WAC 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Jaylen Fisher, Sr., Grand Canyon***
Coach of the Year:
Chris Jans, New Mexico State
Newcomer of the Year:
Jaylen Fisher, Sr., Grand Canyon***
Freshman of the Year:
Rajeir Jones, Chicago State

*** - All of Fisher’s awards are contingent on him playing this year. If he doesn’t, I’d make the following changes:

  • Milan Acquaah becomes the WAC POY

  • Bump Seattle’s Terrell Brown (second to first) and GCU’s Lorenzo Jenkins (third to second) each up an All-Conference team

  • Add Cal Baptist’s De’Jon Davis to the Third Team

  • De’Monte Buckingham becomes the pick for Newcomer of the Year

  • GCU freshman Jovan Blacksher, now the primary PG for the Lopes without Fisher, becomes FOTY and joins the All-Newcomer team in Fisher’s place

Just give him the damn waiver, NCAA.


Tier 1

1. New Mexico State

Key Returners: AJ Harris, Terrell Brown, Trevelin Queen, Ivan Aurrecoechea, Johnny McCants, CJ Bobbitt, Clayton Henry, Shunn Buchanan
Key Losses:
Eli Chuha, JoJo Zamora, Mohamed Thiam (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Shawn Williams (ECU), Wilfried Likayi (JUCO), Dajour Joseph (JUCO), Jihuan Westbrook, Carl Lewis, Rashaun Agee

Lineup:

Do you need this many players?! Relax, Chris Jans!

Outlook: Oh, what could have been.

New Mexico State fans (and moneyline bettors) probably replay the final sequence of the Aggies’ first round matchup with Auburn over and over, wondering how just how far they could have gone had one more bounce gone their way. NMSU trailed by seven points with under a minute remaining, but a series of Tiger turnovers and missed free throws, plus some gargantuan shots by the Aggies, led to Terrell Brown getting fouled on a three with one second left on the clock while down 78-76. But the 77% FT shooter missed two of three, seemingly ending the Aggies’ chances. But wait! The rebound was tipped out of bounds, giving them a final chance to run a baseline out of bounds play, and Trevelin Queen ended up with a wide-open corner three to win. Out of respect for NMSU fans, I won’t post that clip here, but suffice it to say, it did not go in. Auburn then rampaged to the Final Four, but with one more shot going in, could the Aggies have made that run instead?

We may have an answer to that question this year, as Chris Jans returns a deep and talented roster hungry to return to the Big Dance. He also scheduled smartly, with only two (maybe three) Division I walkovers in the non-conference. For a mid-major looking for any edge to try and earn a tournament bid, playing two non-D1 games actually makes a ton of sense; those games don’t get factored into SOS numbers like a true “cupcake” game would. Plus, the home-and-homes with New Mexico and UTEP should actually be resume boosters, rather than the anchors they were this past year.

Of course, New Mexico State has to actually win most/all of these games to have any hope at an at-large. They’re good enough to do that, though, as Jans has assembled an absurdly deep roster with weapons on both ends of the court. Defensively, he brought the physical and aggressive man-to-man that he learned under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State, and it succeeded in thoroughly disrupting any offensive flow; Aggie opponents ranked dead last in the country in assist rate. Offensively, Jans will spread the court out with multiple perimeter weapons and attack driving lanes and via post ups, followed by an all-out onslaught on the boards.

The Aggies were the best two-way rebounding team in the country last year, ranking 7th and 2nd, respectively, in offensive and defensive rebounding rate. The graduated Eli Chuha was a big part of that, but that’s what we thought about Jemerrio Jones two years ago; Ivan Aurrecoechea and Johnny McCants should have no problem filling in for him. Plus, Queen and Clayton Henry are outstanding rebounders from the wing, and Wilfried Likayi fits perfectly after averaging 8rpg for top-10 JUCO Casper College. Freshmen Rashaun Agee and Carl Lewis carry strong reputations with them – Agee as a run-and-jump big, Lewis as a massive body that can score in the post – but one may need to redshirt, even with the deep bench that Jans utilizes.

First shot offense will keyed by AJ Harris and Shunn Buchanan, two penetrating point guards who thrive on involving their teammates. Harris is a more willing scorer, while Buchanan has more size, and lineup data shows how Jans can flex between the scoring-heavy or defense-focused options:

Jans will also play through the post at times; NMSU possessions featured a post up on 15% of possessions, 36th-highest in the country per Synergy. Aurrecoechea lost minutes as the season wore on (largely because Chuha was just too good), but he scored effectively on the block, and the Spaniard also flashed some passing vision when needed.  

The Aggies also received a significant boost with the NCAA’s decision to grant ECU transfer Shawn Williams a waiver to play immediately. He has a pure shooting stroke, and he should thrive being more of a complementary perimeter option, rather than “the team’s only competent shooter,” as he was for the Pirates. He looks like the perfect off-the-bench microwave.

