WAC Preview 2017-18

-Jim Root 


All Conference

Player of the Year: Joshua Braun, G, R Sr., Grand Canyon
Coach of the Year: Dan Majerle, Grand Canyon
Newcomer of the Year: AJ Harris, G, R So., New Mexico St.
Freshman of the Year: Brandon McKissic, G, UMKC

1.      Grand Canyon

Key Returners: Joshua Braun, Oscar Frayer, Keonta Vernon, Shaq Carr, Gerard Martin, Fiifi Aidoo
Key Losses: Dewayne Russell, Darion Clark
Key Newcomers: Casey Benson, Damari Milstead, Ibrahima Sankare, Roberts Blumbergs


Postseason Projection: NCAA Tournament – 15 seed

Outlook: The reign of Thunder Dan in Phoenix has been a bit of a tease so far, as Grand Canyon has spent four years in the limbo of transition up to the Division I level. Majerle has spent that time building a complete program, from developing internal talent to finding impact transfers to inciting a rabid fanbase and making GCU Arena a hostile venue for opponents. That work all comes to a head this season, as the Antelopes are finally eligible for the WAC and NCAA Tournaments – well-timed, too, as the ‘Lopes have an extremely deep and talented squad with which to make a run at the Big Dance.

The ‘Lopes greatest strength is their stout man-to-man defense, an in-your-face style that employs a plethora of above-average defenders to overwhelm opposing offenses. Gerard Martin keys this strategy with his versatility, as he usually guards the opposing team’s best player. Oscar Frayer is a budding star on this end too, a 6’7 athlete with great length and quick hands who has future Defensive Player of the Year potential. Majerle loses point-of-attack defender Dewayne Russell, but Oregon grad transfer Casey Benson should prove to be an effective replacement after covering Pac-12 guards for three seasons. Shaq Carr gives another option guarding PGs if Benson has difficulty against elite quickness.

Because of the team’s disruptive and aggressive perimeter D, opponents often get to the rim. The ‘Lopes lacked a go-to shot-blocking presence (although Frayer’s athleticism was again on display here), so the return of Matt Jackson from injury and the additions of 6’10 freshmen Roberts Blumbergs and Alessandro Lever will hopefully bolster the team’s interior presence. Both European youngsters (from Latvia and Italy, respectively) are more comfortable on the perimeter, but simply standing with their hands straight up should add an extra dimension. That trio should team with returning starter Keonta Vernon and reserve Kerwin Smith to continue to own the defensive glass as well.

Overall, the biggest issue facing GCU is the departure of do-everything scorer Russell, around whom the offense revolved last year. When the offense failed to get its preferred transition baskets, he often bailed them out with his isolation prowess. Benson is a completely different player, much more of a ball mover instead of a one-on-one breakdown driver, so Majerle will ask Frayer and all-around stud Joshua Braun to facilitate more. Braun could average 20ppg with Russell gone; he dealt with a knee ailment last year, but he is a pure shooter from deep and an adept driver, using his sturdy frame to create space. His knees are the reason he’s at Grand Canyon at all; had he not torn both ACLs in a span of 10 months surrounding his senior year, he likely would have had many more college offers (he discussed this in March in an excellent Players’ Tribune piece).  Carr has more of the iso-quickness in him, but he was profoundly sloppy with the ball last year; I wouldn’t be surprised to see high-scoring freshman Damari Milstead get a chance to run the point at times as a change of pace.

Majerle runs a variety of action to get his players in places to score, including quite a bit of sets starting out of the “Horns” alignment with two bigs at the elbows, which usually involve a ball screen one way to initiate other action:

These sets are especially dangerous if the big men can shoot; to that end, Martin must improve on his putrid 27% conversion rate from deep, and Jackson, Blumbergs, and Lever will again give a boost with their skill sets. Majerle also started to cleverly use Braun as a screener more and more towards the end of the year, a nightmar scenario for defenders. This should open more space for the ‘Lopes to attack the rim and get to the line, a major strength of the roster.

