2014 Western Athletic Tournament Preview: Another title within sight for New Mexico State

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Even though New Mexico State is the WAC’s top team, they aren’t walking into Orleans Arena with the No. 1 seed. That would be Utah Valley, the former member of the Great West Conference that joined the WAC when it imploded after the 2013 season. And while UVU recently beat the Aggies, Marvin Menzies’ team is the favorite to garner another NCAA autobid, which would mark the third tournament title for Menzies.

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

When: March 13 – 15

Where: Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada

Final: March 15, 10 PM (an ESPN Network)

Favorite: New Mexico State

Daniel Mullings is the team’s key. He attempts the majority of the team’s shots — the only other Aggie with a comparable attempted shots percentage is DK Eldridge, and he doesn’t play as many minutes — and with the extended suspension of KC Ross-Miller (who’ll miss the WAC tournament following a late-February scuffle versus Utah Valley), Menzies will have to rely even more heavily on the WAC’s player of the year. The Aggies also have the conference’s most fascinating statistical footnote: though Ken Pomeroy ranks their effective height as tops in the nation, the team is dreadful at keeping WAC opponents off the glass. The Aggies haul roughly a third of teams’ misses, a mark bested by five other WAC squads.

And if they lose? Utah Valley

Should New Mexico State fail in their record-tying quest, the team most likely to scoop up the WAC title is Dick Hunsaker’s squad. This is a problem for the conference: NMSU has a potential to win an NCAA tournament game, whereas UVU’s prognosis is cloudier. The Wolverines’ efficiency margin isn’t great (plus-4), and since they struggle to score, the squad prefers to play at a slow pace and use their skills on the defensive glass as well as keeping opponents from converting on the perimeter to win conference games.

Sleepers:

  • Idaho: The Vandals are riding a winning streak into tournament play, taking four of their past five, including a win over Grand Canyon (the team which would have been the favorite to challenge New Mexico State but is ineligible for the tourney). Of the teams playing at Orleans Arena, Idaho features the conference’s second best offense, and the team is led by Stephen Madison, who some have argued should have been the conference’s player of the year.
  • UMKC: Kareem Richardson had quite a task for his first season in Kansas City. Not only did he have convince KC-area talent to stay home for college, but he also had to field a competitive team. He is making headway on the first assignment: Martez Harrison, who is a Kansas City native but prepped at Brewster Academy, was named the WAC freshman of the year and was the offense’s focal point. Richardson’s second goal has steadily progressed: four of their nine losses were by single-digits, and crucially for a team trying to make a statement during its first WAC tournament, the Kangaroos rarely commit a turnover (roughly 16 percent of their possessions result in a giveaway).

Studs:

  • Stephen Madison, Idaho: The forward dropped 42 points in a loss to Utah Valley, and can single-handedly keep the Vandals’ offense churning. What Madison does very well, in particular, is get to the free throw line: he has attempted ten or more free throws in nearly half of Idaho’s 2014 contests.
  • Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State: The guard is best suited when he is able to penetrate the defense and create for himself, but without Ross-Miller, Mullings will now have to generate offense for the other Aggies.
  • Isiah Umipig, Seattle: The Cal State Fullerton transfer has emerged as one of the conference’s most electric scorers, but since he recently suffered his two worst games — both UMKC and Chicago State held him to single digits — he is bound for an offensive outburst.
  • Tshilidzi Nephawe, New Mexico State : After last year’s tournament, everyone knows Sim Bhullar, but the Aggie big to pay attention to is Nephawe. The 6-foot-10 senior is the WAC’s most improved player, earning all-second team recognition after three seasons of using less than 50 percent of NMSU’s minutes. Nephawe converted 55 percent of his twos this season, and as he possesses a soft touch from the field and the free throw line, has evolved into a consistent option for the Aggie backcourt.

CBT Prediction: According to Pomeroy’s WAC log5, more than 60 percent of his simulations point to New Mexico State as winning the league’s autobid, and we’d be surprised if the Aggies didn’t dance for the third straight season.

Wichita State getting more national respect with non-conference scheduling

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Wichita State is starting to gain more national respect with regards to its non-conference schedule.

Since moving to the American Athletic Conference this spring, the Shockers have not only gained the benefit of being in a multi-bid league every year, but they’re also getting better teams to play them outside of conference play.

According to a report from Paul Suellentrop of the Wichita Eagle, the Shockers now have non-conference games scheduled with Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this season. With Wichita State also playing in the Maui Invitational, it gives the Shockers plenty of opportunities to schedule quality opponents and improve its NCAA tournament seeding. And that’s before Wichita State starts conference play.

Although Wichita State was getting invited regularly to prestigious non-conference tournaments such as Maui or the Battle 4 Atlantis, they were having a tough time getting certain schools to book home-and-home series. The Baylor series signifies a small, but significant, change to how Wichita State might be able to do things now.

USC forward Bennie Boatwright returning for junior year

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USC has a chance to be really good next season as forward Bennie Boatwright announced that he’s returning for his junior season.

The 6-foot-10 forward put up 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range as his return means that the Trojans should be a major contender in the Pac-12 next season. Elijah Stewart also announced this week that he is returning as USC could start Jordan McLaughlin, De’Anthony Melton, Stewart, Boatwright and Chimezie Metu next season.

With Duke transfer Derryck Thornton Jr. also becoming eligible and McDonald’s All-American guard Charles O’Bannon Jr. entering the program, the Trojans are a potential top-10 team.

