel if Seattle will contend for a top-half finish. No matter where it comes from, coach Cameron Dollar needs to find some scorers.

7. Missouri-Kansas City

--Go to a new league, hire a new coach. Simple enough. UMKC snagged Louisville assistant Kareem Richardson, who spent a year as a 'Roos assistant in 2007-08. Richardson made a quick strike when he snagged local point guard Martez Harrison, who will likely start from day one.

Harrison shot 59% at Brewster Academy as a distributor playing alongside touted prospects like Syracuse's Ron Patterson and Chris McCullough and NC State's Kyle Washington. His teammates in KC will almost certainly be a step down, especially after the loss of the team's top two scorers.

Seniors Nelson Kirksey and Fred Chatmon were deferential last year, but will need to be primary options this time around. Both shot around 53% from the floor with shooters capable of spreading defenses out. The 6'9", 230-pound Chatmon finished fourth in the Summit League at 7.3 RPG with percentages ranking second in the league (12.5 OR%) and seventh in the nation (27.3 DR%). Kirksey hit 36% of a small sample size from the arc.

6'6" juco swingman Frank Williams and senior Kirk Korver will be the designated floor spreaders. Unfortunately, Korver is nowhere near the shooter his brother Kyle is.

UMKC's offense was among the nation's most careless last season (23.1 TO%), and the defense surrendered 54% effective shooting. Both of those conditions have to vastly improve.

8. Grand Canyon

--The only player you'll be able to name for Grand Canyon is one that hasn't suited up since 2002. New coach Dan Majerle gets his first head coaching position at a for-profit school that's publicly traded and bubbling up from Division II. That's not to say, however, that none of his players have seen D-I action. On the contrary, some of his most important players have competed at higher levels of Division I than they'll see this year.

Grad transfers Demetrius Walker (New Mexico) and Jeremy Adams (Colorado) and junior Daniel Alexander (Texas A&M) will be counted on for quick production and leadership when the season gets underway.

Walker is on his third school after starting only six games between Arizona State and New Mexico. He peaked as a sophomore, averaging 7.4/2.8/1.8 for the Lobos, carding a 53% true shooting mark. His best game last season came against new WAC opponent Idaho (19 pts., 5-7 shooting). Likewise, Adams will attend his third college, although he never played for Texas A&M. He played 11 MPG as a Buffalo last year, making 11-19 from beyond the arc. Alexander played a similar 11 minutes per night for A&M in 2011-12, averaging 2.4/2.2, with 37.5% shooting from deep at 6'9". He'll be eligible at the semester break.

Among returnees, senior Killian Larson (6'9", 268) will be the post presence after carding a solid 11.5/9.0 last year. He's not a shot blocker, but he'll put in serious work on the glass. He's got to cut back on a team-leading 79 turnovers and 97 fouls, however.

Hangover 3 deleted scene...and why is Wilbur grabbing himself?
Guards Justin Foreman and Jerome Garrison were solid sidekicks for the departed Joshua Lowery, and now they'll get to caddy for Walker and Adams...and possibly juco sophomore Akachi Okugo, who went for 12.7 points and 6.3 assists and shooting 82% from the line. Ex-Weber State forward Blake Davis was a 38% three-point shooter last season.

The 'Lopes can't make the NCAA tournament for a few years yet, but events like the CIT are on the table. Of course, Thunder Dan will have to flex all his recruiting muscle to draw talent while Thunder the Antelope is out partying with his furry (and fiery) friends.

9. Texas-Pan American

--Most last-place teams at this level are just starting to show improvement when their top players leave. UTPA is no different, having to replace last season's top three in scoring, assists and steals. Veteran coach Dan Hipsher has taken over after the school rewarded Ryan Marks' .500 season with a pink slip. Hipsher has a career 141-164 record in 11 D-I seasons. Sure, this will end well.