Bottom Line: Majerle has been hard at work building the GCU program from the ground up through its NCAA transition; the school’s basketball fever was on full display when it hosted the 3-point contest and dunk contest at last year’s Final Four. The fans may have more to cheer for in March this year, though, as the roster is plenty talented enough to take them dancing.

2.      New Mexico St.

Key Returners: Eli Chuha, Jemerrio Jones, Sidy N’Dir, Johnathon Wilkins
Key Losses: Ian Baker, Braxton Huggins, Matt Taylor, Jermaine Haley
Key Newcomers: AJ Harris, Zach Lofton, Shunn Buchanan, Wayne Stewart, Kortrijk Miles


Postseason Projection: NIT

Outlook: Power 6 schools are having one hell of a time trying to pry Gregg Marshall away from Wichita State, despite lucrative offers. When New Mexico State lost its head coach to the Mountain West for the second time in as many offseasons (Weir went to archrival New Mexico, of all places), the Aggies’ administration went for the next best thing – Marshall’s lead assistant, Chris Jans. Jans has been a head coach before – he had a successful year at Bowling Green in 2014-15 before getting fired for lewd behavior at a bar just after the season ended – so he should prove capable of taking over an extremely talented roster in Las Cruces.

(Quick aside: NMSU hosts Colorado State on November 22nd, meaning Jans and Larry Eustachy can go out partying together – look out, NMSU coeds, these guys like to get rowdy).

Jans will likely bring the Marshall style of play with him, which emphasizes an excellent, physical man-to-man that aims to take away the offense’s strengths, whatever those may be. They get into you on the perimeter, and the big men will battle tooth-and-nail for position in the post and for rebounds. Wings with switching ability are difference-makers in this scheme (think Zach Brown or Markis McDuffie at Wichita), so Jans should love Jemerrio Jones, perhaps the most versatile defender in the entire league. Smaller lineups with Jones and Eli Chuha at the five will be very malleable in their matchups, and even 6’10 Johnathon Wilkins has decent foot speed for a big man. Those three, along with redshirt freshman Johnny McCants, should make the Aggies one of the best rebounding teams in the league right off the bat.

The defense will look to wall off the paint, forcing teams to hit perimeter shots. As long as they’re conscious of specific shooters like Josh Braun of GCU and Damiyne Durham of CSU-B, that should be a solid strategy in the WAC, as only UMKC finished in the country’s top 200 in 3-point percentage (and the ‘Roos lost nearly all of their shooters to graduation).

Offensively, they’ll run a disciplined motion attack, focusing on shot selection and putting the right players in the right positions. Jans has an embarrassment of riches on offense, as a backcourt featuring Ohio State transfer AJ Harris at point guard with returner Sidy N’dir and Texas Southern grad transfer Zach Lofton on the wings is likely the most potent in the WAC. Harris is a tiny lefty dynamo, blessed with great athleticism and a good court vision, meaning he should be able to get in the lane at will. N’Dir and Lofton both prefer to attack the rim on the catch (neither has shot well from deep to this point in their careers), meaning spacing could be a slight issue, but N’dir has a smooth stroke, so he could see progress now that he’s fully healthy. Newcomers Shunn Buchanan, Kortrijk Miles, Gabe Hadley, and Wayne Stewart provide depth – I’d guess the most minutes will go to whoever proves to be most effective from three-point range, with a slight edge to Stewart due to his switchable size (6’6).  

The team’s workaround for the slight lack of shooting will likely be getting to the free throw line. Lofton excels at drawing contact, and Chuha is adept at using his quickness advantage inside to get opponents in foul trouble as well. Jones, Chuha, and Wilkins are also all forces on the offensive glass, another source of cheap points when shots aren’t falling.  

Bottom Line: Most teams that see five rotation players transfer after a coaching change expect to struggle. New Mexico State is on a different course, though, with the addition of talented transfers and a few cornerstone veterans. Jans chose a great place to give his head coaching career another shot, and if he is able to implement the classic Gregg Marshall toughness right away (the way he did in Bowling Green), then NMSU will be in the thick of the WAC title race once again.

