- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Alessandro Lever, So., Grand Canyon
Coach of the Year: Chris Jans, New Mexico State
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Finke, R Sr., Grand Canyon
Freshman of the Year: Tim Finke, Grand Canyon
1. New Mexico State
Key Returners: Eli Chuha, AJ Harris, Johnny McCants, Shunn Buchanan, Keyon Jones
Key Losses: Zach Lofton, Jemerrio Jones, Sidy N’Dir, Johnathon Wilkins
Key Newcomers: JoJo Zamora (Utah), CJ Bobbitt (Denver), Mohamed Thiam (JUCO), Ivan Aurrecoechea (JUCO), Clayton Henry (JUCO), Terrell Brown (JUCO), Berrick JeanLouis, Addison Wallace
Outlook: New Mexico State has been a WAC powerhouse since 2007, earning eight auto-bids to the Big Dance in that time. Chris Jans took over for Paul Weir last season and led the Aggies to their best regular season finish in school history and a 13-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies simply dominated the WAC last season and flexed their muscles in the non-conference as well, defeating Miami, Davidson, Illinois and New Mexico twice in 2017. This year, NMSU will be without WAC Player of the Year Jemerrio Jones and 1st Team All-WAC member Zach Lofton, but Jans brings in a super-talented newcomer class from the D1, JUCO, and HS ranks.
The Aggies offense isn’t exactly pretty. While NMSU ranked 2nd in the WAC in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom, the Aggies were ultimately an average offensive team. Jans’s squad relied heavily on offensive rebounding to score buckets, as the pick-n-roll and post attack offense often struggled to score on the first shot attempt. Lofton averaged 20ppg last season and Jones was the MAJOR reason for NMSU’s success on the glass, so the Aggies may take a step back on offense this season.
Defense is NMSU’s calling card, ranking 16th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings in 2017-18. The Aggies play an aggressive man-to-man that switches nearly everything and smothers the living hell out of opposing ball handlers. Jones ensured second chance opportunities were limited last season, and teams shot a paltry 31.1% from outside the arc (10th-lowest rate in the country).
Without Jones, the rebounding load and paint protection duties will fall on Eli Chuha, a 6’7” senior eager to regain the playing time he lost as a junior. Chuha has been one of the best rebounders in the WAC over the past two seasons and led the conference in 2PFG% in 2017-18. Offensively, NMSU plays through Chuha on the block often, as the big man is excellent at holding off post defenders and sealing his man for easy lobs. Fellow frontcourt returner Johhny McCants was supposed to be his running mate this season after a promising freshman year, but a Lisfranc injury has the 6’7” sophomore on the sidelines for 4-6 months.
In McCants’s absence, Jans will turn to a couple of JUCO newcomers in Mohamed Thiam and Ivan Aurrecoechea for production. Thiam is the #6 JUCO prospect in the class of 2018 and was a 3rd Team NJCAA All-American last season. He’s highly skilled and might find himself playing some 3 in Jans’s offense depending how the coach wants to use his deep frontcourt. Thiam can score pretty much any way he feels on offense and is long enough to deter shots in the paint on defense. Aurrecoechea is the #10 ranked JUCO recruit in the country and comes by way of powerhouse Indian Hills. He averaged 13.5ppg and 11.1rpg last season and should be a dangerous center in the WAC through which the Aggies can run their offense.
Denver transfer CJ Bobbitt should also help pick up the slack left behind by Jones. The 6’7” junior is a strong power forward that can step out and shoot the three. Again, it’s uncertain if Jans will play three forwards together, but a corps featuring Bobbitt / Chuha / Aurrecoechea / Thiam should easily be the best in the WAC.
Jans’s backcourt is in good shape too, despite the loss of offensive catalyst Lofton. AJ Harris, a former Ohio State Buckeye, returns for his second season in Las Cruces to run the point. Harris earned a spot on the WAC All-Newcomer Team last season and proved to be a reliable defender at the top of the key. Offensively, he’ll need to shoot the ball a lot better in 2018-19, but he’s a weapon in transition and off the dribble. Utah transfer JoJo Zamora will be the backcourt player to watch this year. As a junior for the Utes, Zamora started nearly every game and shot the ball extremely well from the floor (.544/.366/.848 (2P/3P/FT)). At NMSU, Zamora should be one of the Aggies’ go-to scorers on offense. Shunn Buchanan will serve as Harris’s backup at the PG spot and Keyon Jones will serve as a knockdown shooter off the pine (41.8% from downtown last season).
Jans’s remaining newcomers that could make an impact in 2018-19 include JUCO transfers Clayton Henry and Terrell Brown and freshmen Berrick JeanLouis and Addison Wallace. Henry is a strong wing that can drive to the cup and create his own offense. Brown started 9 games for San Jose State as a freshman in 2016-17 and averaged 16ppg in JUCO, but he has faced legal issues. While technically a walk-on, Brown could be a contributor as shooter and scorer off the bench. JeanLouis is a spectacular athlete and dunker whose best basketball is in front of him, while Wallace is an all-around combo guard with good athleticism and a good jump shot.
Bottom Line: Jans loses a ton of talent from last season’s historic squad, but he also brings in more than enough talent to restock the coffers and make another run to the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies should still be the best team in the WAC and be a dominant defensive and rebounding force. Perhaps this year they can finally get past the First Round of the Big Dance for the first time since 1993.