Guard Shaun Noriega (ex-South Florida) and swingman Javorn Farrell (ex-UMass) will complement each other well as primary options early on. Noriega can be a dangerous spot-up threat, as he proved by hitting 36% during his USF career. Farrell is a better defender and slasher than shooter, but look for him to coordinate the offense frequently (near-20 A% his last two seasons).

Redshirt freshman Blake Provost is likely to handle the point guard position after practicing for a season against brother Brandon and former playmaker Aaron Urbanus. Seniors Jamal Dantzler and Hurley Johnson can be shooting threats off the bench.

Up front, there's no one taller than 6'7", so senior Justin Leathers, junior Lauri Toivonen and sophomore Shaquille Hines will face serious challenges against some of the WAC's massive big men. All three were solid rebounders last season and Hines can swat some shots, but that was in the Great West. There were no Sim Bhullars there. Another senior, Josh Cleveland, was a very strong offensive rebounder (12.2 OR%).

From the freshman class, forward Alex Majewski averaged 20.9/8.1 while also draining 40% from the arc as a high school senior in Chicago. Another Chicago product, guard LJ McIntosh, and German import Marcel Simon may compete in the backcourt.

Putting this sort of rebuilding project in the hands of a guy who's had only four winning seasons out of 11 in D-I seems no less risky than entrusting it to a guy like Marks, who had been putting the program on its feet. Pan Am may play competitive ball on occasion, but they'll be hard to trust in a tight game.

"Danny, betta kick Majerle's team's ass, they're turrible."

Cal State Bakersfield: Nov. 18 vs. Nevada
--Two Pac-12 teams are on the travel itinerary, but the 'Runners also have a winnable Mountain West opponent coming to their house (one of their houses, at least).
Chicago State: Dec. 15 at DePaul
--The Coogs play five games against fellow Illinois schools, but this is the most relevant potential win. That "potential win" category does not include Illinois at Champaign; let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Grand Canyon: Dec. 18 at Tulsa
--The best action might come if the coaches go one-on-one at halftime. Dan Majerle renews acquaintance with ex-Phoenix and US Olympic teammate Danny Manning.
Idaho: Nov. 13 at Oklahoma
--A Coaches vs. Cancer game against a Sooner team that misses most of last season's leaders. A great barometer for the Vandals.
Missouri-Kansas City: Dec. 4 at Louisville
--Rick Pitino has no qualms about scheduling his former assistants and whipping the holy hell out of them. He beat his son by 24, so what's he going to do to Richardson?
New Mexico State: Dec. 11 at Arizona
--Sure, the New Mexico game is intriguing this year, but Arizona's frontcourt is one of the nation's best. How does it react to the nation's biggest?
Seattle: Nov. 13 vs. Cal State Fullerton
--Isiah Umipig against his old team. Done.
Texas-Pan American: Nov. 11 vs. Houston
--Houston should be a sleeper in the American this season. UTPA should be comatose in the WAC. Still, enjoy home games like this when you can get them.
Utah Valley: Dec. 11 vs. Weber State
--Aird's matchup with Weber's big duo of Tresnak and Bolomboy promises to be worth watching. If it's not, it'll wash your car every weekend for a month.

"OWWW, guys, I fell on my keys!"

Ben Aird, Utah Valley
Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State
Stephen Madison, Idaho
Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State
Isiah Umipig, Seattle

Brandon Barnes, Cal State Bakersfield
Fred Chatmon, Missouri-Kansas City
Holton Hunsaker, Utah Valley
Matt Ross, Chicago State
Demetrius Walker, Grand Canyon

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ben Aird, Utah Valley
--Will it surprise anyone if he cards another trip-dub by season's end? Not me.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Rod Barnes, Cal State Bakersfield
--Barnes is one of only three coaches in the WAC with NCAA tournament experience. It's not a coincidence that those three have the best chance of getting there this year.
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Isiah Umipig, Seattle
--Among all the intriguing newcomers in the WAC, he'll be the only one who's both a proven producer on his old team and a primary option on his new one.

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