Perhaps most importantly, Queen emerged into a per-minute superstar around the start of February, showing tremendous vision at 6’6 and impressive shot-making ability. He became a key cog in the rotation starting on January 17th, and from that point forward, his presence on the court turned the Aggies into a supernova:

Queen also was a destroyer on the defensive end, adding another lanky, disruptive wing to a rotation already flush with strong individual contributors. McCants is a solid shot-blocker, and Henry, Jabari Rice, CJ Bobbitt, and newcomers Dajour Joseph and Jihuan Westbrook all can defend multiple positions in a pinch. Jans fully weaponizes his roster’s depth and versatility, playing up to 13 guys on any given night, allowing each player to defend with zeal while on the floor. The website dribblehandoff.com has developed a metric called ShotQ to measure each team’s shot quality, both offensively and defensively, and the Aggies’ defense ranked 26th thanks to preventing opponents from getting to the rim and forcing them into more difficult midrange jumpers.

Bottom Line: From the traditional one-bid leagues, the Aggies are your best bet to rise into Wofford/Buffalo territory next year. With a ridiculously deep roster and a brilliant head coach, New Mexico State has the juice to make an at-large push and earn some power conference scalps in the non-conference (Mississippi State, Arizona). With so many contributors, there’s always the slight concern of keeping everyone happy, but last year’s team showed no issues with that, and Jans is smart and personable enough to fix any rifts before they grow into problems. NMSU has made ten NCAA tournaments since 1999; this should be the year they finally break through and win a game (or two).


Tier 2

2. Grand Canyon

Key Returners: Carlos Johnson, Alessandro Lever, Oscar Frayer
Key Losses:
Damari Milstead (transfer), Trey Drechsel, Gerard Martin, Michael Finke, Tim Finke (transfer), Matt Jackson
Key Newcomers:
Jaylen Fisher (TCU)***, Lorenzo Jenkins (Colorado St.), Jovan Blacksher, Mikey Dixon (St. John’s), Isiah Brown (Northwestern), JJ Rhymes (JUCO), Louis Bangai (UNLV), Bryce Okpoh

Lineup:

Outlook: Grand Canyon has won 91 games in the last four years. Finally eligible for the WAC Tournament in 2017-18, the Antelopes have made the championship game in back-to-back years. They have one of the most rabid fanbases and home court atmospheres in all of mid-major basketball. And yet, GCU cannot quite feel satisfied with where it stands. WAC big brother New Mexico State has repeatedly beaten back the Lopes’ advances, stonewalling them in both tournament finals in which they’ve met, and the Aggies’ unequivocally hold the bragging rights within a fiercely contentious “rivalry” – though it’s probably not quite that yet, given GCU’s lack of head-to-head success and titles.  

All that said, “Thunder Dan” Majerle has done a terrific job at the helm of the new Division I program, escalating expectations quickly, and he continues to bring in high-level talent to mount challenges against NMSU. This year is no different, except that the best of the newcomer bunch – TCU grad transfer Jaylen Fisher – is still waiting on word of his waiver to play immediately.

Limited by injuries in each of the last two years (missed last 16 games in 17-18, missed 28 of 37 games last year), Fisher has only been able to flash his considerable abilities, but he is fully healthy now. My gut tells me Fisher will play this year, and if he does, he may immediately be the best player in the league. He’s a skilled scorer, passer, and shooter, capable of beating opponents off the dribble and getting to the rim or pulling up from deep and catching fire; he hit 30 triples in the nine games he played (and he only logged seven minutes in one of them), a pace that would have placed him sixth in the entire country for made threes.

Majerle employs a ton of pick-and-roll, and he’ll unleash Fisher in a spread-out attack that also features former Washington transfer Carlos Johnson, a superb secondary creator and high-level scorer. Johnson is simply too strong for most guards, and his 30.3% usage ranked second in WAC play. If Fisher is not eligible, Johnson can absorb many of those possessions, and prized freshman Jovan Blacksher is waiting in the wings to take over the starting PG role. The roster is not short on perimeter scoring options, either, with high-major transfers Mikey Dixon (eligible in January) and Isiah Brown joining the squad this year, and JJ Rhymes racked up 19.6ppg for Hutchinson, one of the elite hoops programs on the JUCO circuit.

The offense will also run a lot of off-ball screening and cutting, often working out of the Horns alignment and using a variety of actions and counter-actions to put players in advantageous situations. Here’s a clever quick hitter for Oscar Frayer in which it looks like he’ll clear out from the right side on an Iverson cut, but he stops short and flares to the three-point line:

Having shooting threats in the frontcourt makes this type of motion all the more deadly (infinitely harder to help), and Alessandro Lever and Colorado State grad transfer Lorenzo Jenkins can provide that. Jenkins has only played 42 games over the past two years, but he’s connected on 39/96 threes in that span (40.6%), while Lever is a 34.6% career shooter despite standing 6’10.

