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OUTLOOK: The new-look Western Athletic Conference is a prime example of how collegiate sports continues to evolve and grow. For the longest time the league maintained the same, familiar programs from one year to the next, but a short time ago the WAC began to hemorrhage schools that were looking for something bigger and better.
The league filled in some of the gaps last season with several up-and-coming teams from Texas and another from Colorado, but already they've packed up and moved on, which in turn has brought in six new programs for the 2013-14 campaign.
Joining holdovers Idaho, New Mexico State and Seattle University are Bakersfield, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, Kansas City, Texas-Pan American and Utah Valley, stretching the boundaries of the WAC basketball map from the Great Lakes Region to the Pacific Northwest in the process. Many of these teams experienced success in their previous leagues, but at this point there is very little known about how they will size up to the rest of the WAC as well as a tougher non-conference slate.
Considering New Mexico State won the WAC Tournament title a year ago, the third time in the last four years, it only makes sense that the Aggies get the benefit of the doubt heading into the 2013-14 campaign. With the preseason WAC Player of the Year in Daniel Mullings, NMSU is already off to a fast start even without taking the floor. Bringing back three starters from last season is more than enough to make Seattle a serious contender, but beyond those two programs, unless there is a startling uprising on one of the other campuses, all the other schools will fill in the spots further down on the list.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: New Mexico State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. New Mexico State, 2. Seattle, 3. Bakersfield, 4. Utah Valley, 5. Idaho, 6. Chicago State, 7. Texas-Pan American, 8. Kansas City, 9. Grand Canyon.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NEW MEXICO STATE: Last season, the Aggies finished behind both Louisiana Tech and Denver in the WAC standings, but as luck would have it, NMSU doesn't have to worry about either of those programs this time around as both have left for other leagues. Head coach Marvin Menzies had the luxury of having nine returning letter winners, including three starters, one of whom is Daniel Mullings who has been selected as the WAC Preseason Player of the Year. An All-WAC Second Team member a year ago, Mullings was also selected to the All- WAC Defensive Team last season as a sophomore. A starter in all but one of his team's 35 games, Mullings led the squad in scoring (13.8 ppg), assists (91) and steals (79), numbers that might be hard to live up to with all of the attention he will be getting in 2013-14. Mullings was also responsible for 5.2 rpg as well for a group that was one of the strongest rebounding squads in the conference. While still a bit rough around the edges, Sim Bhullar (10.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg) is another player to keep an eye on after being recognized as the top freshman in the WAC last season. Bhullar was a solid presence in the paint with his 62.1 percent shooting from the floor and team-best 85 blocked shots, but his mere 46.5 percent accuracy at the free-throw line made him a liability. K.C. Ross-Miller, a junior guard who previously played at New Orleans, made an impact last season as a regular in the starting lineup, but now his responsibilities will extend from being a passer (69 assists) and defender (33 steals), to being more of a scorer (5.3 ppg) for the Aggies as they try to remain a dominant force in the WAC.
SEATTLE: In 2102-13, the Redhawks made their return to Division I basketball for the first time in more than three decades and showed some early success with a split through the first 10 games, but after that head coach Cameron Dollar watched his squad win a grand total of just three more outings. However, along the way Seattle showed tremendous fight, losing several games by three points or less, which means there is hope for the Redhawks yet. Then again, there are just two seniors on the roster in Clarence Trent and D'Vonne Pickett Jr., both of whom are transfers, so there's no telling how the campaign will play out before Seattle actually hits the hardwood. In Trent, the Redhawks have their top scorer back from a season ago, but considering he registered only 9.8 ppg that doesn't exactly scream confidence. Trent was second on the glass with close to six boards per outing as the team wrestled for 40 rebounds per contest. Although he is just a sophomore, Deshaun Sunderhaus has the potential to bring a lot to the table after recording 9.4 points and 6.0 rebounds per game a season ago in just under 23 minutes per game. The top shot blocker for the group with a mere 23 rejections in 2012-13, Sunderhaus isn't someone the Redhawks would want handling the ball too much after he turned it over 68 times, against a mere 19 assists. After getting his feet wet with two starts, a player to watch could be Jarell Flora who was credited with almost six points per game in limited action.