2. Grand Canyon
Key Returners: Alessandro Lever, Oscar Frayer, Gerard Martin, Roberts Blumbergs, Damari Milstead, Matt Jackson
Key Losses: Casey Benson, Keonta Vernon, Joshua Braun
Key Newcomers: Michael Finke (Illinois), Carlos Johnson (Washington), Trey Drechsel (DII), JJ Rhymes (JUCO), Tim Finke
Outlook: Thunder Dan has been the coach at Grand Canyon since the school’s inception into the Division I ranks back in 2013-14. The Lopes have been a perennial WAC competitor since that time, but an NCAA Tournament appearance still eludes one of the best student fan bases in college basketball. Majerle loses three extremely key pieces from his 22-12 (9-5) squad, but makes up for the lost production with some very high level reinforcements. Fellow top dogs New Mexico State and Utah Valley lost considerable production as well, so this may be the year we see the Lopes finally represent the WAC in the Big Dance.
Majerle’s extended pressure defense led the way for the Lopes in 2016-17, as GCU ranked 50th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings (3rd in the WAC), though the 5th worst non-conference schedule in the country certainly may have skewed that ranking a tad. GCU’s goal on defense is instill panic in opposing ball handlers by picking them up early after the ball crosses halfcourt. This extended pressure led to the 25th best turnover rate in the country and resulted in GCU allowing the 8th fewest three-point attempts in the country and lowest 3P% (caveats: the WAC as a conference ranked 26th in 3PA / FGA and 30th in 3P%). GCU’s ability to switch hand-offs and ball screens on the perimeter led to it being able to bottle-up and overwhelm opposing ball-handlers.
Offensively, while GCU did rank 3rd in the WAC, the Lopes were a below average squad. Majerle’s crew was very unselfish, ranking 8th in assist rate in the country, but poor outside shooting and shaky ball handling often led to inefficiency. The Lopes spread it out on offense, preferring to play with one or two big men on the floor that can shoot the ball at all times. The spaced floor allows for wide driving lanes for GCU’s guards to get into the teeth of the defense. When not slashing or shooting, the Lopes played through stud big man Alessandro Lever in the post or near the top of the key, allowing the skilled Italian to pick apart the defense how he saw fit.
Lever could be the best player in the WAC this season after winning Freshman of the Year honors in 2017-18 – plus he’s the only returning member of the All-Conference First Team. The 6’10” forward took the league by storm last season, ranking first in the WAC in % team shots taken and second in usage. His ability to score from anywhere on the floor and grab offensive rebounds at a top 15 league rate make him one of the most challenging players to stop in the conference. This offseason, Lever led the Italian U20 Team in scoring during the European Championships suggesting a big sophomore year in 2018-19.
The one weakness to GCU’s otherwise outstanding defense was its resistance at the rim. Majerle has a plethora of scoring and offensive talented big men but none of them offer much resistance on defense in the paint. Euro 5-man Roberts Blumbergs is a great floor spacer on offense, but he can’t rebound or block shots worth a lick. Likewise, Matt Jackson is an asset offensively, but offers little on defense. Enter Michael Finke, who… well… shit, I guess he’s mostly an offensive weapon too. Hey, at least he’ll be a slight improvement to the interior defensively to pair with an intimidating perimeter shell.
Finke’s addition is huge to a roster that struggled to score the basketball in 2018-19 and the former Illinois big man should be considered something like -100000 to win WAC Newcomer of the Year. After three solid seasons as an Illini, Finke should see a large jump in usage and be a dangerous weapon in GCU’s horns sets alongside Lever. The combination of Lever + Finke in the frontcourt – two forwards that can shoot, drive, pass, and post – could be unstoppable in the WAC.
On the wing, All-Defensive Team member Oscar Frayer returns to wreak havoc on WAC perimeters. The versatile 6’6” junior ranked 5th in the league in SPG last season and 8th in BPG and has the requisite size and athleticism to match-up 2-4. Offensively, Frayer turned in high shooting percentages and could see a higher chunk of responsibility this season without the likes of Benson, Braun, and Vernon. 6’7” wing Gerard Martin acts as Frayer’s primary backup. Like Frayer, Martin is a “glue-guy” on the floor, one that can shoot the three ball and guard multiple spots.
Four of the five remaining backcourt contributors are new to the team in 2018-19. Lone returner Damari Milstead will likely see first crack at the point guard spot after a so-so freshman year in which he struggled with turnovers. Hopefully another year in Majerle’s system gives him the confidence he needs to overcome those issues and cash in on a talented skillset in his second season. He’ll be pushed by DII transfer Trey Drechsel for PG minutes. At 6’6”, Drechsel as excellent size for a lead ball handler and used it to his advantage in the DII ranks when he led his squad in rebounding, assists, and steals (2nd in scoring). He’ll be able to key the Lopes offense or play alongside Milstead in the backcourt.
Newly eligible guard Carlos Johnson comes to GCU via Washington. Johnson started four games as a freshman for the Huskies under Lorenzo Romar but wasn’t allocated much PT under Mike Hopkins. His arrival is LARGE for a Grand Canyon roster in need of backcourt production; look for Johnson to compete for a starting spot throughout the year.
If not Johnson, one of JUCO transfer JJ Rhymes or freshman Tim Finke will likely start at the 2-guard spot to begin the year. Rhymes is the 18th ranked JUCO prospect in the class of 2018 and averaged 19.6ppg last year on his way to being named a 1st Team NJCAA All-American. His greatest asset is his ability to flat out score the basketball and create offense out of nothing, mostly off the bounce slashing from the perimeter. Finke, Michael’s bro, is an ESPN 4-star prospect that passed up a slew of other DI offers before settling on Grand Canyon. He’s a long wing with a deadly three-point stroke and could be one of the better players in the conference within the next year or two.
