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Western Athletic Conference Preview: Grand Canyon leads the way

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the WAC.

Life as a provisional Division I member can be difficult. While it’s known that a program will eventually become a full-on member, that four-year period can tend to drag on especially when considering the fact that there’s no chance of playing in the NCAA tournament. That was life for Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon program, but he and his staff did a good job of preparing the Antelopes for their first season as a full Division I member. That debut season is now here, and GCU has a team capable of making its first NCAA tournament appearance.

The Antelopes will have to account for the loss of leading scorer Dewayne Russell, but there’s more than enough talent left in the cupboard to make a run at the WAC crown. Guard Joshua Braun and forward Keonta Vernon both return, with the former being pegged by many as the preseason favorite for WAC Player of the Year.

Braun averaged 17.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from beyond the arc. As for Vernon, the 6-foot-6 senior added 9.3 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds per contest during his junior season. Other returnees of note include sophomore guard Oscar Frayer, senior guard Shaq Carr and redshirt junior guard Gerard Martin. Add in a talented floor general in Oregon transfer Casey Benson, who’s eligible immediately after being a part of Oregon’s Final Four run last season, and GCU will not lack for options on the perimeter.

The key for Grand Canyon will be who steps forward alongside Vernon in the front court, with redshirt juniors Matt Jackson and Kerwin Smith, and freshmen Roberts Blumberg and Alessandro Lever among the available options.

While GCU is viewed as the favorite, and it’s important to note that the program finished second in the WAC standings each of the last three seasons, the program making its full Division I debut won’t lack for challengers. CSU Bakesrfield, which won the WAC regular season title for the first time in program history last season, and NCAA tournament participant New Mexico State will be heard from as well.

Rod Barnes welcomes back two of the WAC’s top guards in seniors Damiyne Durham and Brent Wrapp, which should help the Roadrunners account for the loss of three of their top four scorers from a season ago. Durham was very productive in the sixth man roles for CSU Bakersfield, averaging 12.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game while averaging 21.2 minutes per game. With Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile and Matt Smith moving on more will be asked of Durham, who will need to be a more efficient offensive player as well. Last season, Durham shot just 38.5 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from three with an offensive rating of just 96.5.

As for Wrapp, there really isn’t a way to quantify the leadership he provides by simply using numbers. The senior averaged just 4.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season, but his performance in other areas was a big reason why CSU Bakersfield was able to not only win the WAC regular season title but reach the Postseason NIT Final Four. Shon Briggs, Moataz Aly, Fallou Ndoye and James Suber are among the returnees in the front court. The best defensive team in the WAC last season from an efficiency standpoint, the Roadrunners should once again hold their own on that end of the floor. The key when it comes to repeating as WAC champs and making the program’s second NCAA tournament appearance in three seasons will be what improvements the team can make offensively.

As for the aforementioned Aggies, they’ve got a new head coach as Chris Jans was hired to fill the vacancy left by Paul Weir (who’s now at in-state rival New Mexico). The good news for Jans is that he takes over a team that boasts two of the WAC’s best players in redshirt juniors Sidy N’Dir and Eli Chuha. While Chuha started 31 of the 34 games in which he played, averaging 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game, N’Dir returns to the court after appearing in just nine games due to a foot injury. N’Dir averaged 13.7 points per contest in the nine games he played, and his return is important given the loss of the team’s top two scorers in Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins.

The front court could be the best in the WAC, with Jemerrio Jones averaging 9.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game off the bench and starter Johnathon Wilkins returning as well. To help account for the losses of Baker and Huggins, transfers AJ Harris and Zach Lofton join the fray. While Harris sat out last season after spending one year at Ohio State, Lofton won SWAC Player of the Year after averaging 16.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game at Texas Southern. While GCU’s Casey Benson may be viewed by some as the WAC’s top newcomer, do not sleep on Lofton.

Utah Valley, which finished the 2016-17 season with a 17-17 record and was the second-best team in the WAC from a defensive efficiency standpoint, will be a factor as well. Mark Pope welcomes back five of the six players who started at least 16 games last season, with guard Jordan Poydras being the lone exception. Junior guard Conner Toolson averaged a team-best 11.9 points per game, with the Wolverines using a balanced offensive attack that featured five players who averaged at least 9.6 points per game. With guards Kenneth Ogbe and Brandon Randolph among the other returnees, don’t be surprised if Utah Valley makes a run at the WAC title.

At this stage, there appears to be a clear line between the top four teams and the bottom half of the WAC. But that doesn’t mean these teams are incapable of turning heads in 2017-18. Seattle, under new head coach Jim Hayford, will look to turn things around after winning just 13 games last season. Center Aaron Menzies, who averaged 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, is the lone returnee among the top four scorers from last season.

But the Redhawks have added a host of transfers, with Jordan Hill (Wisconsin), Richaud Gittens (Weber State) and Josh Hearhily (Vermont) all eligible immediately as grad students. Four other transfers, most notably the 2016 Patriot League Rookie of the Year in former American guard Delante Jones, will have to sit out this season.

