The Grand Canyon Antelopes finally became eligible for the NCAA Tournament last season after what seemed an impossibly long transitional period up from Division II. The Lopes made a run to the WAC title game but fell there to New Mexico State. This season, the Lopes will look to take that final step as NMSU enters a bit of a rebuilding phase (though the Aggies should still be good enough to contend for the conference title). This season also marks the start of another long four-year transitional period for a program that could make some noise in this conference once they become postseason eligible. The Cal Baptist Lancers, who have been a force at the D2 level for the past five years, begin their NCAA-imposed time in Purgatory. The four-year wait is still both too long and too unfair. #LancerWaiver anyone?
Predicted Order of Finish
- Grand Canyon – Despite losing three starters who each averaged 9 or more points per game, including star Joshua Braun, the Lopes should be just fine this season thanks in part to their sophomore standout Alessandro Lever, who led the team in scoring last season. Also keep an eye on the Finke brothers – incoming four-star recruit Tim and older brother/Illinois graduate transfer Michael.
- New Mexico State – Chris Jans did a great job guiding the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament in his first year at the helm in Las Cruces. With only one starter returning from that team, New Mexico State is likely to take a step or two back this season. Utah transfer JoJo Zamora should help pick up some of the lost scoring load, as will former sixth man Eli Chuha.
- Seattle – Jim Hayford’s first season as head coach was a successful one as the Redhawks won 20 games. Only one starter returns, but that player is leading scorer Matej Kavas (15.2 points per game). The team also gets former Patriot League Freshman of the Year Delante Jones (American) eligible this season. One other thing to watch in Seattle is the home court. With Key Arena starting to undergo renovations, all home games will be played in the on-campus 999 seat Redhawk Center.
- Utah Valley – All five starters for the Wolverines averaged in double figures last season as the team won 23 games and finished second in the conference standings. Three of those five are gone and the team will need to blend several transfers in if they want to try to match that level of success. There are only two seniors on the roster, and three more transfers sitting out this season, so the WAC better watch out for the team from Orem next season!
- Cal State-Bakersfield – Three years ago, the Roadrunners made their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. Two years ago, the team made a run all the way to Madison Square Garden and the semifinals of the postseason NIT. Last year . . . they only won 12 games overall. Bakersfield does return a pair of double-digit scorers in Rickey Holden and Damiyne Durham so an improvement is likely this season, even if a return to the postseason is not.
- Cal Baptist* – The Lancers begin their four-year transition to Division I this season and should be competitive right from the start as the program has been to five consecutive D2 tournaments. Jordan Heading is the leading returning scorer at 14.3 points per game. However, watching the sidelines and stands may be interesting as well this season as Washington State transfer Milan Acquaah (ineligible to play this season) may be visited by his best friend – Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball.
- Texas-Rio Grande Valley – The Vaqueros finished 15-18 last season, though they did play postseason basketball in the CBI (don’t get us started on whether or not sub-.500 teams should be invited to postseason events!). Leading scorer Nick Dixon (20.3 points per game) is gone and no other player on the roster averaged double figures last season. In other words, don’t expect much from UTRGV this season.
- UMKC – The Roos only won 10 games last season. Even worse, one of their 22 losses was to William Jewell – a Division II school that even the most die-hard college basketball fans may have never heard of…by 12 points…at home! The good news is that the team is still young, with only one senior of note on the roster. The bad news is that, if they do not start turning things around, head coach Kareem Richardson may not still be here this time next year.
- Chicago State – The Cougars will (once again) attempt to start over as they welcome in Lance Irvin, who spent the last six years as an assistant coach for high school basketball in Chicago (though he did spend over 20 years as a D1 assistant before that). The team only returns one starter, but a clean slate may be exactly what is needed after the Cougars only managed a single Division I win last season.
*Cal Baptist is ineligible for the NCAA Tournament due to being in the first of a four-year transitional period to Division I.