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OUTLOOK: The Western Athletic Conference may not carry the same weight that it did just a few years ago, but don't tell that to the current members who will be fighting for a berth in the postseason again in 2015.
Unfortunately, all indications have one team with the inside track on the NCAA Tournament and again it appears to be the New Mexico State Aggies. Even when the talent was a bit stiffer in the WAC, the Aggies were right there to challenge for the title.
The Aggies bring back plenty of talent, specifically the top player in the league in most people's opinions -- Daniel Mullings. In addition to the star guard, NMSU also has a very solid supporting cast that will be difficult to take down.
However, one of the surprises in the WAC for 2014-15 has the Seattle Redhawks going on the attack, this after the team just started playing at the Division I level in recent years after being out of the spotlight since 1980. The squad finished four games under .500 last season, and yet there is still belief that Seattle could be a significant contender this time around.
The biggest issue for many of the WAC teams is their respective non-conference schedules, lists of potent opponents that could break the wills of any one of these squads even before the league schedule kicks into gear. As long as programs don't get too down on themselves in the early going, this should be another entertaining WAC season.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: New Mexico State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. New Mexico State, 2. Seattle, 3. Grand Canyon, 4. Utah Valley, 5. CS-Bakersfield, 6. UMKC, 7. Texas-Pan American, 8. Chicago State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
NEW MEXICO STATE: The last remaining program from the Western Athletic Conference before it hemorrhaged teams to the Mountain West Conference and brought in other schools to fill the void, New Mexico State is again a favorite to win the title. Head coach Marvin Menzies had success in the WAC before these new teams showed up and figures to be on top yet again, thanks to having the top player in the league in Mullings. The senior guard, who was named the preseason player of the year in the WAC heading into last season and ended up earning WAC Player of the Year honors when it was all said and done, was a member of the All-WAC First Team of course, as well as the WAC All- Defensive Team as a junior. On a squad that posted an overall record of 26-10 and was 12-4 in conference, en route to the NCAA Tournament for the third year in a row, Mullings was one of four players who scored in double figures for the Aggies with his team-best 16.8 ppg. While he shot a disappointing 27.7 percent behind the 3-point line, the guard made up for that shortcoming by clearing 4.9 rpg, handing out 3.5 apg and notching a team-best 65 steals. Another solid contributor who returns for NMSU is DK Eldridge, the second- leading scorer from a year ago with 11.2 ppg. A much more reliable 3-point shooter with 40.0 percent accuracy, Eldridge also hit the glass for 4.5 rpg. The same goes for Tshilidzi Nephawe who returns after putting up 11.1 ppg and bringing down 7.8 rpg to match Sim Bhullar in the rebounding department. The Aggies have lost the gentle giant in the paint as Bhullar left to pursue a professional career, but the good news is that Menzies has signed his younger brother, the 7-foot-3 Tanveer Bhullar in an attempt to make up for the loss.
SEATTLE: The Redhawks are just getting used to the idea of playing D-I basketball again, and yet many believe they should be contending for the Western Athletic title this season after putting up a record of just 13-17 overall a season ago and winning a mere five games in conference. Perhaps the reason for the optimism is the return of star Isiah Umipig, a Preseason All- WAC First Team member who made a huge impact in Seattle after transferring from Cal State Fullerton. Umipig, one of four seniors on the roster for head coach Cameron Dollar, started all 30 games for the Redhawks, one of only two players (Clarence Trent) to do so, and used the opportunities to crank out a team-best 19.6 ppg. Granted, he shot only 38.9 percent from the field, but when you factor in that he took 287 of his 475 shots from the floor behind the 3-point line, where he made good on 106 chances, it makes sense that his accuracy would take a hit. Umipig made up for some of those empty possessions by handing out a team-high 107 assists though, some of which went to forward Deshaun Sunderhaus, the only other double-digit scorer for the group at 10.6 ppg. Now a junior, Sunderhaus led the program in rebounding (6.2 rpg), which was important given that he tallied fewer assists (18) than he had blocked shots (24), which is difficult to do. Jarell Flora is also back for another run as he contributed 9.5 ppg by converting 55 triples of his own.
GRAND CANYON: Under the direction of NBA legend Dan Majerle, the Antelopes experienced plenty of highs and lows during their first season in the Western Athletic Conference. But in the end, after all the games had been played, Grand Canyon was an even 15-15 overall and an impressive 10-6 in conference, earning them a third-place finish in the league standings during their very first Division I campaign. Coach Majerle was able to get his crew to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, but the postseason run was short-lived as the team bowed to Pacific by a mere two points, 69-67. The good news for the 'Lopes is that they have two returning starters and both garnered all- conference preseason recognition as Jerome Garrison earned a spot on the All- WAC First Team after leading the program with 16.5 ppg and 37.8 minutes player per game, the latter pacing all conference performers. Daniel Alexander, a pick for the All-WAC Second Team, is a transfer from Texas A&M who averaged 12.7 points and 5.6 rebounds per outing and knocked down a school-best 58 3- pointers even as he missed the first half of the campaign. Another player to keep an eye on is Royce Woolridge, a senior transfer from Washington State who played his high school ball in the area.