3.      Utah Valley

Key Returners: Conner Toolson, Brandon Randolph, Kenneth Ogbe, Isaac Neilson, Zach Nelson, Hayden Schenck
Key Losses: Jordan Poydras, Ivory Young
Key Newcomers: Jake Toolson, Cory Calvert, Akolda Manyang, Ben Nakwaasah 


Postseason Projection: CBI

Outlook: The WAC has turned into quite a breeding ground for coaches. You have some looking to thrive on a second or third chance (Chris Jans, Rod Barnes), the traditional “assistants getting their first shot” (Lew Hill, Kareem Richardson, Tracy Dildy), and then you have two former professional hoopers in Dan Majerle and Mark Pope trying to make a name for themselves in coaching. Unsurprisingly, Pope runs a pro-style offense at Utah Valley, emphasizing spacing and ball movement to create driving gaps and open shots.

Pope also wants a quick tempo (ranking 9th and 13th nationally in his two seasons), pushing his players to get in transition at all times, and athletic point guard Brandon Randolph is more than happy to oblige (although this often leaves him prone to turnovers). He has weapons on the wing this year, too, with Kenneth Ogbe and Conner Toolson returning, plus the addition of BYU transfers Jake Toolson (Conner’s cousin) and Cory Calvert. Ben Nakwaasah was a prolific scorer in JUCO last year, and if he fits in well with the offense, he'll play early on as well. 

Yet another BYU transfer, big man Isaac Neilson, anchors the paint and is a vital player in the team’s halfcourt scheme (side note: pretty beneficial Utah school relationship – plus, UVU won at the Marriott Center last year. Dave Rose must have been furious). Basically every set starts with the ball in the hands of Randolph or Hayden Schenck with the team aligned in a spread out “X” formation, with Neilson or another screener in the middle:

From there, they will run a wide variety of screens, cuts, and handoffs, always leading to Neilson setting a ball screen for whoever ends up with the rock (it could be anyone – Pope likes to spread it around). Although the team’s excellent spacing often gives the roll man an open lane to the hoop, the PnR isn’t always to score; instead, it's designed to bend the defense and force them to scramble and close out against potential shooters. This leads to open threes galore (UVU took the 16th-highest share of threes in the country last year), and the Wolverines will need to convert more of those opportunities this year (ranked just 291st in 3FG%).

Surprisngly, though, the Wolverines’ strength lies in their physical man-to-man defense. They extend on the perimeter and run opponents off the three point line, funneling them into the paint where Neilson waited to either swat the attempt or challenge and then grab the miss. Last year, the D really suffered when Neilson got a breather, but that should change this year with the addition of Akolda Manyang from Oklahoma. I used to affectionately refer to him as MANYANG!, but I’m suspending that usage until he proves he can stay healthy. He had a completely outrageous 16.6% block rate in his limited minutes in Norman – for context, last year’s national leader was at 14.93%. He’s a monster who changes the geometry of the court for the offense when he’s in the paint, taking away giant sections of the court and forcing teams to rely on inefficient two-point jumpers.

Bottom Line: Last year’s defense finished 75th in the country per KenPom, and with the addition of Manyang and more wing athletes, that could legitimately be a top 50 outfit this year. The offense needs to catch up, though – the principles are right, but Randolph & company need to take far better care of the ball, and the shooters need to find the bottom of the net more frequently. Both are attainable goals given the talent here, though, and UVU has a real chance to win the league this year, despite the ever-increasing level of competition.

4.      Cal St. Bakersfield

Key Returners: Brent Wrapp, Damiyne Durham, Moataz Aly, Shon Briggs
Key Losses: Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile, Matt Smith
Key Newcomers: Rickey Holden (JUCO), Greg Lee, Justin Davis, Jarkel Joiner


Postseason Projection: CIT

Outlook: After making the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 2015-16, Bakersfield saw the loss of the majority of its frontcourt. This offseason, several key pieces graduate from the backcourt, giving coach Rod Barnes another hurdle in keeping his budding WAC powerhouse on the rise. After two years as an independent, Bakersfield joined the WAC in 2013-14, and the team has improved its conference record every single year – although expecting another improvement after a 12-2 season would probably be overly optimistic.

