OUTLOOK: One year after South Dakota left for the Summit League, the turnover in the Great West Conference continues with North Dakota seeking greener pastures in the Big Sky.
North Dakota's departure takes the conference's top postseason squad out of the mix, as the team from Grand Forks won the last two Great West Conference Tournament crowns resulting in a pair of trips to the CollegInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT).
Despite the changing landscape in the young conference, one constant remains in two-time regular season champion Utah Valley. The Wolverines posted 20 victories last season and captured their second straight regular-season title with a stellar 9-1 mark in-conference.
North Dakota was the only other squad with a winning record (17-15), but still finished three games behind Utah Valley in the standings at 6-4.
The good news in 2012-13 is that other teams now have am opportunity to claim the spot near the top of the standings vacated by North Dakota.
While the opportunity is there, it remains to be seen just which team will cash in on it. For now it looks like NJIT is that team.
The Highlanders won 15 games a year ago and should be able to make their way over the .500 mark in 2012-13.
Texas-Pan American Houston Baptist and Chicago State round out the rest of the conference field, although all three had varying degrees of obstacles to overcome.
The Broncs were 10 games under .500 on the year, but like NJIT, finished at an even 5-5 in conference play. The Huskies were also 10 games under par this past season, followed by the Cougars, who really found wins hard to come by with a conference-low four.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Utah Valley
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
1. Utah Valley, 2. NJIT, 3. Houston Baptist, 4. Texas-Pan American, 5. Chicago State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
UTAH VALLEY: Utah Valley posted an impressive 20-13 overall record and almost ran the table in conference play, winning its second straight league crown with a 9-1 mark. A bitter taste was left in the Wolverines' mouths though with a loss to North Dakota in the regular-season finale (57-56), followed by a stunning 88-78 setback to NJIT in the conference tournament semifinals. Still, Utah Valley did enough to garner an at-large bid in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, the school's first postseason appearance as a Division I member. This season the team returns two starters in junior guard Holton Hunsaker (10.5 ppg) and junior center Ben Aird (10.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg), both of whom were tabbed All-GWC Second-Team members. Seniors Keith Thompson (9.2 ppg) and Alfonzo Hubbard (7.1 ppg) provide even more veteran leadership. Hubbard was named the All-GWC Sixth Man of the Year. This seems to be another loaded Utah Valley squad and anything short of another league title would be a disappointment.
NJIT: The Highlanders continue to make strides in the right direction, as the team went 15-17 last year, with an even 5-5 mark in Great West action. The team saved its best for last though, making a surprising run to the conference tournament title game before falling to North Dakota. Fifth-year head coach Jim Engles has enough to work with this season to close the perceived gap between Utah Valley and the rest of the league. Despite the loss of Great West Conference Player of the Year Isaiah Wilkerson, a trio of seniors in Chris Flores, PJ Miller and Ryan Woods will attempt to fill the void. Flores, a 6-0 guard, was an all-conference second-team member last year after averaging 13.1 ppg. Woods (9.7 ppg) and Miller (6.8 ppg) should provide scoring depth.
TEXAS-PAN AMERICAN: The Broncs had their ups and downs last season, finishing with a less than stellar 11-21 overall record, although their 5-5 conference mark was certainly easier on the eyes. Ryan Marks has a few players returning to the mix, but a huge jump in terms of win total won't come easy. UTPA will once again be led this season by Great West Conference First-Team selection Brandon Provost. The 6-3 guard led the team in scoring last year at 13.4 ppg. Fellow senior guard Aaron Urbanus (8.6 ppg) regressed a bit in terms of scoring last year after netting 12.5 ppg as a sophomore, but hopes to find his stroke again. Newcomers DeMarko Nash (juco transfer) and AJ Moutry (freshman) come with a great deal of optimism in terms of their scoring potential. The frontcourt is a bit of a mystery, with no proven commodities. Juco transfer Justin Leathers comes with a scorer's mentality and can hopefully provide the team with some balance.
HOUSTON BAPTIST: The Huskies struggled to a 10-20 overall record last season, including a 3-7 mark in conference play, better than only Chicago State. Ron Contrell does have some talent returning, as four of the five starters are back in the fold. However, HBU must replace two solid performers from last year with center Joe Latas and forward Terry Bembry, a pair of all-conference honorable mention, moving on. There is still talent in the frontcourt, namely senior forwards Marcus Davis (12.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Art Bernardi (12.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg). The talent in the backcourt is headlined by shooting guard Tyler Russell (11.6 ppg), who was also tabbed an All-GWC Honorable Mention a year ago, leading all freshmen in the league in scoring. Fellow sophomore Marcel Smith (6.6 ppg, team-high 67 assists) will handle the point, while junior Jonathan Evans (4.1 ppg) and senior Anthony Hill (6.5 ppg) provide depth.
CHICAGO STATE: The Cougars struggled throughout last season, regarded as their toughest schedule in Division I history, finishing an ugly 4-26 overall. Half of those wins came in conference play though, so they were able to show a competitive nature at times. Chicago State will host this year's conference tournament, but being able to actually use the homecourt setting to its advantage probably isn't in the cards. Tracy Dildy is entering his third season at the helm and still has some work to do to turn the Cougars into conference contenders. To make matters worse, the top four scorers from a year ago are gone. Sophomore guard Clarke Rosenberg (5.0 ppg) is the top returning scorer and showed flashes of brilliant play in 2011-12. Junior forward Aaron Williams (3.9 ppg) is the top returner in the frontcourt and will be called upon to provide steady play up front this season. Newcomers will have a chance for extended minutes with the Cougars this season. Juco transfer Nate Duhon (6-3 guard) could emerge as a big time scoring threat, after earning Division II All-American honors in 2011-12.