College basketball preview: A three-headed race in the WAC
The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game.
With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
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A recap of the 2015-16 season in the WAC is best epitomized by Cerberus the three-headed monster that guards the gates of the Underworld. Greek mythology is not always immediately relatable to college basketball, but the metaphor suffices in this case.
That said, the race to be dog in the WAC a year ago saw three teams jockeying for position: New Mexico State, Grand Canyon and Cal State Bakersfield. Each team posted at least 10 wins in conference, but the Aggies would ultimately come out on top in the regular-season slate.
After wins against Chicago State and Seattle to start the WAC conference tournament, CSU Bakersfield would end up knocking off NMSU in thrilling fashion to get the conference's automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament.
A 3-pointer from CSU Bakersfield's Dedrick Basile proved to be the decisive bucket in a 57-54 win that gave the Roadrunners their first-ever trip to the Big Dance.
The fun for the 15th-seeded Roadrunners would run out quickly, as Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners made short work of their opponent in the Round of 64. Departures around the conference will work to even the playing field, but the same trio of teams should be at or near the top of the standings come season's end.
The reigning player of the year in the WAC, NMSU’s Pascal Siakam, is gone to the NBA, so the race begins to find a new best player in the conference. Next up on the list for most pundits is likely to be the lead guard for the Grand Canyon Antelopes: Joshua Braun.
Braun enters his junior season after two years averaging double figures in scoring in the WAC. Last year, his per-game average of 16.5 points was good enough for second in the conference, not to mention an 87.3 percent clip from the free-throw line (tops in the conference, 24th in the nation).
The Antelopes will likely take a step back on offense due to some departures, especially the loss of lead big man Grandy Glaze (14.0 ppg and 8.8 rpg), who led the conference in field goal percentage (59.4 percent) a year ago.
Nonetheless, that could mean an even heavier workload for 6-foot-4 Braun as the team transitions into the 2016-17 season. Three 30-plus point games a year ago (all of which came with 15 or fewer shot attempts) means this Arizona native has some real firepower on offense. More to the point, on a given night Braun doesn't need to dominate the basketball to get his numbers.
It’s hard to have this conversation without mentioning players who have won the award in year’s past. That said, someone needs to stump for Martez Harrison at Missouri-Kansas City.
Harrison, who returns for his senior year with the Kangaroos of UMKC, actually won the player of the year award in the 2014-15 season as a sophomore while averaging 17.5 points to go along with nearly four (3.9) assists a ballgame.
|Martez Harrison||Points||Assists||Rebounds||Steals||FT percentage||
|3-point percentage||Mins per game|
His stats have held steady over three years under the tutelage of third-year head coach Kareem Richardson, but Harrison’s scoring total did fall a bit from 17.5 ppg in his sophomore year to 15.4 in his junior season.
The coaching staff will likely stomach the downtick in the scoring department if it means better decisions on offense from the 5-foot-11 combo guard. A jump in his assist totals, albeit a minor one, is a start. But more on the Kangaroos a bit later.
Each of the three teams that finished with double-digit wins in conference received at least one first place vote in the conference's preseason coaches poll.
Even though CSU Bakersfield would take the automatic bid, it stands to reason that the Aggies are still the best team in conference. Here's why:
NMSU returns seven players who averaged at least 10 minutes a game, not to mention the team's second-leading scorer guard Ian Baker (13.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.7 apg). The departure of Siakam will hinder the offense initially, but first-year head coach Paul Weir will need to find a way to replace some of the output for his team as they head into the 2016-17 season.
Succeeding longtime head coach Marvin Menzies — now with UNLV — will be hard enough, but having some key pieces back in tow will help ease that transition. One extra tidbit that bodes well for the Aggies, the team boasted the fifth-best rebounding margin in the nation (+9.8) last year.
2016-17 WAC Preseason Men’s Basketball Coaches’ Poll
|Rank||Teams (1st-place votes)||Points|
|1||New Mexico State (4)||45|
|2||Grand Canyon (3)||44|
|3||CSU Bakersfield (1)||38|
|7||UT Rio Grande Valley||13|
Among the players back for NMSU, one stands out above the rest — literally and figuratively. That would be 7-foot-2 junior center Tanveer Bhullar.