Barnes has quietly built one of the country’s defensive juggernauts in the middle of California, as the Roadrunners finished 51st in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ranks when they made the tournament in 2016, followed by an incredible leap to 20th last year. A harassing perimeter group that forces turnovers and frantic shots fuels those impressive rankings; last season, the effectiveness was amplified by the presence of a nationally elite shot-blocker, Moataz Aly (who returns this year). Aly would have led the entire country in block rate had he played more minutes – he barely saw the court for the first 18 games, and once he did, he he fouled like the Ninja Turtles eat pizza (constantly and aggressively) – and Barnes has high hopes for him this season.

As mentioned, that panic-inducing perimeter pressure will take a hit this year with the loss of starters Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile, Matt Smith, and reserve Justin Pride.  Steady point guard Brent Wrapp will set the tone, and although likely breakout star Damiyne Durham is more offensively-focused, his length and quick hands make him a good fit in Barnes’s defense as well. The Roadrunners’ press on nearly 1/5 of all defensive possessions, a very high rate, and thus will need to develop some backcourt depth behind those guys. The most likely candidates are sophomore Taze Moore, JUCO transfer Rickey Holden, true freshman gunner Jarkel Joiner, and redshirt freshman Justin Davis. Moore has the highest defensive upside due to his length (but is still recovering from a broken leg), and if Joiner grasps the defensive concepts, he’ll play immediately thanks to his prolific scoring ability.

Shon Briggs got better and better as the season wore on last year, and he’ll alternate between the four and the five, depending if Aly or Fallou Ndoye is on the court to play center. Mobile forwards are crucial in the Roadrunners’ system, so Barnes would like to see one of Greg Lee or James Suber stake a claim to a larger role this season.

On the other end, outside of Durham’s shameless perimeter gunning, the offense really relies on scoring at the rim, off both penetration and the offensive glass. Suber was a monster on the offensive glass last season, and he should theoretically help replace Smith’s impact there. The new guards will need to prove they can consistently get to the basket off the dribble like Basile and Airington, though – expect Joiner to make a major impact here.

Bottom Line: Bakersfield’s high-intensity defense constitutes a gigantic part of its identity, and the loss of several integral pieces to that defense leaves a few questions entering this season. Barnes has the athletes and coaching ability to prevent any sort of collapse, but with the rising talent level around them in the WAC, the Roadrunners will need to figure out the changing personnel quickly to keep themselves at the top of the league. 

5.      Seattle

Key Returners: Morgan Means, Aaron Menzies, Matej Kavas, Zachary Moore
Key Losses: Brendan Westendorf, William Powell, Emmanuel Chibuogwu
Key Newcomers: Jordan Hill, Richaud Gittens, Josh Hearlihy, Aaron Nettles


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: After a fifth straight underwhelming conference finish in Seattle, the administration pulled off a major coup in the offseason, hiring away Jim Hayford from instate rival Eastern Washington. The two schools have played a home-and-home series the last two years (EWU went 3-1, winning both matchups in double overtime last year), so Seattle fans should be quite familiar with Hayford and his style.

Last year was slightly unconventional for Hayford’s Eagles – we’ll get to that – but Hayford’s EWU teams played an extremely distinct offensive style, getting out in transition and bombing away from three-point range. They often played through a facilitator at the high post with silky touch (Venky Jois, Bogdan Bliznyuk), making rising sophomore Matej Kavas a potentially crucial piece. He didn’t show the requisite passing ability last year, but he’s a skilled shooter, and he rarely had the ball in his hands, so perhaps that skill will emerge this year.

Relying on Kavas to be the primary facilitator would be a risky maneuver, so Hayford will also use traditional point guards Morgan Means and Wisconsin grad transfer Jordan Hill. Means struggled mightily with his efficiency (as freshman point guards are wont to do), and Hill barely shot the ball in the limited minutes he received in Madison, but the two can be a nice combo in Hayford’s open, offense-friendly system. Plus, Weber State grad transfer Richaud Gittens is a skilled wing who will appear on a few Seattle highlight clips with his high-flying tendencies, and he can create a little bit as well.

