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The final of our small/mid-major previews is, of course, the WAC, and starting tomorrow previews will be posted of the top nine conferences. There was a day when the WAC was among those top leagues, but much has changed, from the conference’s split with the Mountain West all the way to the most recent round of realignment that saw almost all of their FBS football-playing members finding other homes. In fact, only one FBS team remains, the New Mexico State Aggies. Although the Aggies have struggled mightily in football, their basketball team has become the dominant player in the conference, capturing four straight WAC tournament titles in convincing fashion (only one conference tournament victory in that four year span was decided by less than 5 points). Last year, the Aggies rode their conference tournament championship to a 15 seed, where they lost in the Round of 64 to Kansas. Grand Canyon received a postseason invite to the CIT, while Seattle played in the CBI, advancing to the semifinals of that event.
This year, New Mexico State is the pick to again win the conference’s automatic bid — though in an unusual twist, they are not the pick to win the regular season title. That honor goes to Thunder Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon Antelopes. The ‘Lopes are in their third of four transitional years to the Division I level and as such are ineligible for the WAC and NCAA tournaments. The job that has been done building this team into a Division I program has been remarkable, as they received invites to the CIT in each of their first two transitional years and appear likely to be headed back to that event again this season. The pieces appear to be in place this season to make a run at the conference regular season title as well. It will not be easy as New Mexico State, UMKC, Cal State-Bakersfield and Seattle could all be in contention for the top spot in the conference as well. One team that will likely not be contending for the league crown, but is worth mentioning, is Texas Rio Grande Valley. The Vaqueros are the newly branded incarnation of the school formerly known as Texas-Pan American. UTPA merged campuses with neighboring Texas-Brownsville, but given that Brownsville was an NAIA program, UTRGV (for NCAA purposes at least) simply counts s a new name from the former UTPA, and will not have to undergo a transition to the D1 level.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Grand Canyon – DeWayne Russell and Joshua Braun form a solid backcourt as each averaged double-digits in scoring last season. Up front, the ‘Lopes will rely on a pair of transfers, Grandy Glaze from Saint Louis and Uros Ljeskovic from Coastal Carolina. The pieces appear to be here to capture the regular season crown, even if they are not eligible for the conference tournament.
2. New Mexico State – Despite losing three starters from last year’s team, the Aggies still have Pascal Siakam and Ian Baker to lead a young, talented team that is good enough to win, especially if 7-3 Tanveer Bhullar is able to make an impact.
3. UMKC – Martez Harrison may be the best guard, or possibly even the best overall player, in the WAC. If Shayok Shayok proves to be healthy down low, the ‘Roos could challenge for the league title.
4. Cal State-Bakersfield – The Roadrunners have Aly Ahmed and Kevin Mays down low, plus Damiyne Durham in the backcourt. Those three players alone could make them a dangerous team.
5. Seattle – The Redhawks have a ton of size down low led by 6-11 Jack Crook and 7-3 Aaron Menzies. If they can find the scoring options to make up for the losses of Isiah Umipig and Jarell Flora, the rest of the league better watch out.
6. Texas-Rio Grande Valley – The Vaqueros will need significant production from freshmen and transfers if they want to avoid the same type of long season that they suffered as UTPA last year.
7. Utah Valley – New head coach Mark Pope could be in for a long first season as he begins rebuilding the Wolverines. The good news is that he brought in a handful of talented transfers. The bad news is that they are all required to sit out this year.
8. Chicago State – Seven players transferred after last season and only one starter, Trayvon Palmer, returns. The Cougars only won eight games last year and may be hard-pressed to just equal that number this time around.