Utah Valley captured the WAC regular season championship last season, but got upset in the conference tournament semifinals by Idaho and ended up playing in the NIT. New Mexico State was able to knock off Idaho in the championship game and took the automatic bid, losing by four to San Diego State in the Round of 64. The Idaho upset of UVU accomplished two things last season — it gave the Vandals their last WAC win before moving back to the Big Sky conference this year, and it denied us the opportunity to see a rematch between UVU and New Mexico State in the finals. Utah Valley had defeated the Aggies in overtime on February 27, in a game that was most notable for a nasty post-game brawl involving both players and fans that started when K.C. Ross-Miller (now playing for Auburn) threw the basketball at Holton Hunsaker (who has since graduated) as the Wolverines fans were storming the court to celebrate the victory. The nastiness of that brawl, however, may be the start of an actual rivalry in the WAC — a conference that has been completely torn apart and rebuilt as a non-football entity following the latest wave of conference realignment and now needs to build an identity.
New Mexico State and Utah Valley should again be the two teams battling for the top seed in the conference tournament and a shot at winning the automatic bid, though the Seattle Redhawks could also factor into the race this season. One team that will not be in contention for the automatic bid is “Thunder” Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon Antelopes. The ‘Lopes are in only their second year of their four year transition to the D1 level and are ineligible for the WAC or NCAA tournaments (they are eligible for other postseason tournaments and did receive a bid into the CIT last year). Despite being ineligible to play in the NCAAs, the ‘Lopes are our pick for the conference’s regular season championship. Not only does Grand Canyon have one of the strongest looking rosters in the WAC (on paper at least) but with a combination of seven true and redshirt freshmen, it is clear that Thunder Dan is already targeting that 2017-18 season when Grand Canyon becomes eligible for the Big Dance.
Predicted Order of Finish:
1. Grand Canyon*: Transfers Royce Woolridge (Washington State) and DeWayne Russell (Northern Arizona) could have major impacts this season, especially when added to returnees Daniel Alexander and Jerome Garrison. While they cannot play in the NCAA tournament, a postseason bid for the ‘Lopes seems very likely.
2. New Mexico State: Daniel Mullings, Tshilidzi Nephawe and DK Eldridge all return from last season’s NCAA tournament team. While 7-5, 360 pound Sim Bhullar is now gone, his 7-3, 335 pound brother Tanveer has taken his place and could be just as effective.
3. Utah Valley: The Wolverines have lost their top two scorers, but they should remain tough to beat with the returns of starters Mitch Bruneel and Zach Nelson. Hayes Garrity should move into the starting lineup and score points as well.
4. Seattle: Isiah Umipig averaged just under 20 points per game last season, and should vie for conference Player of the Year honors this season. If the Redhawks can get production down low, they could be a dangerous team.
5. Missouri-Kansas City: Martez Harrison will score a lot of points for the ‘Roos, but there are not enough pieces on this team beyond him.
6. Texas-Pan American: The Broncs have a pair of Shaqs — Shaquille Boga and Shaquille Hines. They will need to be the leaders on a team filled with freshmen and junior college transfers if UTPA is going to have any success this season.
7. Chicago State: The Cougars barely avoided 20 losses last season (13-19 overall), but with only one returning starter, they may not be able to avoid that mark this year.
8. Bakersfield: The best chance to avoid the conference basement will be if Aly Ahmed can become a legitimate double-double threat every night.
* Grand Canyon is ineligible for the WAC and NCAA tournaments as a second year transitional team.