Now, about last year’s unconventional Eagles. Hayford is used to relying on stellar perimeter play, but the presence of NBA prospect Jake Wiley in the paint made him adjust his gameplan. Wiley dominated against the overmatched Big Sky competition, and Hayford has a big man in Aaron Menzies who could potentially due the same in the WAC. He’s a completely different style of player, but his combination of monstrous size (7’3, 295 pounds) and touch could make him a nightmare if he’s healthy (only played in 11 games last year). Of course, his lumbering size makes him a tough fit in the breakneck tempo that Hayford prefers, but perhaps he’ll slow it down while Menzies is on the court. When he’s off the court, Vermont grad transfer Josh Hearlihy is a more mobile option that should complement Kavas as well.

You’ll notice I talked about about Hayford’s offensive system, but not much about the other end. Well, that’s because they don’t play any defense – his teams haven’t finished better than 282nd in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings in the past 5 years. They hang back in a conservative man-to-man (very rarely some zone mixed in), not really challenging opponents, and typically just let them operate.

Random aside – a fun note I learned while researching Seattle – guard Eric Alperin transferred in from USC after taking two years off of basketball to pursue modeling, among other things. Ladies, your dreamboat is waiting on the Redhawks sideline…

Bottom Line: Okay, back to basketball. Hayford will likely need a little time to bring in enough shooters to run his spread out offense properly, but with the addition of the three grad transfers, he has enough firepower to keep the Redhawks competitive. He also has four formidable transfers sitting out this year, so the best is yet to come in the Emerald City.

6.      UT Rio Grande Valley

Key Returners: Nick Dixon, Lew Stallworth, Mike Hoffman, Xavier McDaniel, Lesley Varner
Key Losses: Antonio Green
Key Newcomers: Terry Winn, Greg Bowie, Jordan Jackson, Marlon Williams


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: If I were to say that the basketball team known as the UT-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros has never made an NCAA Tournament, that wouldn’t be so bad – they have only been known as that (both school and mascot) since 2015. However, if I said the Division I basketball program based in Edinburg, TX, has never made an NCAA Tournament, that’s quite a bit worse. The artists formerly known as the UT-Pan American Broncs transitioned to Division I in 1968, and they’ve only managed one NIT appearance (zero NCAAs) in the following 39 seasons.

Now in their 5th season in the WAC, the Vaqueros have turned to Lew Hill, a long time Lon Kruger disciple, to spark some hope in the long-lost program. Hill responded by giving the UT-RGV fans some fun, albeit not yet successful, basketball to watch. He cranked the pace up to maximum, giving his players enormous freedom to play in transition, which resulted in the Vaqueros finishing 8th in the country in adjusted tempo, per KenPom. They took the 18th-highest share of their shots in transition (per hoop-math), and players like Nick Dixon and Antonio Green truly thrived in the up-and-down approach.  Unfortunately, Green transferred to Middle Tennessee, leaving Dixon as the lone double-digit scorer returning.

He’s a great place to start, though – despite having an enormous offensive burden (used the 36th-highest share of possessions in the country), Dixon was the team’s most efficient player, primarily due to his incredible ability to get to the rim and draw contact. He’ll need improvement from his running mates, though, most notably junior point guard Lew Stallworth and rising sophomore wings Xavier McDaniel and Lesley Varner (both of whom will see a lot of time as nominal “power forward,” despite how thin they are).  All three showed potential last year, but they simply weren’t good enough to help accumulate wins.

Part of Hill’s advantage of being in Year 2 is that he was able to bring in an elite group of newcomers who fit his frenetic style. In-state point guards Javon Levi and Greg Bowie should find the floor immediately; while Hill won’t want to completely sacrifice the glass (more on that in a second), lineups with 3 of Dixon/Stallworth/Levi/Bowie could be forces in transition with a plethora of ball-handling and scoring. Junior college guard Jordan Jackson is another potential threat after starting his career at Texas Tech and showing nicely for JUCO powerhouse Midland College last year.