On the other end, Majerle’s man-to-man has the athletes to be excellent, and his disciplined principles (run opponents off the line, pressure the ball without fouling) keep the floor high, as well. Frayer and Jenkins are a particularly lethal pairing as multi-positional 6’7 defenders, and Fisher, Brown, and Dixon have all displayed quick hands in the past. The interior could have some issues, though, as Lever is essentially glued to the floor and the incoming guards don’t rebound with the same intensity as the departed (Trey Drechsel and Tim Finke in particular). UNLV transfer Louis Bangai, who yes yet to play a minute in college, could be a rim protector, but he’s too unknown to fully rely upon at this point. Majerle may find the most success by emulating his 2018 unit, which was his most aggressive defense.

Bottom Line: With Majerle’s defensive teachings and the talent level on the roster, the floor is pretty high for the Lopes. The ceiling really opens up if Fisher becomes eligible, though, as his skillset will set fire to the WAC. Without him, I’ll be curious to see how quickly Blacksher is handed the keys; Majerle may want to let Brown or Dixon be a caretaker PG and play through Johnson. To put it simply – without Fisher, this is a similar GCU team to the last four years (around 125ish, top 3 in the WAC); with him, it’s probably still a hair behind NMSU, but only barely.

3. Seattle

Key Returners: Terrell Brown, Myles Carter, Morgan Means, Delante Jones, Mattia Da Campo, Riley Grigsby
Key Losses:
Matej Kavas (grad transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Trevon Allfrey, Jordan Dallas (Weber St.), Dovy Pinskus

Lineup:

Outlook: The injury bug became more of an epidemic in Seattle last year, crippling a potential WAC contender right as conference play kicked off. Star shooter Matej Kavas was never the same after breaking his shin, and Delante Jones missed a four-game stretch in which the Redhawks went just 1-4. Albeit against a soft schedule (343rd nationally), optimism had been high after Seattle got off to a 12-3 start in the non-conference, but a 1-9 start in the WAC doomed Jim Hayford’s squad.

Without Kavas, second-year coach Hayford was forced to alter his style of play, which at Eastern Washington focused on spreading the floor with shooters and attacking into the space that created. Instead, Hayford found himself with a roster whose best players were a driving point guard who excelled in the midrange (Terrell Brown) and a beast of a big man who controlled the paint (Myles Carter). Like a good coach should, Hayford adjusted, diverting the attack inside the arc:

Additionally, per hoop-math, Seattle’s percentage of shots at the rim went from 26.1% in 2017-18 (344th nationally) to 37.4% last year (136th). Hayford gave Brown and Morgan Means a ton of freedom to attack off the dribble via isolation and handoffs, using their quickness to blow by defenders who were on the move. Means and Jones can both shoot (made nearly two threes per game each), but that’s more of a feature of their games than the primary skill, and Hayford smartly didn’t try to turn them into gunners. Jones was slated for offseason surgery on the knee injury that caused him to miss time, and if he’s fully healthy, he should be an even bigger threat after an inefficient career thus far.  

One bright spot from Jones’s injury was that it opened the door for Mattia Da Campo to break into the rotation, and he never looked back, dominating on the offensive glass as a low-usage forward. Lithuanian freshman Dovy Pinskus may be able to boost the perimeter shooting from the four spot (sort of a homeless man’s Kavas), but he’ll have to beat out Da Campo and Riley Grigsby for minutes.

Carter’s presence on the court essentially became a barometer for how Seattle was going to play. With him, the Redhawks became a fortress defensively; they allowed 0.92 points per possession with him patrolling the paint, compared to 1.05ppp when he sat. But he also hamstrung the offense by clogging driving lanes, and Hayford mixed in some lineups with undersized forward Grigsby or stretch big Anand Hundal at center to open up the offense. This year’s squad will face a similar offense vs. defense tug of war with lineup choices, and figuring how to optimize scoring with Carter on the court will be the key to unlocking Seattle’s ceiling. Pick-and-roll has never been a big part of Hayford’s approach, but using Carter as a screener for Brown would allow him to draw defensive attention as a lob threat while opening up more chances for Means and Jones to attack closeouts – doubtful that he’ll use too much of that, though.

Bottom Line: Seattle can be a dominant defensive team in the WAC, but without more shooting, the offensive upside appears to be capped. The newcomers are more reinforcements in the frontcourt – Weber State center Jordan Dallas barely saw the court at his prior stop, and top freshman Trevon Allfrey is a big boy who prefers to attack in the post (though he is capable of hitting threes). Brown is a bona fide star, though, and his presence as a multi-faceted star will keep the Redhawks near the top of the league. I don’t think they can quite beat out the deep and talented twosome ahead of them (especially if Jaylen Fisher is eligible for GCU), but Seattle is as good a bet as any for third.