Bottom Line: GCU is an absolute heavyweight contender for the WAC title in 2018-19. It’ll be hard to knock off NMSU from its perch high above the other teams in the conference, but the Lopes have the talent to do it. Majerle has the league’s best player and best newcomer to go with an elite defense and an offense that should be much improved. What’s not to like?
3. Utah Valley
Key Returners: Conner Toolson, Jake Toolson, Ben Nakwaasah
Key Losses: Akolda Manyang, Brandon Randolph, Kenneth Ogbe, Jerrelle DeBerry, Isaac Neilson
Key Newcomers: Baylee Steele (Eastern Michigan), Connor MacDougall (New Mexico), Isaiah White (JUCO), TJ Washington (JUCO), Wyatt Lowell
Outlook: Mark Pope enters his fourth year at the helm of Utah Valley, coming off a season in which the Wolverines improved their record for the third year in a row. From a winning and recruiting standpoint, Pope has performed admirably over his early coaching career, and now looks to bring UVU to its first ever NCAA Tournament. Production losses from last season are substantial but the Wolverines have a slew of talented newcomers joining a strong three-man core.
Utah Valley had the WAC’s best offensive attack last season after taking a step back and slowing the tempo down from previous “run-like-hell” Pope teams. Pope liked to play four-guard lineups around his one-year big man rental Akolda Manyang, which spaced the floor for the Wolverines to launch open threes. While UVU shot a lot of deep-balls, the Wolverines were by no means a one-dimensional team, often working offensive possessions through Manyang in the post or driving the hole and drawing fouls for easy FT trips. Pope’s motion offense relies on ball movement and the pick-n-roll to initiate scoring opportunities.
Without Manyang, UVU may trend back towards more of a “run ‘n’ gun” offense, but newcomers Baylee Steele and Wyatt Lowell should be able to make up most of Manyang’s offensive production. Steele, an Eastern Michigan transfer, rebounded the ball well at EMU before growing tired of living in James Thompson IV’s shadow; the 6’11” center is a good post finisher and physical block presence. Lowell arrives at UVU after serving a 2-year LDS mission trip. Prior to the mission, Lowell was a 3/4 star recruit (depending where you looked) in the class of 2016 and he brings with him a skilled and polished game to add to the frontcourt.
New Mexico transfer Connor MacDougall will round out the frontcourt rotation along with sophomore Richard Harward. MacDougall’s career has been plagued by injuries, but the big man can be a good rebounder and post scorer in the Wolverine offense.
Defensively is likely where the Wolverines will feel Manyang’s absence the most. Manyang was arguably the best shot-blocker in the country and was a top 25 rebounder on both ends of the floor by rate. Steele can block shots, and Lowell is mobile to stick with quicker 4’s, but neither is the level defender Manyang was. UVU’s #2 ranked WAC defense may take a step back in 2018-19.
In the backcourt, Pope returns a trio of veterans in Conner Toolson, Jake Toolson (Conner’s cousin), and Ben Nakwaasah. Conner Toolson was a 2nd Team All-WAC member last season, knocking down the highest percentage of threes (50%) in WAC play and ranking first in the conference in eFG% and TS%. Defensively, Toolson led the WAC in steal rate displaying his true impactfulness on both ends of the floor. Further, on a team that often struggled with ball protection, Toolson provided a steady ball-handling presence. Look for the 6’4” senior to make a run at 1st Team All-WAC this season.
Jake Toolson, a former BYU guy, was a WAC All-Newcomer Team member last season and ranked 4th in the conference in 3P% and 2nd in eFG% and TS% behind the other Toolson. Like Conner, Jake was valuable on offense for not just his scoring but also his passing and distributing ability from the wing. He ranked in the top ten in assist rate in the WAC in 2017-18.
Nakwaasah will compete with JUCO newcomer TJ Washington for the starting point guard job, that is before Oklahoma State’s Brandon Averette becomes eligible in 2019-20. Nakwaasah is fast with the rock in the open floor and shot the ball very well from downtown last season. Washington is ranked #69 (nice) in the JUCO class of 2018. He’s ridiculously quick, a blur in transition and has the ability to stop on a dime, rise up and shoot.
Pope didn’t dig too deep into his bench last season, but he’ll have the talent to do so in 2018-19 if he so chooses. Hayden Schenck is back from a redshirt season to add to the Wolverine effort on both ends of the floor with his shooting ability and versatility on defense. Isaiah White is a major athlete from the JUCO ranks that can slide right into the Kenneth Ogbe role on offense.
Bottom Line: New Mexico State may still be the class of the WAC this year, but Utah Valley is a bona fide top-three team and conference title contender. Mark Pope is quickly proving to be one of the better up-and-coming coaches in the country and it may not be too long before we see him taking on a higher profile gig.
Key Returners: Matej Kavas, Morgan Means
Key Losses: Jordan Hill, Josh Hearlihy, Richaud Gittens, Aaron Menzies
Key Newcomers: Delante Jones (American), Dashawn McDowell (SMU), Myles Carter (Seton Hall), Anand Hundal (JUCO), Matt Owies (Hawaii), Trey Hopkins, Rip Economou, Riley Grigsby, Jacob Eyman
Outlook: Props to Jim Hayford for coming to Seattle and immediately turning around the program. Last year was Hayford’s first at SU after emigrating from Eastern Washington, and he made short work of improving the Redhawks leading the squad to its best DI finish in school history. Cameron Dollar never quite got the ball rolling during his 8-year tenure at the helm of SU, finishing over .500 only once in 2014-15. Hayford brought in a slew of impact transfers last season to accelerate his rebuild and does so again in 2018-19. The up-and-coming coach appears to be building a lasting culture up in northwest Washington.