BAKERSFIELD: Operating as an Independent last season, the Roadrunners challenged themselves with some tough competition and while the first half of the campaign was a trial, the team did show some spunk in the final weeks by closing with four straight wins and six victories in the final seven outings overall. Now entering his third season at the helm in Bakersfield, head coach Rod Barnes has his work cut out for him with a total of nine new additions to the roster. Granted, five of those were redshirts last year and were still around the program, but still the transition figures to be a bumpy one for the Roadrunners. In what could be seen as both a blessing and a disguise, Barnes has the pleasure of coaching son Brandon who is the top returning scorer (12.1 ppg) and rebounder (5.3 rpg), even as the 6-foot-1 guard was forced to play out of position quite often out of necessity. Javonte Maynor, a transfer from Georgia State, was the only player to start every game for Bakersfield a year ago and responded by scoring 10.5 ppg, although his 38.8 percent shooting from the floor was only slightly better than his 38.3 percent accuracy behind the three-point line. If there's one area that the Roadrunners need to address it would be their penchant for committing personal fouls, an average of 20.3 per game last year which ranked them 323rd in the nation.
UTAH VALLEY: Members of the Great West Conference last season, the Wolverines and head coach Dick Hunsaker have moved to the big time in the revamped WAC. Utah Valley won the Great West Conference title twice in four years which is certainly something to be proud of, but the competition moving forward figures to be more challenging for sure. Senior center Ben Aird was a First-Team All- Great West performer in 2012-13 when he delivered 15.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per outing. He may not be a household name outside of Utah, but Aird did record just the second triple-double in program history with 26 points, 13 rebounds and a school-record 10 blocked shots versus NJIT. Guard Holton Hunsaker, second on the team in both scoring (13.2 ppg) and assists (99) a year ago, returns as the unit's top 3-point shooting threat after knocking down 65-of-179 beyond the arc, which means he accounted for more than one- third of his team's conversions. In direct contrast to Bakersfield, which is predicted to finish higher than the Wolverines in the standings, Utah Valley ranked 14th in the nation in fouls a year ago with an average of only 14.6 per outing.
IDAHO: Don Verlin has known nothing else as a head coach at the college level other than leading the Vandals over the last five seasons, and he is hoping the team can make some advances in the right direction in 2013-14 after a disappointing 2012-13 campaign. Unfortunately for Verlin, the outlook does not appear all that promising given that Idaho has a mere three returning letter winners and a total of 10 newcomers, with the potential for as many as 12 players seeing action for the Vandals this season for the first time in their careers. Seniors Stephen Madison and Joe Kammerer, along with junior Connor Hill, are the ones who will have to show everyone else the ropes in Moscow. Madison is the top returning scorer after putting up 14.1 ppg, his 4.7 rpg placing him second. It wouldn't be a bad idea for Madison to focus even more of his efforts in the paint this season, particularly after he shot just 28- of-100 behind the three-point line. With 18 steals a year ago, Madison was actually second on the team, which isn't all that impressive since the squad overall ranked 342nd in the country in that department with a mere 4.1 thefts per outing. Kammerer (1.6 ppg, 1.2 rpg) was pretty much a non-factor as a junior, but at least Hill (12.1 ppg) could claim to be a key contributor with his team-best 87 3-point baskets as the squad finished 12-18 overall and 7-11 in league play.
CHICAGO STATE: Last season, the Cougars made considerable strides on the eve of joining the WAC and now head coach Tracy Dildy hopes to carry over those accomplishment into 2013-14 and beyond. True, Chicago State finished with an overall record of just 11-22 and was third in the Great West Conference standings, but the team won the conference tournament and advanced to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, the first postseason appearance in the program's Division I history. Senior forward Matt Ross, a starter in all but one of the team's outings a season ago, is also one of the top returning scorers who put up 10.1 ppg, adding a team-best 6.3 rpg. Matching Ross in the scoring department was Quinton Pippen who led the squad with 68 3-point baskets and was also first in steals with 56. Because of Pippen, the Cougars ranked seventh in the nation in steals per game (9.4), their total of 311 placing them 11th in the country. In the Windy City the name Pippen should carry a lot of weight and, considering Quinton is the nephew of Hall-of-Famer Scottie Pippen, the youngster will probably get more attention than he would like. Senior guard Jamere Dismukes (9.4 ppg) led the team in assists with 105 and was third with 51 steals, but he shot only 36.9 percent from the floor and was one of the main reasons why Chicago State ranked 316th in the country with only 40.0 percent accuracy from the field overall.