Following decommitment, four-star recruit makes eye-opening remarks about Ohio State

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Ohio State lost a four-star recruit on Wednesday when in-state Class of 2018 wing Darius Bazley opted to open up his recruitment.

As a rising senior who is just finishing his junior season of high school, Bazley’s decommitment isn’t going to immediately hurt the Buckeyes next season. But the 6-foot-7 wing’s comments about why he opted to open up his recruitment are pretty jarring.

In a story with Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch, Bazley opened up about why he decommitted from Ohio State. Bazley’s eye-opening remarks include how the Buckeyes might not get him ideal NBA exposure and how Ohio State might miss the NCAA tournament in his freshman year.

“I was excited when I first got the offer,” Bazley said to Jardy. “Ohio State is still a great place. It’s nothing against the school or anything, but my one ultimate goal is to get to the NBA and I just didn’t feel as confident as I did when I first committed that Ohio State was one of those schools that could get me there. At the end of the day I’ve got to perform no matter where I go, but I think there’s other schools out there that could put me on a bigger stage and in a better position to show those NBA scouts when I get to college what I can do.”

Bazley also didn’t appear to be pleased at the recruiting class coming into Ohio State for the Class of 2017, which is the class that is coming in this season. Remember, Bazley is a Class of 2018 recruit who still has to finish his senior season.

“Ohio State, they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament this year,” Bazley said to Jardy. “They didn’t even make the NIT, which is unfortunate, but I looked into the recruits they have coming into next year, they didn’t look too good for the future. So I felt like when my class came in, yeah, we would’ve been OK, but good enough to make the tournament? I don’t know. I just felt as if I was to de-commit, actually take my time, figure everything out it would just be a lot better.”

Ohio State was once one of the major destinations for one-and-done players a decade ago so these remarks are very surprising. D’Angelo Russell was a top-five pick in the NBA Draft only two years ago, and while the Buckeyes might not be as successful in recent years as they once were, they still get plenty of national exposure with regards to producing NBA talent.

The NCAA tournament comments might carry some more weight though. The Buckeyes have missed the NCAA tournament in two consecutive seasons and things are also looking difficult for them to reach the Big Dance for next season. If Bazley wants to play in the NCAA tournament, then I could understand him wanting to open things up and explore more options.

Still, you don’t often see a player make comments like this about a school after decommitting–especially a program with as much national exposure as Ohio State. Bazley is likely going to face some heat for his remarks, but if those are his true feelings about a future life decision, then he should explore what else is out there.

Nevada gets transfer commitment from Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman

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Nevada continues to build its roster through transfers as the Wolf Pack added Omaha forward Tre’Shawn Thurman on Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Thurman will have to sit out one season before playing his senior season but he is coming off of a very good campaign for the Mavericks. The versatile forward put up 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 49 percent from the field.

One of the Summit League’s better players the last two seasons, Thurman should be a solid rotation forward for Nevada as he has a chance to be a breakout player with one more year of development. If Thurman can improve his 25 percent three-point shooting then he could be a major factor for Nevada.

D-League salaries, two-way contracts increase NBA Draft early entries

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Yesterday, I wrote a piece about how it’s dumb to criticize players for entering the NBA Draft without costing themselves their collegiate eligibility when the NCAA’s new NBA Draft rules are specifically designed for said players to be able to do that.

In that column, I mentioned that D-League salaries are on the rise and that the NBA’s new CBA instituted something called “two-way contracts,” and I wanted a chance to elaborate and clarify a couple of the points that I made.

Let’s start with the “two-way contracts,” which NBA teams each get two of. They are essentially a retainer that those teams can place on younger players they want to be the 16th and 17th men on their roster, holding their rights as they bounce between the D-League — where they will likely spend the majority of the year — and the NBA. The catch is that those players have to have less than three years service as a professional, and the point of it is to provide a financial incentive for younger players with the potential to reach the NBA to remain stateside while allowing those NBA teams to develop them.

That financial incentive is fairly large, as well: Two-way players will make $75,000 guaranteed and will be able to make up to $275,000, depending on the amount of time they spend with the NBA team.

That means there are an extra 60 jobs this season that can end up paying players with less than three years of professional basketball experience upwards of a quarter-of-a-million dollars.

That’s not a bad starting salary.

The other point that I wanted to address is the rising D-League salaries which, technically, will not be rising. There are still going to be Tier A and Tier B players, who make $26,000 and $20,000 respectively. But the NBA has something called affiliate players, which each of the now-25 NBA teams with a D-League affiliate can pay up to $50,000 for training camp. NBA teams are allowed a maximum of four affiliate players, who will still make their $26,000 salary from their D-League team.

In other words, that’s 100 more jobs available in the United States where a professional basketball player can make $76,000, and that’s before you consider that the five NBA teams that do not yet have a D-League affiliate will still have to play players to get them into training camp.

That $76,000 is not a life-changing amount of money. Neither is the $275,000 that a two-way contract can pay. But it’s a pretty damn good paycheck to make for an entry-level job into the industry that you always dreamed of being in.

Athletes have an unbelievably small window where they can capitalize monetarily on their gifts.

If a 21-year old sophomore decides that he wants to continue to develop his game and chase his NBA dream by making $76,000 as a D-League player, is that really all that crazy?

After all, 135 of the 450 players, or 30 percent of the roster spots, on NBA’s opening night were taken by guys that had spent time in the D-League.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.