Hayford’s offense is a 4-out / 1-in variety that features competent shooters across the perimeter that are also capable of putting the ball on the floor. The Redhawks score via isolation dribble-drive on reversals and kick-outs to open shooters behind the arc. Last season, Seattle ranked 16th in the country in frequency of isolation plays ran and shot a solid 37.2% from deep. This year, Seattle will be without 7’3” post Aaron Menzies, whose presence made playing four guards far easier on either end of the floor. Menzies’ offensive rebounding was key in SU’s scoring effort, so replacing him will be Hayford’s greatest challenge in 2018-19. Turnovers will also continue to be a concern, as the Hawks coughed up the rock at the highest rate in the WAC last season (21.8% in conference play) despite playing four guards majority of the time.
Defensively, Hayford did away with Dollar’s occasional full-court press and half-court zone looks and instead implemented a conservative man-to-man style that focuses on staying in front of one’s man on defense and not gambling for steals. Overall, the defensive scheme worked well last season with Menzies anchoring a disciplined perimeter shell, but SU was very weak in transition where its tendency to chuck resulted in far too many running opportunities for its opponents. Fouling was also a huge issue – though SU didn’t give up many easy buckets in the paint, it regularly sent opponents to the free throw line.
So who replaces the 7’3” behemoth? Hayford has two primary options in JUCO transfer Anand Hundal and Seton Hall transfer Myles Carter. Freshman and former UTEP commit Jacob Eyman may see some run at the 5, but he’s still pretty raw offensively. Hundal averaged a double-double last season in JUCO (14.8ppg / 10.3rpg) and is skilled offensively with good footwork on the block and the ability to hit threes. His shooting ability could allow Hayford to play a more traditional lineup and sure up its interior defense and rebounding without losing spacing. Carter was seldom used at Seton Hall behind the Pirates’ ridiculously deep front line, but he’ll be an asset for SU on the glass and on defense.
Matej Kavas will be the primary go-to guy for the Redhawk offense after leading SU in scoring last year and notching a spot on the All-WAC 2nd Team. He took his larger role in stride last season, shooting a blistering 47.3% from deep while expanding his dribble-drive game. Kavas will see a lot of time as the “4-man” in Hayford’s 4-guard lineup.
Teaming with Kavas on the wings will be a combination of transfers Delante Jones (American) and Dashawn McDowell (SMU) and freshmen Trey Hopkins and Rip Economou. Jones is the most impactful transfer on the roster after serving two good years for American and winning the Patriot Rookie of the Year award in 2015-16. He’ll bring a needed scoring punch and will function as a nice complement to Kavas that can slash and shoot. McDowell rarely saw the floor for a 30-win SMU squad, but like Jones he can bring scoring from multiple areas on the floor and is a potential versatile defender able to guard multiple positions.
Hopkins and Economou both come in as 3-star recruits (depending where you look) and each has the ability to steal starter’s minutes in their inaugural college seasons. Hopkins is one of the top rated recruits out of Oklahoma and is a superb athlete with a really nice pull-up game and a good looking jumper. Economou is a big wing at 6’8” and a money shooter from the outside. He may be a little less impactful than Hopkins simply due to his still-slight frame.
Rounding out the backcourt rotation will be Morgan Means, who likely starts at point guard, Hawaii transfer Matt Owies, and freshman wing Riley Grigsby. Means will likely play more on-ball this year after Jordan Hill took over primary ball handling duties in 2017-18. He’s a capable shooter but does most of his scoring damage from inside the arc. Owies will add depth at the 2-guard spot off the pine. Grigsby is a strong wing that can handle the ball. His size will allow him to play a small-ball 4 role and he’s a load barreling towards the hoop on offense. Hayford will have plenty of options to fill out his backcourt minutes.
Bottom Line: Seattle is in good hands with Hayford at the helm, but rumors are he’s not one to stay at the low-mid-major ranks for long. A continuous flow of impact transfers and relatively high rated recruits should have the Redhawks staying competitive near the top of the WAC over the next few years.
5. Cal State Bakersfield
Key Returners: Rickey Holden, Damiyne Durham, Jarkel Joiner, Justin Edler-Davis
Key Losses: Shon Briggs, Moataz Aly, Brent Wrapp, Fallou Ndoye
Key Newcomers: Cartrell Thompson (Redshirt), Darrin Person Jr. (Redshirt), Kevin McNeal (JUCO), Darius Williams (JUCO)
Outlook: After two years near the top of the WAC standings, Rod Barnes’s squad tanked to its worst season since joining the league in 2013-14. The Roadrunners lost some talented seniors from 2016-17, but were also bit heavily by the injury bug leading to an ugly 12-18 (5-9) finish. This season, Barnes loses a whole bunch of size but returns four part-time starters and welcomes a handful of potentially impactful JUCO transfers and redshirt freshmen.