Up front, Mike Hoffman showed an affinity for the uptempo style in Hill’s first year, and his burgeoning shooting touch adds an element that helps the stale halfcourt attack. The wildcard for RGV is UTEP transfer Terry Winn, eligible in December. Winn apparently had some issues with Tim Floyd (can you believe it?!), which led to his move down the Texas border. He was a rising star in the C-USA after his freshman year, and he could be a monster in the WAC if Hill gets his head screwed on straight. He’s a perfect smallball five for Hill’s style due to his mobility and combo of rebounding/shot-blocking; keep an eye on RGV’s lineup choices once he becomes eligible.

Dixon and Varner spearhead the pressure-based defensive attack, one that mixes up looks (halfcourt vs. fullcourt pressure, man-to-man, multiple zone schemes) to keep the offense guessing. Expect plenty of zone (and zone traps) again this year, as the team will likely face a size deficiency on most nights. If any of Levi, Bowie, or Jackson distinguish themselves as a ballhawk defensively, he’ll have the inside track on the most playing time.

Bottom Line: System changes as drastic as the one Hill undertook last year rarely find success in the very first season; expect gradual progress as he gets more and more players that fit into his methods. Progress would be getting a few wins over WAC opponents not named Chicago St. (they went 0-12 in those games last year), and retaining all of the promising talent (no more transfers!) would help to start building a possible winner on the Mexican border.

7.      UMKC

Key Returners: Isaiah Ross, Broderick Robinson, Xavier Bishop
Key Losses: LaVell Boyd, Broderick Newbill, Darnell Tillman, Kyle Steward, Dashawn King
Key Newcomers: Brandon McKissic, Marvin Nesbitt, Marco Smith, Mo Ahmed, Robert Knar


Postseason Projection:

Outlook: Last year’s Kangaroo Campaign was derailed very early in the season after the dismissal of star guard Martez Harrison, a potential WAC Player of the Year candidate, for the vague “not meeting the standards of our program” reasoning (darker reports alleged domestic abuse against his girlfriend). I tried to get my colleague Matt dismissed from 3MW for “not meeting the standards of our program” (waking me up in the morning by being too loud upstairs in our apartment), but unfortunately, the Review Committee – just Ky – overruled me. Bummer.

We’ll try to bounce back at least as well as UMKC did, as they still fought to an 8-6 record in the league despite the personnel loss. A highly productive senior class departs, but a promising group of sophomores (plus a solid WAC recruiting class) gives the program hope for the future after cutting their teeth in Coach Kareem Richardson’s deep rotation last year, .

Following Harrison’s release, then-freshman guards Isaiah Ross and Xavier Bishop became integral parts of the roster, with Ross showing a penchant for bombing away from deep and Bishop flashing potential as a distributor despite his 5’8 frame. Like many teams in the WAC, Richardson prefers to play in transition on both ends of the court, particularly defensively. Roos’ opponents had the 2nd-shortest average possessions in the country, per KenPom, and opponents took the highest percentage of shots in transition, per hoop-math – both items are a testament to the frenetic environment that Richardson craves (also bad transition defense). Even in this system, though, Bishop was a massive liability due to his size, and UMKC routinely got their ass kicked when he was on the court:

He’ll need to add strength to compete, as his diminutive stature makes it easy for opposing guards to go around or through him at any point. Ross is more of a two-way player, but regardless, those two will need help from senior Broderick Robinson and incoming freshmen Brandon McKissic, Marvin Nesbitt, and Marco Smith. Robinson is the team’s best perimeter defender and a key piece in Richardson’s pressure schemes, and all three freshmen should contribute right away. McKissic is a stoutly-built ball-handler who can get to the basket and get in your face on D (I’m quite high on him), and Nesbitt, a Chicago native, should be able to score from day one.