 

4. Cal St. Bakersfield

Key Returners: Justin Edler-Davis, Taze Moore, Greg Lee
Key Losses:
Jarkel Joiner (transfer), Rickey Holden, Damiyne Durham, James Suber
Key Newcomers:
De’Monte Buckingham (Richmond), Ronne Readus (JUCO), Cameron Allen (Loyola Marymount), Czar Perry (JUCO), Ray Somerville, Shawn Stith (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: The Roadrunners begin their final sprint through the WAC this year - they’ll join fellow “Cal State” brethren Fullerton and Northridge in the Big West next season. Rod Barnes has found plenty of success in the league, and 2018-19 seemed like another big year was building…

On the morning of February 7th, Cal State Bakersfield sat at 15-7, 6-2 in the WAC, primed to make a run at the top tier of the conference. Despite coming off a home loss to Grand Canyon, the Roadrunners were in a strong position, and they had conference-leading New Mexico State coming to town. Bakersfield built a 62-53 with 1:09 to play (99.2% chance to win, per KenPom), but three turnovers in the final 40 seconds sent the game to overtime. The Roadrunners remained resilient, though, and a Jarkel Joiner jumper with 7.7 seconds remaining put them up two. But NMSU buried a three at the buzzer to win 71-70, and the season crumbled. Including the GCU and NMSU losses, Bakersfield lost 8 of its final 9 regular season games and bowed out quickly from the WAC Tournament, as well. To top it all off, leading scorer Joiner up-transferred to Mississippi in the offseason, and Rod Barnes will now have to find reset the program, both mentally and on the court, in 2019-20.

The key to that fresh start is Richmond transfer De’Monte Buckingham, a hyper-versatile player who is at least “decent” at nearly every single aspect of the game. He is not without his flaws – he was actually dismissed from the Spider basketball team – but on the court, the former A-10 Rookie of the Year will be a wrecking ball in the WAC:

Well-built at 6’4, 220 pounds, he can be an offensive fulcrum thanks to his vision and basketball IQ, he can guard and rebound with power forwards (6th in the A-10 in defensive rebound rate as a sophomore), or he can knock down perimeter jumpers and help space the floor (34.2% for his career, but 39.4% in A-10 play). To me, he is immediately one of the five or so best players in the conference, and if he steps in immediately as the alpha in Barnes’s isolation and PnR-heavy system, the rest of the roster should fit well around him.

He won’t have to shoulder the entire creation load, though, with the additions of Cam Allen from Loyola Marymount (expected to be eligible at semester break) and JUCO guard Czar Perry, both capable distributors. Perry is also a competent three-point shooter, a key attribute for a roster largely devoid of them. Justin Edler-Davis is the only returner who even bothered to attempt a reasonable volume of threes, but at only 28%, he won’t be scaring defenses. The Roadrunners will need to score via the offensive glass, meaning Greg Lee, Darrin Person, and JUCO big man Ronne Readus will alternate time at center to fill that role.  

What gives this roster upside, though, is its defensive pieces. Edler-Davis and Taze Moore are more known for their defensive prowess; Moore, in particular, is a tornado of disruption, ranking 8th in the country in steal rate and 179th in block rate. Fellow junior Justin McCall is another versatile forward who can guard multiple positions, and Readus may be the team’s best shot-blocker. Plus, Buckingham is a stellar defensive player, too; any lineup that features Buckingham/Edler-Davis/Moore/McCall + a center will be an absolute nightmare to score against.

Barnes will wield that defensive ability like a Tommy gun, spraying repeated bullets of pressure at opposing ball-handlers and getting easy buckets off turnovers (another way to compensate for the lack of shooting). He mixes up zone and man-to-man looks, extends to full court at times, and generally keeps his foes guessing as to what kind of alignment they’ll be facing next. The one downfall is that his teams always foul like crazy, conceding an avalanche of easy points at the stripe.

Bottom Line: Rod Barnes is a superb mid-major coach with the way he gathers and unleashes athleticism, and his versatile defensive arsenal this year may be on par with his outstanding 2016 and 2017 teams. The problem is that this might be one of the 10 or 15 worst perimeter shooting teams in the country, and if opponents pack the paint, take care of the ball, and hit free throws, they can outrace the Roadrunners. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing opponents step onto the blue floor of “Buckingham Palace,” as their home gym will now be known, and seeing how Barnes unleashes his new multi-talented weapon.