Bakersfield is without a true center this season, but that may not be such a bad thing. Barnes has one of his most athletic teams in recent history, which should allow the Runners to play at a slightly ramped up pace and improve a usually stingy perimeter defense. CSUB has historically played at a slower tempo under Barnes (slowest team in the WAC in 2017-18) and offense has generally been a point of weakness. Last season, CSUB ranked in the bottom 50 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings, shooting poor percentages from everywhere on the floor. Due to the poor shooting, the Runners were forced to score points via the offensive glass and the free throw line while milking the clock and limiting opponents’ possessions. Post-ups, isolation, and the pick-n-roll were all primary avenues by which the Runners looked to score the basketball.
Defense has been a different story under Barnes. Bakersfield had a nationally top 50 rated defense in 2015-16 and 2016-17, but its efficiency dropped slightly in 2017-18. Much of this was likely due to injuries, as inexperienced freshmen were asked to step up and play significant minutes particularly in the backcourt. Barnes likes to run a full-court press, either picking up man-to-man off an opponent in-bound, or picking up three-quarter-court in an extended trapping 1-3-1. The Runners pressed on nearly 1/4 of their possessions last season, the 16th highest rate in the country and played a fair amount of zone in the half-court. CSUB forces turnovers and pressures opponents into making poor decisions.
A backcourt triumvirate will be asked to lead the Runners on offense this season. Seniors Rickey Holden and Damiyne Durham and sophomore Jarkel Joiner each averaged over 10ppg last season and will be counted on to improve a woeful offense. Holden had a good first DI season after coming over from JUCO, helping to the run the point on offense and ranking in the top ten in steal rate in the WAC. The 5’10” guard shot well from everywhere on the floor except the three-point line, which was a common theme for a team that shot a collective 29.9% from the land of plenty.
Durham is a high-usage wing that has ranked in the WAC’s top 5 in % of his team’s shots taken each of the past three years. To put it simply, Durham is a gunner on offense, willing and able to shoot when and where he wants. He’ll be looked to as a leader in 2017-18. Joiner, an off-guard, was a big-time scorer in high school but struggled mightily with efficiency in his first season at Bakersfield. Despite shooting 91.4% from the foul line, the 6’1” guard shot a putrid 24.7% from three and 42.6% inside the arc. He still holds massive potential, so hopefully the efficiency comes with a year of experience under his belt (breakout alert).
Justin Edler-Davis is the Runners’ 4th returning semi-starter, a 6’4” wing that functions as the de facto 4-man in Barnes’ 4-guard lineup. Davis turned in a very good freshman season, ranking in the WAC top ten in rebound rate on both ends of the floor, getting to the foul line at a high rate, ranking 1st in the conference in FT% and 3rd in 3P%. He’s vital to the Runners’ resurgence to WAC competitiveness. Sophomore Justin McCall and redshirt sophomore Taze Moore should see some minutes on the wing as well behind Davis.
Barnes welcomes two JUCO transfers and two redshirt freshman to the rotation in 2017-18. From the JUCO ranks comes combo guard Kevin McNeal and forward Darius Williams. McNeal is a good athlete that projects as a defensive stopper and a capable scorer on offense. He averaged 14ppg and shot 35% from beyond the arc last season. Williams is the 75th ranked JUCO recruit in the class of 2018, a 6’9” junior that poured in 18ppg for his school last season. Expect Williams to compete for a starting job this year with returners Greg Lee and James Suber. Redshirt freshmen Darrin Person Jr. and Cartrell Thompson should also make an impact in their first official seasons at CSUB.
Bottom Line: Bakersfield may not challenge for a top 3 WAC finish in 2017-18, but should be a better squad this season and a nightly threat to pull an in-conference upset.
Key Returners: Xavier Bishop, Jordan Giles, Brandon McKissic, Aleer Leek, Marco Smith
Key Losses: Isaiah Ross, Broderick Robinson
Key Newcomers: Brandon Suggs (Bethune-Cookman), Danny Dixon (George Mason), Kenny Strawbridge, Rob Whitfield (JUCO), Jamel Allen (JUCO), Will Mangum
Outlook: UMKC enters its 30th season as a Division I basketball program hoping to finally earn the school’s first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Roos, they’ve never been better than just a middling squad in the WAC, which spans the entire length of head coach Kareem Richardson’s tenure. The Roos were a super young team last season and return a decent chunk of talent from that squad, suggesting we could see some improvement in 2018-19, but it will take more than a stroke of good luck for UMKC to compete for a WAC title.
Richardson’s offense revolves around its guards and the perimeter. The Roos attempted the 29th highest 3P rate in the country last season (1st in the WAC) while largely eschewing the post and the glass attack. UMKC spreads it out with 4-guard lineups allowing plenty of space for its creators to work off the dribble via the pick-n-roll or isolation sets. Possessions largely result in pull-up threes, drive-and-kick threes, or reckless drives to the basket. Richardson also encourages pushing the tempo and getting buckets in transition off steals and the defensive glass.
Defensively, the Roos pressed at the 28th highest rate in the country last season and ranked 1st in the WAC in turnover rate. A bevy of quick guards wreak havoc on opposing ball handlers and discourage three-point attempts. The trade-off here, of course, is UMKC was often burned near the rim despite a decent shot-blocking presence in Aleer Leek.
Point guard Xavier Bishop is the leader in the Roo backcourt, a lightning quick 5’8” junior that led UMKC in scoring and assists last season. Bishop took a big step last year after a so-so freshman season severely reducing his turnover rate despite a higher usage and improving his shot percentages across the board. Bishop’s at his best when pushing the pace in transition and attacking defenses off ball screens.