TEXAS-PAN AMERICAN: Getting back on the sidelines as a head coach, Dan Hipsher is preparing to take the Broncs into their next phase of competition as they enter the WAC. Hipsher, who has been a head coach at Stetson and Akron, was most recently on the Alabama staff under Anthony Grant before getting an opportunity to take over at Texas-Pan American, and to get this team to be competitive might be his greatest challenge to date. Competing in the Great West Conference last year where they finished second in the standings, the Broncs produced an overall record of 16-16, the first time since 2007-08 that the squad was able to finish at .500. Unfortunately, while the roster may show no fewer than six seniors, only one was a marginal threat a season ago as Justin Leathers averaged 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per outing. Leathers did have a few highlights during the 2012-13 campaign, namely his first career double-double with 18 points and a career-best 12 boards versus IPFW in the early going, but standout performances were few and far between for the forward, who now stands as one of the leaders on the squad. This time around the Broncs have just seven returning players and 10 new faces, which means Hipsher has his work cut out for him as he tries to figure out how to make this group a viable threat on a regular basis.
KANSAS CITY: Following close to two decades as a member of the Summit League, the Kangaroos are making the jump to the Western Athletic Conference and giving Kareem Richardson his first job as a head coach at the same time. Richardson, who became the sixth head coach for the program during its Division I era, was a player at both East Carolina and Evansville, and was most recently an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville, so he knows what it takes to be successful at the college level. The 'Roos list four returning starters from a squad that was a mere 8-24 a year ago, but not one of them averaged even 7.5 ppg as the team generated a mere 60.9 ppg to rank 306th in the country. Fred Chatmon and Nelson Kirksey each delivered 7.4 ppg a season ago, the former also coming up with a substantial 7.3 rpg, but still UMKC struggled to find success. Finding someone, or even a couple of players, to make up for the loss of Tyler Estan will be a challenge because he not only led the team in scoring (11.4 ppg) and assists (93), he was also the top three-point threat for the group with 60 conversions on 139 attempts. Richardson will also have to kick his crew into gear at the defensive end of the floor where they were almost dead last in Division I in yielding 40.2 percent success beyond the arc, and were 336th in overall field goal percentage defense (.478), which explains why the Kangaroos lost by an average of 9.4 ppg.
GRAND CANYON: While several of the new teams in the WAC are simply taking a step up in competition from one Division I league to another, the Antelopes are a different animal altogether, making the leap from Division II where they competed in the Pacific West Conference. Not only is Grand Canyon finding a whole new group of adversaries, it is doing so with a new head coach in Dan Majerle. Yes, that Dan Majerle who was a 14-year veteran in the NBA and spent the five previous years as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns. Majerle doesn't have any experience as a head coach, but in Arizona he is already a basketball legend and brings credibility to the team's move to tougher competition. Last season, the 'Lopes dialed up a 23-8 record overall and were tied for second place in the PacWest with 14 wins in 18 chances, thanks in part to Killian Larson who was one of the top scorers on the roster with 11.5 ppg and was tops on the glass with nine rebounds per outing as well. Unfortunately, beyond Larson the Antelopes don't bring back much from last season's successful squad, and that will put Majerle and his staff to the test immediately as they try to navigate through a schedule that includes the likes of Loyola Marymount, San Diego, Utah, Tulsa and New Mexico. However, while the program does welcome nine new players to the roster, there are three (Demetrius Walker (New Mexico), Daniel Alexander (Texas A&M), and Jeremy Adams, (Colorado)) that bring with them at least some experience from the world of Division I basketball.