5. Cal Baptist

Key Returners: Milan Acquaah, De’Jon Davis, Bul Kuol (injury), Zach Pirog, Ty Rowell
Key Losses:
Jordan Heading, Mikey Henn (transfer), Jeremy Smith (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Brandon Boyd (Idaho St.), Ferron Flavors Jr. (Fairfield), Kajuan Hale (JUCO), Tre Armstrong, Reed Nottage, Tristan Forsyth (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: It was the program’s first season of Division I play, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way Cal Baptist competed – and won. The Lancers earned their first victory over a D1 opponent on November 13th via a halfcourt shot from star transfer Milan Acquaah and nearly won at Tulsa three nights later, making it clear that this transitioning school was not going to be a pushover. Cal Baptist ultimately went 7-9 in the WAC and played in the CBI to end the year, a fantastic first year for Rick Croy. Now fully acclimated to the D1 grind and returning several key pieces, the Lancers are poised for an even stronger year two.

Cal Baptist’s offense led them to most of their wins last year, and the clear alpha of that offense was Acquaah, who led the entire WAC in usage and ranked 10th in assist rate. Croy gives his guards a ton of freedom to attack via isolation and pick-and-roll, spreading the floor with multiple ball-handlers and shooters to open up space. Acquaah will be able to play off the ball more frequently with the addition of Idaho State grad transfer Brandon Boyd, who will similarly benefit from not having to be his offense’s only perimeter creator. Boyd was very good in the PnR for the Bengals, making him a nice marriage of player and scheme.  

Fairfield transfer Ferron Flavors is also eligible this year, and he’ll be a willing spot up shooter around the other action; he launched 283 triples in 33 games as a sophomore for the Stags. The backcourt also has junior Ty Rowell, another floor spacer, and JUCO point guard Kajuan Hale, a prolific passer who must adapt to a much higher level of competition. Australian freshmen Reed Nottage and Tre Armstrong solidify an already-strong pipeline to The Land Down Under (this year’s roster will have six Aussies), and both bring reputations as pure perimeter shooters. One of those other Aussies, Bul Kuol, got hurt after starting six of the team’s first nine contests, and his return as a stretch four option should help replace the departed Mikey Henn.

Croy places a massive priority on transition defense, meaning he only sends one player to the offensive glass, but the Lancers’ centers made that one worthwhile. De’jon Davis is the starter, and his 13.1% offensive rebounding rate ranked fifth in the WAC. He’s a versatile athlete that can slide up to the power forward spot at times, clearing room for Zach Pirog and Glenn Morrison, two behemoths who impact the game with their size. Pirog actually grabbed 15.2% of O-boards in league play, topping Davis, and the former Omaha transfer was simply too big and active for opposing bigs.

Morrison and Pirog are emblematic of the Lancers’ biggest issue on defense, though – both big men hacked so much, they’re on an NSA watch list. Both committed more than nine (9!) fouls per 40 minutes, and foes racked up free points at the free throw line. Pirog is a human eraser at the rim when he avoids contact; per Hoop Lens, opponents shot an icy 41.3% from inside the arc when he was on the floor, but that jumped to 49.8% when he sat. Croy’s scheme funnels would-be shooters to the hoop instead, and Pirog and Morrison often can’t help but foul to prevent easy lay-ups. Thus, the guards must also be better about keeping drivers in front of them.

Aside from the excessive fouling, Croy’s defensive scheme actually bears a lot of resemblance to Bo Ryan’s at Wisconsin: it’s extremely conservative in terms of forcing turnovers (339th nationally), but the guards and wings do extend on the perimeter and get into passing lanes to force teams to create via dribble drive. Like Bo’s Badger teams, opposing assist and three-point rates were both miniscule, so if Cal Baptist can clean up the fouling, the defense would improve in a hurry.  

Bottom Line: The Lancers are still ineligible for the WAC and NCAA Tournaments until 2022-23, but Croy has nevertheless done a tremendous job of assembling talent to fit his approach on both sides of the ball. Regardless, Acquaah is a league POY candidate, and this team will be extremely competitive both in and out of the conference, hoping to pull more upsets like when it handed New Mexico State its only conference loss last year.


Tier 3


6. UT Rio Grande Valley

Key Returners: Javon Levi, Jordan Jackson, Lesley Varner Jr.
Key Losses:
Terry Winn, Greg Bowie (transfer), Tyson Smith, Solomon Hainna
Key Newcomers:
Quinton Johnson (redshirt), Anthony Bratton (JUCO), Rob McClain (JUCO), Chris Freeman (JUCO), Jamal Gaines (redshirt), Connor Raines

Lineup:

Outlook: In its sixth year in the WAC, the artist formerly known as UT-Pan American finally had its first over-.500 season in conference play, managing a 9-7 record in Lew Hill’s third year in charge. Hill, a longtime Lon Kruger assistant, has developed a clear style for his Vaqueros, and with three key pieces back from last year, he should expect to remain solid in a conference that is become increasingly competitive every year.