Bishop’s pick-n-roll partner in crime is forward Jordan Giles, a fellow junior and potential breakout player in 2018-19. Giles had a mini-breakout in 2017-18, finishing inside the arc at a high rate and showing the ability to space the floor from the 4-spot (though he didn’t shoot the ball very well from behind the arc). The aforementioned Leek is Giles’ frontcourt mate, a 6’9” senior whose job is to protect the rim and rebound the ball. Offense is not Leek’s forte and he’s seldom used on that end.
Teaming with Bishop in the backcourt this year will be returning sophomores Brandon McKissic and Marco Smith. McKissic had a great rookie season, notching the 2nd best 3P% in WAC play (45.9%) while providing solid defense on the other end and proving to be one of the more consistent players on the roster. Smith is a versatile, all-around defender that also found a fair amount of success in his first season in Kansas City. He’ll likely assume a starting role in year two.
Rounding out the backcourt are returning Roos Tony Jackson and Steve Dulley, freshman Kenny Strawbridge and JUCO transfer Rob Whitfield. Jackson likely sees his minutes dramatically increase this season while the other three will fill out more spot roles. Strawbridge will bring an element of athleticism and defensive versatility to the roster.
Richardson’s frontcourt is deeper this year than it has been in recent memory. Bethune Cookman transfer Brandon Suggs and George Mason transfer Danny Dixon both should compete for starting spots this season at the 4 and 5 spots. Suggs was highly efficient at BC his freshman season in 2016-17, notching the 8th highest OR% in the MEAC and 2nd highest FG%. He’ll bring value on defense as a guy that can guard the 3, 4, or 5 positions. Dixon was seldom used at GMU but should have a much bigger role at UMKC. He has potential to be an impact rebounder and rim protector and should be a better offensive option than Leek. Indian Hills CC import Jamel Allen will also compete for a starting spot. He’s a major athlete at 6’7” and can step out and shoot the three when needed.
Bottom Line: UMKC should be an improved team in 2018-19, but the Roos still won’t compete near the top of the conference. A familiar finish between 5th and 7th will likely be the school’s fate yet again this season.
7. UT Rio Grande Valley
Key Returners: Terry Winn, Greg Bowie, Javon Levi, Lesley Varner, Johnny Crnogorac
Key Losses: Nick Dixon, Xavier McDaniel, Moe McDonald, Lew Stallworth, Mike Hoffman
Key Newcomers: Solomon Hainna (Evansville), Ndene Gueye (St. Bonaventure), Tyson Smith (Loyola), Isaiah Fontaine (JUCO), Quinton Johnson II, Jamal Gaines, Uche Dibiamaka
Outlook: Lew Hill seemingly turned a corner last season leading the Vaqueros to their best KenPom season since 2008 and notching a 4-win WAC improvement. Hill, a Lon Kruger protégé, brought with him to UTRGV an aggressive, pressure style that emphasizes speeding up the opposition and scoring off turnovers. Though Hill appears to have the program heading in the right direction, the loss of 1st Team All-WAC member Nick Dixon may be too much for the Vaqueros to overcome this season.
Under Hill, the Vaqueros have ranked in the top ten nationally in tempo each of the past two years. UTRGV looks to attack in transition and attack the basket. No team in the country scored a higher percentage of its points from the foul line than the Vaqueros did in 2017-18 – Hill plays a lot of bodies and his team runs, runs, runs.
Defensively, UTRGV pressed at the 7th highest rate in the country (34% of its possessions) and Hill mixed in aggressive half-court zones with man-to-man. UTRGV likes to limit the three-ball and force its opponents to cough up the rock. Hill recruits to his style of play, focusing on bringing in high-level athletes that can defend and disrupt.
Without Dixon, UTRGV will need someone to step up and score. Dixon was the only player on the roster to average in double figures last season and was the #1 used player in the WAC in 2017-18. Forward Terry Winn likely takes on a higher scoring load after coming over from UTEP last year. Winn was a top five rebounder by rate on both ends of the floor in WAC play and scored effectively around the paint using a variety of face-ups to put the ball in the hoop. He’ll be flanked by returning 7-footer Johnny Crnogorac and Evansville transfer Solomon Hainna in the frontcourt. Crnogorac is big and can block shots, but the Aussie wasn’t worth much on the glass last season. Hainna is mainly a block presence in the form of Winna and should bring with him the requisite athleticism Hill is looking for.
UTRGV’s wings and shooters consist of sophomore Greg Bowie, junior Lesley Varner, Loyola transfer Tyson Smith and a couple of freshmen in Quinton Johnson II and Uche Dibiamaka. Bowie is one of the few three-point shooters on the roster, knocking down 40.5% of his deep-ball tries in 2017-18 (7th in WAC play) and he’s a decent ball hawk on defense. Varner is a 3/4 tweener that struggled offensively last year but provided value as a versatile defensive stopper.
Smith sat out last year at Loyola during the Ramblers’ historic Final Four run. When he did play in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Smith proved to be a good outside shooter and is a 37% career three-point shooter on 70 attempts. Johnson is a long-armed combo guard that can defend at a high level and should fit perfectly in Hill’s pressing mold. Dibiamaka is a top 50 player in Texas in the class of 2018. The native Australian is a physical scoring guard and like Johnson should be a pesky defender in the full-court press.
Rounding out the frontcourt (Hill plays a ton of guys) is St. Bonnies transfer Ndene Gueye, JUCO import Isaiah Fontaine, and freshman Jamal Gaines. Gueye didn’t see much run for the Bonnies and may not be any more than a depth piece. Fontaine is a bit raw offensively but he’ll be a major factor on the glass and protecting the rim with his superior athleticism and length. Gaines, also a top 50 player in the state of Texas, is another long inside presence that projects as a rebounder and shot blocker down the road.
