(Compare to our preseason preview here)
- Jans and Jumpin' Jemerrio Jones: Despite the abrupt (some might call it disrespectful) departure of Paul Weir to rival New Mexico after just one year in Las Cruces, New Mexico State kept on cruisin' through the WAC with yet another terrific hire: Chris Jans, off the Gregg Marshall coaching tree. Jans had succeeded in his only year of head coaching at Bowling Green, only to be dismissed for off the court behavior, but he made the most of his second chance. It helped to have the conference POY waiting on his roster, 6'5 rebounding ace Jemerrio Jones. Jones's 20-rebound games became nearly commonplace this season, and along with Texas Southern grad transfer Zach Lofton, the Aggies sported the top duo in the league.
- Seattle Grew: I'm not sure if that terrible racehorse pun/rhyme will even register with anyone (Seattle Slew was fast!), but the point is that the arrival of Jim Hayford immediately led to improvement in the Emerald City. The Redhawks struggled down the stretch, but Hayford's ability to find players and open up the offense with skill and shooting was evident.
- Dixon and...Who Else?: Nick Dixon may have been the best player in the conference, but the rest of the roster never really emerged around him. No one else averaged more than 23.1 minutes per game, evidencing how few consistent impact players filled in around him.
Like the Pac-12 and the Mountain West, the WAC will be embracing Sin City this weekend, taking over the Orleans Arena after Gonzaga has its annual victory tour there. It's your standard eight team field, although NMSU gets the quasi-bye of playing Chicago St. in the first round (prove me wrong, Cougars?!).
What to Watch:
- They may not have won the regular season like many thought they could, but there's a more important prize for Grand Canyon: an NCAA Tournament bid in their first year of eligibility. The Antelopes have the talent to get it done, and Dan Majerle should have no problem motivating a team in its first ever WAC Tournament.
- The 1 and 2 seeds have dominated this tournament due to the lack of depth (and GCU's ineligibility) - with a slightly deeper conference this year (Seattle and UT-RGV could be feisty, and GCU vs. UVU will be a great game), there could be an added element of unpredictability this year.
Who Will Win:
- New Mexico State - The Aggies' switchable, physical defense has adopted the tenets of Gregg Marshall (and by extension, Chris Jans), imposing its will upon WAC foes. That defense travels, and only Utah Valley managed to score even 1.0ppp against it (and that was in Orem, UT). A major worry for NMSU is the poor free throw shooting - they're 345th in the country at 63.5%, always a concern in win-or-go-home scenarios.
If Not Them, Then:
- Grand Canyon - The Antelopes have struggled to find offense this year, as subbing in the steady hand of Casey Benson for the dynamic scoring of Dewayne Russell has hampered the one-on-one creation. However, Alessandro Lever's emergence into a bonafide #1 scoring option during conference play (#2 in usage rate, #1 in % of shots taken) has been a revelation. If he stays out of foul trouble, Majerle's Men could take the crown.
- Utah Valley - The other team in the WAC coached by a former NBA player, Utah Valley also has the distinction of being the team in the top 3 that lives more by its offense than its defense. Former Oklahoma big man Akolda Manyang gives them a presence in the paint, and they often surround him with four shooters to help space the floor. Most of their rotation has played at a high-major (Oklahoma, BYU, Xavier, Utah), so the talent is definitely there.