That identity is predicated on a high-pressure defensive system, one that extends full court at one of the highest rates in the country, aggressively looking to force turnovers and push tempo the other way:

Hill will use man-to-man and zone schemes, all of which are keyed by his on-ball grim reaper, Javon Levi. Levi is a mega-quick pest, constantly getting into passing lanes and poking the ball away from careless guards. Hill gives him every freedom to reach and gamble defensively, knowing the savvy speedster will more than outweigh any errors with steals and deflections. Levi’s steal rate of 5.0% ranked 7th in the entire country, and fellow starting guard Justin Jackson wasn’t far behind at 3.4% (66th). When those two are at the top of a 2-3 or Hill’s morphing matchup zone, no pass is safe. Versatile forward Lesley Varner is the third returning starter, and he uses his length to rack up plenty of steals himself; that triumvirate led UTRGV to the nation’s third-highest steal rate.

The constant aggression does have its drawbacks, though. While it does force offenses to put the ball on the floor and disrupt the flow of its offense, it also often leaves perimeter shooters wide open, and the Vaqueros have fouled at one of the nation’s ten highest rates in each of Hill’s seasons. Their eagerness to push the ball in transition also detracts from their defensive rebounding. UTRGV and Bakersfield have a lot in common defensively; if you avoid turning it over, you’re likely to get a solid look at the hoop or an easy put-back.

The Vaqueros’ larger problem will be figuring out how to score efficiently. Hill’s offense is of the downhill, rim-attacking variety, but it does need some shooting on the floor to open up driving lanes, but the Vaqueros’ only two consistent perimeter threats both left Edinburg this offseason. JUCO guards Rob McClain and Chris Freeman poured in points at their previous stops, but neither is a true knockdown shooter; McClain also will be stepping up HUGELY in competition after arriving from something called United Tribes Tech, where the 6’5 wing led the conference in scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocks (sheesh). Quinton Johnson could add some shooting after redshirting last year, but he appears to fit more into the mold of “aggressive defender,” a similar archetype to Jackson.

When there is room to operate, Levi is a wizard, navigating into tiny spaces and using his outstanding passing skill to generate easy looks for his teammates; big men like Anthony Bratton (a role player at JUCO powerhouse Indian Hills) and redshirt freshman Jamal Gaines are the most likely beneficiaries this year. If Western Kentucky transfer Marek Nelson is able to get a waiver, he would be an immediate starter alongside Varner, but that appears unlikely.

Bottom Line: If you’ve read this entire WAC preview, you saw me rip Bakersfield’s outside shooting, but UTRGV is likely in similarly dire straits (or worse). The defense should remain formidable with Levi, Jackson, and Varner all making foes’ lives miserable, but unless Hill is able to find some semblance of floor-spacing on offense, the Vaqueros may be too stagnant in half court settings. The ceiling is probably fourth (like last year), but I see some regression back down the standings ahead.


7. Kansas City

Key Returners: Brandon McKissic, Rob Whitfield, Jordan Giles, Marvin Nesbitt Jr., Brandon Suggs
Key Losses:
Xavier Bishop (transfer), Danny Dixon (grad transfer), Jamel Allen (Transfer), Aleer Leek
Key Newcomers:
Jashire Hardnett (BYU), Javan White (Clemson), Zion Williams (JUCO), Maks Klanjscek, FoFo Adetogun, Jacob Johnson, Josiah Allick

Lineup:

** - It’s unclear if Kamgain will be eligible this year - I’ve seen conflicting reports

Outlook: Welcome to the “Lame Kangaroo” season, as freshly minted “Kansas City” (still has that new name smell!) is off to rejoin the Summit League in 2020-21. To lead the school through that transition, the administration brought in former Wright State boss Billy Donlon to replace Kareem Richardson, hoping his experience and Midwestern ties can spark a basketball program that has never played in the NCAA Tournament. Richardson took over when the ‘Roos first joined the WAC in 2013-14, but he only managed a meager 38-50 league record, prompting a new direction.

Donlon comes with a reputation as a defensive whiz, responsible for helping lay the foundation for Luke Yaklich’s masterpieces at Michigan and constructing a stalwart unit at Northwestern last season. He had two different top-50 defenses at Wright State, per KenPom’s AdjDE, further supporting that reputation, and he’ll hope to find similar success with a team that peaked at 218th in those rankings under Richardson.

His philosophy can be boiled down to the late game pick-up basketball axiom “no easy buckets,” as he stresses transition defense and clogging up the lane. This strategy can be even more effective with a rim protector in the paint, and Donlon found his on the grad transfer market, bringing in Javan White from Clemson. He was previously a strong defender for Oral Roberts, and his sheer size will help take away anything at the rim when on the floor. Versatile forward Jordan Giles can be a switchy four man if Donlon chooses to use him that way, and veteran Brandon Suggs adds an athletic depth piece off the bench after nearly transferring this offseason.