Finally we get to the point guard position, a spot that securely be filled by sophomore Javon Levi. Levi turned in a solid freshman year from a team-running and facilitating standpoint leading the WAC in assist rate in 2017-18. Defensively, Levi ranked 3rd in the WAC in steal rate and offensively ranked 2nd in FT rate despite shooting poorly from the field. Hill doesn’t have a ton of options outside of Levi to play the point. Redshirt junior Jordan Jackson is an option, but Bowie and possibly even Smith or Dibiamaka may have to spend some time on-ball.
Bottom Line: I’m a believer in Hill’s system and think that his style of play alone can keep the Vaqueros near 5th or 6th in the WAC. The loss of Dixon, though, is going to be very difficult to overcome and likely results in a bottom-three league finish with teams like UMKC and CSUB poised for a better year.
8. Cal Baptist
Key Returners: Jordan Heading, De’jon Davis, Ty Rowell, Bul Kuol, Marquise Mosley
Key Losses: Kalidou Diouf, Cory Lange, Jason Todd, Gabe Taylor, Matt Hubbard
Key Newcomers: Glenn Morrison, Zach Pirog (Omaha), Mikey Henn (UC Davis)
***Editor’s Note: Jeremy Lieberman is no longer on the roster***
(Warning: incoming pot shot at Blue Ribbon)
We here at 3MW believe in previewing EVERY team in DI college basketball, so you, dear reader, will get a preview on CBU. Blue Ribbon doesn’t believe in previewing teams that are ineligible to make the NCAA Tourney (recall that stupid and unnecessary four-year rule). Blue Ribbon must think CBU’s wins and losses won’t count in the WAC standings or affect any other teams’ results. Alas. (We do very much enjoy reading Blue Ribbon every year, but this is one area that makes us scratch our heads). Now onto the preview…
Welcome to Division I basketball, Cal Baptist! The Lancers join North Alabama as the 352nd and 353rd teams in DI and are set to try their luck in the WAC after enjoying much success in the DII ranks. Rick Croy has led the Lancers the past five seasons to five straight 20+ win campaigns and five straight DII NCAA Tournament appearances (including an Elite Eight showing in 2017-18). Croy has amassed an impressive 132-29 record during his tenure and has already proven to be a major player on the transfer wire, bringing in three impact DI transfers this year and two more in 2019-20. Also, like his coaching tree father Randy Bennett, Croy has created a pipeline to the great country of Australia where his returning leading scorer, Jordan Heading, hails.
CBU loses its best player from a year ago in forward Kalidou Diouf along with three other regular starters. But the presence of Heading, some solid rotational pieces, and Croy’s three experienced newcomers should make the Lancers respectable in their first season in DI. Offensively, the Lancers generally don’t look to score much in transition, instead opting to operate in an efficient half-court setting often featuring a 4-out / 1-in look. Croy takes cues from Bennett in this sense, as his Lancers looked to score via the three-ball or feed it to Diouf on the block (similar to Saint Mary’s gunning and playing through Jock Landale). This year, offense will rely mostly on Heading, who will handle the ball often and use a high percentage of CBU’s possessions. Heading guns it with a lefty stroke and can score off the bounce or from behind the arc. With Jeremy Lieberman coming to town, Croy could have himself a nice dual-PG look on offense similar to what the Gaels did with Emmett Naar and Joe Rahon.
Defensively, CBU was excellent last season stopping transition opportunities (yet another Saint Mary’s comparison) and pressed teams nearly 10% of the time. Look for Croy to continue playing a relatively soft man-to-man this season in the half-court, one that doesn’t necessarily force teams into turnovers or fully deny three-point looks.
Joining Heading in the projected starting backcourt will be sophomore Ty Rowell and one of either Wyoming transfer Jeremy Lieberman or senior Marquise Mosley. Rowell is a three-point specialist that knocked down 43.1% of his 123 attempts as a freshman. Lieberman started every game for Wyoming in 2016-17 (odd transfer?) and likely starts at PG for the Lancers in 2018-19. He led the MWC in 2PFG% and was 13th in 3PFG% his junior year and is a serviceable ball handler at the top of the key. Mosley was limited to just two games last season due to injury. He’ll handle the ball in offensive sets as well and add shooting to the lineup (36.7% in 2016-17 from deep).
Inside, Croy will rely on a foursome of competent big men in returning juniors De’jon Davis and Bul Kuol and transfer Zach Pirog (Omaha) and Mikey Henn (UC Davis). Davis may take a backseat to Pirog starting-wise, but the 6’7” forward was effective off the bench last season. He’s a paint-bound presence, shot 63.4% from the floor in 2017-18 and turned in respectable rebounding numbers. Kuol is a stretchy big that shot 38.3% from downtown his sophomore year (functions as a wing). Unlike Davis, Kuol is not a factor on the glass nor does he offer anything in the realm of rim protection. Pirog should fill the rebounding and shot-blocking holes after posting high efficiency rates in both areas in 2016-17 at Omaha. Henn didn’t see a whole lot of floor time in his freshman year at UC Davis behind Chima Moneke, but he proved to be a capable floor spacer from the 4-spot, knocking down 37.5% of his long-ball attempts. Freshman Glenn Morrison will round out the frontcourt rotation but likely won’t be as large of a factor as the aforementioned foursome.