Bhullar, whose older brother Sim (7-foot-5) also played for the Aggies and now plays professionally overseas, will need to improve on his efficiency when he gets minutes on the court though. Despite his immense size, Tanveer Bhullar has some mobility issues that can make him a liability defensively. It's true you can't coach effort or teach someone how to be over seven feet tall, but good coaching can help instill a solid work ethic in a given player.
That said, if Weir can find a way to rest his big man and keep him energized for his minutes on the floor, there will be some teams scrambling to deal with a big mismatch on most nights.
Three of the team's top five scorers return for Grand Canyon, and a bevy of high-profile matchups (road trips to Duke, Penn State and Arizona, as well as bouts with Louisville and San Diego State) will help the Antelopes prepare for their conference schedule. Saturday’s opener with Duke could be more interesting than most think, especially given the back-to-back for the Blue Devils and some injuries to a few high impact freshmen along Duke’s frontline.
What about the Roadrunners of CSU Bakersfield? After all, they did win the conference's automatic bid a year ago, and three of the team's five players in double figures a year ago return. Head coach Rod Barnes has instilled the qualities of good team basketball in his bunch, and he can lean on the fact that his team had the highest per-game assist total in the conference last year (15.7, good for 41st in the nation.)
In addition to having a potential POY candidate in Martez Harrison, the Kangaroos of UMKC also return the two other top scorers in three-guard lineup.
Seniors LaVell Boyd and Dashawn King will be back to create havoc alongside Harrison for a team that ranked second in the conference in 3-point shooting a year ago (36.2 percent). But, it is worth noting that the team ranked last in the conference in assist-making.
One other area to focus on given the team’s penchant for operating with multiple guards on the floor is the team’s rebounding margin. A mark of plus-0.6 on the glass was only good enough for 168th in the country a year ago, so the coaching staff is sure to key on this front.
The team will likely fall back on its offensive potential as it moves through the non-conference slate, which includes trips to play at Creighton, Kansas and West Virginia. A few chances to play in tough road environments could prove beneficial as the team moves into WAC play.
How could the team with the most losses in DI college basketball (4-28) not get a nod here? That said, the Cougars of Chicago State will have to work hard to improve the team’s overall field-goal percentage from a year ago — 38.3 percent ranked 343rd in the nation a year ago.
But head coach Tracy Dildy, who is entering his seventh season at the helm, will try to turn things around beginning with an 0-14 record in the WAC a year ago.
In six seasons, Dildy — a former point guard at the University of Illinois at Chicago — has only seen two teams reach double-digits in the win column. None of his teams have ever neared the .500 mark.
But season No. 7 begins with eight players returning who averaged at least 10 minutes of floor time, a group that includes the team’s leading guard Fred Sims Jr. (10.9 ppg) and Trayvon Palmer the leading man on the glass (7.8 rpg).
Ten of the team’s first 12 games will come on the road, including a couple of early-season matchups at Wisconsin, Oakland, Notre Dame and Northwestern. A trip back to play the Flames of UIC will also be mixed in, so it’s all systems go for the Cougars come tipoff against Illinois Tech on Nov. 12.
Freshman to watch
The Aggies were paced last year by the aforementioned sophomore Pascal Siakam, the WAC POY who ended up tied for the top spot in the nation in double-doubles (27). Siakam is now playing with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
As such, the team will need to find a way to replace some of the output from a year ago.
Enter redshirt freshman Jermaine Haley. The 6-foot-7 guard — yes, guard — is an extremely gifted passer and willing playmaker that will be a part of the rotation for coach Weir.
Haley was ranked as one of the top recruits in his province of British Columbia, Canada — granted he sat out last year to use his redshirt. But an extra year of learning the offense could make for a seamless transition come season’s tipoff.
It remains to be seen the role that he fills for this team, but he will be ready to stuff the stat sheet when his number gets called.
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