The cupboard also comes stocked with several solid perimeter defenders, most notably stout point guard Brandon McKissic, a member of the WAC All-Defensive team last year, and sixth man Marvin Nesbitt. McKissic possesses the intimidating combination of quickness and strength on the ball, capable of physically bothering ball-handlers and shuffling with them for 94 feet, while Nesbitt is a 6’4 wing who rebounds like a maniac for his size and can disrupt with his length. Rob Whitfield also displayed quick hands under Richardson, adding teeth to the Roos’ conservative approach.

Whitfield will be a major piece offensively, as well, given how much Donlon values shooters. McKissic will become the primary creator following Xavier Bishop’s decision to transfer, although BYU grad transfer Jashire Hardnett is a capable ball-handler, as well. Both players are more “combo” guards than pure PGs, so having both will help alleviate each guy’s individual burden.

Donlon’s emphasis on transition defense means only one player goes to the offensive glass; his Wright State teams ranked between 312th and 348th in offensive rebound rate during his six years there. That further underscores the importance of having shot-makers on the court; Nesbitt is not that, and while Giles is a solid finisher at the rim, he doesn’t have much range, either.

The rest of the newcomers are the “X-factors” for Kansas City – they aren’t necessarily “make or break” given the returning pieces and grad transfers Donlon has to work with, but if a few become key contributors, particularly on offense, the Kangaroos’ ceiling raises up into Tier 2. Any combination of outside shooting ability and defensive discipline will be the quickest path to minutes, so Slovenian Maks Klanjscek could emerge early. FoFo Adetogun and Zion Williams are better on the defensive end with their size, but they aren’t known as shooters.

Bottom Line: Donlon brings a clear defensive identity to a program that lacked one, and against teams with limited outside shooting (Bakersfield, UTRGV, Seattle, etc.), that scheme should have success. The path to efficient offense is less obvious, though it probably involves McKissic and Hardnett in a multiple ball-handler alignment and one or more of the freshman emerging as a shooter alongside Whitfield. With Donlon stabilizing things, I actually like the ‘Roos as a sneaky-competitive squad in their final WAC voyage.

8. Utah Valley

Key Returners: TJ Washington, Isaiah White
Key Losses:
Jake Toolson (grad transfer), Ben Nakwaasah, Baylee Steele (grad transfer), Conner Toolson, Richard Harward (transfer), Wyatt Lowell (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Brandon Averette (Oklahoma St.), Ege Havsa (Fordham), Casdon Jardine (Boise St.), Emmanuel Olojakpoke (Akron), Brandon Morley (Utah), Trey Woodbury (UNLV), Jamison Overton (JUCO), Jacob Heese (JUCO), Zach Mogbo (JUCO)

Lineup:

Outlook: After a successful four-year run in Orem, Utah, Mark Pope was called up the state of Utah coaching ranks to Provo, taking over at BYU (and bringing three players with him). The Utah Valley administration was so enthralled by Pope’s performance, though, that they sought to replace him on the sideline with the most similar man they could find: Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen. Let’s go through the checklist:

·        Former NBA backup
·        Stands 6’9 or taller
·        Never averaged more than 4ppg in the league

That’s pretty much it!

I’m being sarcastic, but truthfully, one key thing the two did not share at the time of their hiring was significant college coaching experience. Pope had been an assistant for six years at three different schools, while Madsen is the latest in a crop of NCAA hires plucked straight out of the NBA (see Howard, Juwan and Stackhouse, Jerry). Madsen did spend a year at Stanford, his alma mater, in 2012-13, but it’s still a risky move by the UVU brass to install someone who has such little familiarity with the college game.

That lack of familiarity makes it difficult to predict Madsen’s coaching identity, but some version of “pro style” on both ends – man-to-man on defense with an emphasis on switching 1 through 4, spread out on offense with multiple ball-handlers, space the floor with shooters, and a heavy dose of ball screens – would seem to be the best bet after working for the Lakers under Luke Walton and Byron Scott. To that extent, Pope did at least leave two talented point guards (TJ Washington, Oklahoma State transfer Brandon Averette) and two switchable wings (Isaiah White, Fordham transfer Ege Havsa) with which to lay the groundwork. The rest of the roster, though, needed a massive infusion of talent – and bodies.