Bottom Line: CBU probably won’t contend for a WAC title in its first season in Division I, but there’s plenty to like on this team from a competitive standpoint. It’ll be interesting to see how the DII guys handle the step-up in competition and see how the experienced transfers contribute to righting the ship on a nightly basis. At the very least, CBU should be better than Chicago State and 2019-20 offers a ton of promise with Milan Acquaah (Washington State) and Ferron Flavors (Fairfield) eligible.
9. Chicago State
Key Returners: Cameron Bowles, Rob Shaw, Anthony Harris, Travon Bell, Patrick Szpir, Delundre Dixon
Key Losses: Fred Sims, Glen Burns, Deionte Simmons, Montana Byrd, Jelani Pruitt
Key Newcomers: Christian Jacob (JUCO), Delshon Strickland (JUCO), Noah Bigirumwami (JUCO), DJ Davis (JUCO), Miles Oliver
Outlook: Oh, Chicago State. Why are you a Division I basketball program?
Chicago State has become infamous over the past several years as consistently being one of the worst basketball teams in the country. Not only is the basketball program a mess, but the school itself has been facing enrollment issues, which begs the question: how in the hell is CSU in Division I??? Not only that – why in the hell is CSU in the WAC??? The Cougars, already suffering from low funding, have to travel hundreds of miles for every conference road trip, which just adds insult to injury when considering the school has gone just 2-40 over the past three seasons in conference play.
Since joining the DI ranks in 1984-85, Chicago State has had three winning seasons (one since 1986) and has amassed a record of 266-725 (.286). But, I will concede, for the first time in what feels like forever, the Cougars have a tiny ray of hope this season. After months without a head coach this offseason, CSU finally hired Lance Irvin (and passed on Mark Titus) to the position. This hire is an absolute home run. Irvin is a ridiculously experienced basketball coach spending time as an assistant at Idaho, DePaul, Loyola, Iowa State, Illinois State, Texas A&M, Missouri, SMU, and SIUC before being an assistant at Chicago-based HS Morgan Park the past six years. To boot, Irvin is deeply ingrained in the basketball culture of Chicago as the son of Mac Irvin, the founder of the Mac Irvin Fire AAU basketball club. At the very least, Irvin brings coaching experience and a slight chance at bringing in Chicago talent that has consistently turned down CSU in the past. I hope he brings this school success – I also hope this program moves down to the DII or DIII level.
Ok, onto basketball. Irvin replaces Tracy Dildy, the head coach of the Cougars since 2011-12. Dildy’s squads played fast and scored via dribble-drive, partially due to the athletes on the roster, partially due to the fact that CSU has been awful at shooting for pretty much forever. CSU relied heavily on Fred Sims to put points on the board, running the star off high ball screens or clearing out and allowing Sims to take his man in isolation. With Sims gone and a new coach coming into the fold, it’s unknown what type of style CSU will feature this season, but this roster is still one severely lacking shooting.
Defensively, Dildy liked to full-court press and drop back into a zone, playing both styles of defense at top 50 national rates. Of course, neither of those schemes seemed to stop anyone, as the Cougars ranked 350th in the country in eFG% allowed, were constantly murdered on the glass, and were generally an undisciplined squad on the defensive end. CSU has the requisite athleticism and position-versatility on defense to play a full-court press and matchup man-to-man, but it’ll take a good coach to implement that style successfully.
CSU’s frontcourt is thin, featuring three realistic playing options and a couple “better off riding the pine” options. Cameron Bowles returns for his sophomore year as potentially the best overall player on the squad. In 2017-18, Bowles ranked 3rd in the WAC in block rate and consistently got to the foul line offensively where he converted over 80% of his FT tries. This year, Bowles will need to take a step towards becoming a more consistent finisher and better decision maker within the mid-range area and near the rim. Patrick Szpir, a so-so rebounder but little else, will compete for a starting spot alongside Bowles with JUCO transfer Christian Jacob, who averaged an impressive 19.3ppg & 12.7rpg last season.
Someone in the backcourt will need to step up and take control in Sims’ absence. Returning point guard Rob Shaw will likely take on full-time ball handling duties – that is if 2-star freshman Miles Oliver doesn’t progress quicker than expected. Shaw ranked 2nd in the WAC last season in assist rate, proving to be an effective table setter, but his scoring ability is strictly limited to drive and pull-up, shooting 0/11 from three last year. Oliver could be the PG of the future for Irvin; he’s a strong lead guard with a good jumper that should see playing time in his first collegiate season.
On the wing, Anthony Harris, Travon Bell, and Delundre Dixon return to form a decent three-man rotation and Irvin adds Delshon Strickland and DJ Davis from the JUCO ranks. Harris is the best returning outside shooter on the team, making 35.3% of his deep-ball tries last season and he doubles as a solid perimeter defender. Bell is a sophomore scorer with potential to lead CSU is scoring if he improves his efficiency. Dixon sat out last year, but is another guy that gets buckets via penetration versus the three. He can also handle the rock when Shaw and Oliver aren’t able. Strickland was a 2-star prospect coming out of HS way back in 2014, and he had interest from a couple Power 6 schools. Both he and Davis will compete for starting spots right out of the gate.
Bottom Line: Stylistically, Chicago State is a mystery heading into the season, but Lance Irvin appears to be taking the program in an upward direction which can only be seen as a win for a program in a state of constant losing. CSU will not compete for a WAC title this season, but here’s hoping Irvin can win a few games and give the college basketball world a feel-good story.