UTAH VALLEY: The Wolverines made a huge splash during their first season as a member of the Western Athletic Conference, capturing the regular-season crown after winning all but three of 16 league bouts. Unfortunately, after defeating Texas-Pan American (83-63) rather easily in the first round of games in the conference tournament, Utah Valley bowed to Idaho (74-69) and then went down to California (77-64) in the school's first-ever trip to the NIT. Head coach Dick Hunsaker had to be pleased with how well the campaign played out, perhaps not so much with his team's early exit in the postseason, but at least the Wolverines have something to build on. The team brings back a pair of starters in Mitch Bruneel, a WAC All-Defensive Team selection and Zach Nelson, a WAC All-Newcomer Team pick as a freshman. Nelson finished third on the unit in scoring with 10.5 ppg, just ahead of Bruneel and his 10.3 ppg, the former also placing second on the squad with 109 dishes. Both players shot at least 52 percent from the floor, but when Nelson challenged himself to attack from out on the perimeter, he made good on only 29.5 percent of his 3-point tries. One of the strengths for the Wolverines a season ago was their accuracy at the free-throw line as they led the WAC and were 12th nationally with 75.5 percent shooting.
CS-BAKERSFIELD: Except for a three-game win streak against the likes of Idaho, Seattle and UMKC in the middle of February, the Roadrunners failed to win back-to-back games after posting five straight victories in the month of November. The team had just a single player average in double figures during 2013-14, Isaiah Grayson (17.0 ppg), and he has moved on. Also the team leader in assists with 124, Grayson was deadly from 3-point range where he was 48.6 percent accurate, a mark considerably better than the entire team's efforts from the floor overall (.438). Senior guard Javonte Maynor will try to fill the void for head coach Rod Barnes who saw his squad post a record of 13-19 and 5-11 in league action a season ago. Maynor may not have been as accurate as Grayson out on the perimeter, but he did make more 3-pointers (75) and those accounted for a huge portion of his 8.8 ppg. Along with Maynor, another starter who is coming back is Aly Ahmed, responsible for 8.9 ppg and a team- best 6.6 rpg as he remained in the paint as much as possible and refrained from taking even a single shot from beyond the arc. Tyrell Corbin (4.8 ppg) saw limited action coming off the bench in most games, but you can be sure his time will be increased as he becomes more of an influence.
UMKC: Kareem Richardson is back for a second year in charge of the Kangaroos and is hoping for a better return after the squad won a total of just 10 games and lost 20, due mostly to the non-conference schedule. In league action, UMKC was a decent 7-9, good enough for a fifth-place finish and a fourth seed in the conference tournament, both of which were the best for the 'Roos since 2006. Unfortunately, expectations have UMKC taking a step or two backward in 2014-15 after losing three starters from last season (Nelson Kirksey, Trinity Hall and Fred Chatmon). Then again, the team does have one of the top guards in the league in Martez Harrison, who exploded onto the scene with 17.2 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.3 rpg and 50 steals while being named the WAC Freshman of the Year. Joining Harrison in the backcourt will once again be senior Frank Williams, who was responsible for 9.2 ppg and 2.2 rpg. Unfortunately, the only other returning letter-winner for the Kangaroos is center Issac Kreuer who managed to post 2.3 ppg and 2.2 rpg in limited action as a freshman. The worst team in the WAC in terms of points allowed last season (76.5 ppg), the 'Roos have their work cut out for them as they also try to close the gap in scoring margin after placing 312th nationally at minus-7.0 ppg.
TEXAS-PAN AMERICAN: The Broncs are coming off a dismal 9-23 season, posting a mark of 5-11 in league play, and the road appears to be getting even tougher for the group based on the fact that they have a total of 10 newcomers being added to the roster. Head coach Dan Hipsher has a long way to go if he wants to get UTPA back to the postseason, in any capacity, for the first time since the 1980-81 campaign when the Broncs were one-and-done in the NIT. Hipsher, who took over for Ryan Marks who was in charge of the program while it operated in the Great West Conference for four seasons, has a roster that includes just a single senior in Shaquille Boga who was second on the team in scoring last season with 14.0 ppg, a number that jumped to 15.8 ppg in league action. Boga is not to be confused with Shaquille Hines, a junior who pitched in with 12.8 ppg and was tops on the unit with 6.3 rpg, but was also a bit fast and loose with the ball at times. The Broncs will need players to grow up fast if they are to avoid coming in last in the league again (290th nationally) in scoring with 65.7 ppg.
CHICAGO STATE: Compared to other programs, a record of 13-19 overall is not very impressive, but still Chicago State had a reason to celebrate last season. The team finished and even 8-8 in WAC play and that meant a fourth- place spot in the standings, the highest a Cougar team has ever finished while at the Division I level. However, head coach Tracy Dildy is probably not forecasting a season even remotely as successful in 2014-15, given the fact that the squad has lost all but one starter. Now a senior, guard Clarke Rosenberg was an inspirational performer for the Cougars last season as he posted 14.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg and 2.6 apg, but that was when he was one of many threats for Chicago State, and he figures to have some trouble reproducing such numbers as he is now the focus of most defenses. The squad does bring back some leadership in Aaron Williams, who missed all of last season due to injury, but there's no telling how he will fit in with this present group.