The interior defense at the back end of the pressure is a little up in the air. Two Sudanese centers, Aleer Leek and Mo Ahmed, provide plenty of size (but skill is a question), while sophomore Jordan Giles will need to be a more versatile, ‘tweener forward to allow the team to play its preferred style. The most likely route, though is playing freshman Tony Jackson as a smallball four; he’s a burly 6’6 combo wing whose strength should fit in well with the team’s scheme.

Bottom Line: UMKC is going to be extremely young, and the offense has a ton of production to replace. Richardson can point to the freshman and sophomore classes when asked about the program’s positives, but this could be a long year in KC. With major questions on the interior and in perimeter shooting (aside from Ross), the ‘Roos may have a hard time keeping up with the rising programs around them.

8.      Chicago St.

Key Returners: Fred Sims, Glen Burns, Deionte Simmons, Patrick Szpir, Delundre Dixon
Key Losses: Trayvon Palmer, Clemmye Owens V, Anthony Eaves
Key Newcomers: Travon Bell, Jelani Pruitt, Anthony Harris, Simeon Henton


Postseason Projection: None

Outlook: If Chicago State took every incoming freshman onto its basketball team last year, the roster wouldn’t even have been at triple digits. The school’s future in general seems almost as dubious as the athletic program’s affiliation with the WAC – sure, Chicago St. is “western” relative to, say, the Atlantic Ocean, but the school has no business being in the same league as Cal St. Bakersfield and Seattle. The main draw for pitching the program – you get to play in Chicago, a sweet city! – is mitigated by the crazy travel, and Tracy Dildy has struggled mightily to build any program momentum, despite conquering such foes as “East West”:

He did catch a massive break this offseason when the program’s lone stud, Fred Sims, opted not to transfer/go pro/become a monk and return to the Cougars, despite considering two of those three options (you can guess which two). Sims is pretty much the only hope in the halfcourt for an anemic offense, and it showed last year – he took the 5th-highest share of his team’s shots in the entire country last year. He struggles to get all the way to the rim, though (partially because the shooting around him is ghastly), which leads to a plethora of inefficient two-point jumpers.

Dildy is trying – the team runs some flex, a lot of side pick-and-roll, and other decent action – but there’s just not enough offensive creativity to generate consistently good shots; it too often devolves into Sims isolation. If the offense is to improve, Dildy will need major contributions from the newcomers, namely redshirt freshman Travon Bell, Division II transfer Jelani Pruitt, JUCO transfer Anthony Harris, and true freshmen Simeon Henton. Bell will add to the backcourt production, hopefully complementing Sims and adding another shooter to the perimeter attack. Pruitt and sophomore Patrick Szpir give the the Cougars an undersized but scrappy frontcourt – Dildy speaks extremely highly of Pruitt and named Szpir a captain despite his youth.

Relatively speaking, Chicago State’s defense was its strength (still only 7th in the 8-team WAC, though). Dildy wants to throw waves of players at opponents in a zone press look, attempting to confuse ball-handlers and hurry them into poor decisions. As slow as the CSU offense was (280th in average possession length – patient if you’re being nice, incompetent if you’re feeling spiteful), the Cougars wanted the opposition to be frenetic – they allowed the 7th-shortest possessions in the country. Some of that was not by design, instead due to the team’s catastrophically poor transition defense, but the Cougars’ path to a competent defense is likely “force enough turnovers to compensate for all the easy baskets.” This also helps create transition buckets, a necessity for the stagnant offense.

Every returning player started at least one game last year, so Dildy has nominal depth, although very few of them outside of Sims are proven D-I players. Point guard Glen Burns, Szpir, junior guard Delundre Dixon, and senior post Deionte Simmons are the best bets of the group, but all will need to show progress to avoid being displaced by the rookies.   

Bottom Line: Once again the likely unanimous pick to finish last in the league, Chicago State desperately needs some sort of boost to the program – a switch to the OVC or the Summit would be a godsend, but I doubt either league is particularly interested. Dildy deserves a lot of credit for continuing to attempt to build the school up, but there’s just too many factors working against him.