That’s why the “Key Newcomers” section above is so long. Mad Dog had to hunt all around the country for players, dipping into both the grad transfer and JUCO markets for rotation pieces, augmenting the roster’s ability to play his desired style. Trey Woodbury, Jamison Overton, and Jake Heese bring the requisite defensive abilities, all possessing the mix of size and quickness to switch along the perimeter. Madsen also scrambled to fill the gaping void in the paint; Brandon Morley has Power 6 pedigree, Emmanuel Olojakpoke is a bouncy shot-blocker, and JUCO transfer Zach Mogbo provides immediate depth in the frontcourt, the area most severely gutted by transfers. And really, there was never a chance that a Mad Dog-coached team wasn’t going to intensely compete on the glass.

Still, the roster’s upside lies more with the returners. Averette (and Havsa and Boise transfer Casdon Jardine) sat out last season, but he displayed excellent quickness and passing vision for the Cowboys, and he should thrive in an open, free-wheeling attack:

Washington struggled mightily with turnovers in his first year out of junior college, but with Averette joining the fold, he’ll be able to play more off the ball. Havsa handled the ball some at Fordham, as well, which will allow Madsen to attack mismatches. Finding enough shooters to properly spread the floor could be an issue: Heese, Washington, and White all hit exactly 40% of their threes on a low-ish volume last season, but none are true floor-spacers, and UVU’s best four shooters from last year left town.

Madsen will also be faced with the challenge of constructing a stout defense while often playing two small guards in Washington and Averette; they’re both quick, but the size deficiencies could be a problem.

Bottom Line: I want to be very clear: Utah Valley has the talent to avoid the precipitous drop to eighth in the league. But until I see Madsen prove his coaching abilities, I’m going to stick them at the bottom of a tier with teams that have a defined identity and some proven veterans to execute it. A defensive regression feels inevitable, and with a lack of shooting and a staggering number of new players to incorporate, the Wolverines feel like the “riskiest” middle-tier team.


Tier 4

9. Chicago State

Key Returners: Christian Jacob
Key Losses:
Anthony Harris, Rob Shaw, Cameron Bowles (transfer), Travon Bell, Delshon Strickland, Patrick Szpir (grad transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Xavier Johnson (JUCO), Jace Colley (JUCO), Solomon Hunt (JUCO), Andrew Lewis (JUCO), Ke’Sean Davis (JUCO), Rajeir Jones, Kalil Whitehead, Amir Gholizadeh, Isaiah Lewis, Leandre Townsen

Lineup:

Outlook: On the surface, it may seem like nothing changed at Chicago State last year: a second straight 3-29 season, zero conference wins for the second time in four seasons. But digging in a little more, we like what Lance Irvin is doing, clearing the decks and bringing in a massive new group of players. No turnaround is going to be immediate at a school in such dire financial straits, but given his local connections and passion for the city and program, Irvin is a great bet to build something much more competitive.

One thing that stands out with the newcomers is that Irvin atually brought in some shooting. The Cougars have consistently struggled from the perimeter in recent years, accumulating the following 3P% rankings: 334, 333, 334, 330, 334. Hey, you have to respect the consistency! Really, though, the lack of any sort of perimeter threat has hamstrung the entire offense, cramping driving lanes and making the attack one-dimensional. Xavier Johnson, a JUCO transfer from Hill College, likely takes over as the lead ball-handler, and he hit 41.4% of his 345 triples over the last two years. Freshman Rajeir Jones looks like an immediate-impact player on the wing who can hit a few shots as well, and forward Ke’Sean Davis will be the best frontcourt shooter the Cougars have had in years.

That should help open the court up and relieve some of the congestion in the paint, allowing Johnson, Jones, Isaiah Lewis, Jace Colley, and Andrew Lewis (no relation to Isaiah, to my knowledge) to get to the rim. Irvin installed a relatively structured offense last year, with a lot of off-ball screening and cutting, but opponents felt content sagging off and going under any screens, limiting its effectiveness.

Returning leading scorer Christian Jacob, a 6’8 forward who excels in the paint, will also breathe a sigh of relief at any extra room inside; he ranked in the 42nd percentile in post-up efficiency last year, per Synergy, and that should increase with defenses being more hesitant to double-team. Another wrinkle Irvin mixed in was posting up 6’5 wing Anthony Harris – he’s gone, but JUCO transfer Colley and fellow Canadian Amir Gholizadeh both have some size and versatility to attack mismatches.  

Defensively, the Cougars have struggled with disciplined rotations and keeping opposing guards in front of them, forcing Irvin (and Tracy Dildy before him) to play a lot of zone. A brand-new crop of players will hopefully help on the perimeter, and JUCO transfer Solomon Hunt brings some rim protection to a program starved for it.

Bottom Line: Things have been bleak on the south side of Chicago, no doubt about it. But Irvin has searched high and low for promising additions: seriously, East Los Angeles College (Hunt) and Holland College on Prince Edward Island (Colley) are about as far away as two North American locations can possibly be. He still has his work cut out for him in getting all of the pieces to commingle into something coherent, but a fresh start is exactly what this program needed.