Kansas City, which won 18 games last season, will have to replace all five starters including guard LaVell Boyd. Sophomore guard Isaiah Ross, who averaged 8.0 points per game as a freshman, is the team’s leading returning scorer. Ross and fellow guards Xavier Bishop and Broderick Robinson are the most likely options to lead the way for the Kangaroos, who will need some front court players to step forward with leading rebounders Darnell Tillman (5.7 rpg) and Kyle Steward (5.3 rpg) having moved on.

UT Rio Grande Valley and Chicago State boast two of the WAC’s top talents. While Lew Hill’s second team at UTRGV will be led by senior Nick Dixon, who averaged 18.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in earning second team All-WAC honors as a junior, Chicago State will rely upon junior guard Fred Sims Jr. Sims averaged 18.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game a season ago, and like Dixon he was a second-team All-WAC selection.

The key for Kansas City, UTRGV and Chicago State if any are to exceed preseason expectations: improve on defense. All three struggled in that area last season, with Kansas City and UTRGV preferring to play a faster tempo while Chicago State ranked 231st in the country in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON WAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Joshua Braun, Grand Canyon

A two-time first team All-WAC selection, the 6-foot-4 senior guard averaged 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game last season. While a quality scorer, Braun is also efficient offensively as he finished his junior campaign with an offensive rating of 119.2.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-WAC TEAM

  • Fred Sims Jr., Chicago State: Sims put up two games of 30 points or more last season, including a 31-point outburst in a loss to Kansas City in the regular season finale.
  • Damiyne Durham, CSU Bakersfield: There weren’t many reserves in college basketball who were more productive than Durham, who has the potential to be a more efficient scorer than he showed as a junior.
  • Nick Dixon, UT Rio Grande Valley: Dixon factored into 31.6 percent of UTRGV’s possession in WAC play last season per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, and he’s capable of dropping big numbers on just about anyone (41 points against Utah Valley in late January).
  • Eli Chuha, New Mexico State: Chuha averaged 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season, and he’ll have the opportunity to do more offensively with Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins having moved on.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WAC_Basketball

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Grand Canyon
2. CSU Bakersfield
3. New Mexico State
4. Utah Valley
5. Seattle
6. UT Rio Grande Valley
7. Kansas City
8. Chicago State

VIDEO: Mike Brey celebrates Maui win shirtless

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Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey celebrated his team’s win in the Maui Invitational by going shirtless in the team locker room:

This came after Brey spent the entire tournament coaching in shorts and a t-shirt:

Mike Brey (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

I think it’s safe to say Brey enjoyed himself on the islands.

No. 13 Notre Dame lands come-from-behind win to beat No. 6 Wichita State in Maui

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Notre Dame led twice during Wednesday night’s Maui Invitational title game.

At 4-2, and, after Martinas Geben hit the second of two free throws with 2.3 seconds left, at 67-66.

That score would end up being the final, as the 13th-ranked Irish erased a 14-point second half deficit to knock off No. 6 Wichita State and bring home that Maui trophy.

Bonzie Colson led the way with 25 points and 11 boards while Matt Farrell chipped in with 15 points, four assists, four boards and three steals. Geben chipped in with 12 points, including those two free throws that served as the eventual game-winners.

Beyond the simple fact that they did it against one of the best teams in the country, what makes this comeback so impressive is that the Irish didn’t rely on a flurry of threes to change the course of the game. This comeback came through grit, toughness defensively and, if we’re being honest, a little bit of luck.

With less than 20 seconds left on the clock and the Irish down by three points, Colson airballed a pretty good look at a three from the top of the key. On the ensuing inbounds, Farrell stole the ball and happened to find Colson under the rim for a layup. The lead was cut to one, and Wichita State proceeded to miss the front end of a one-and-one after being fouled.

The ball once again ended up underneath Notre Dame’s basket, but this time it was the Irish ball, and after a gorgeous inbounds play, Geben headed to the line for two shots. The first shots somehow managed to go down after bouncing off the back of the rim, the backboard and the front of the rim twice.

And with that, Notre Dame would get off of the islands with another quality win for their résumé and a title to their name.

No. 8 Kentucky finally has it easy against Fort Wayne, 86-67

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Nick Richards had career highs of 25 points and 15 rebounds, and 70 percent first-half shooting propelled No. 8 Kentucky to an 86-67 rout of Fort Wayne on Wednesday night.

Kentucky’s 19-of-27 shooting before halftime countered the Mastodons’ eight 3-pointers that kept them close for a while. Once Fort Wayne started missing, it couldn’t match the length or speed of the young Wildcats (5-1), who eventually led 78-48 with 6:50 remaining on the way to their most decisive win this season.

Richards thrived in both halves and on both ends, making 9 of 10 from the field and all seven free throws for his first career double-double. The 6-foot-11 freshman’s previous highs were 10 points against Utah Valley and nine rebounds against Kansas last week.

Quade Green, Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander each added 11 points as Kentucky shot a season-best 33 of 55 (60 percent) and dominated the rebounding 44-21.

Junior guard John Konchar had 19 points and Bryson Scott 18 for Fort Wayne (3-2), who had won three in a row before losing on 40 percent shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Fort Wayne: A year after upsetting Indiana, the Mastodons led Kentucky 37-36 with 3:51 left in the first half behind 8-of-22 shooting from long range. They went cold from outside and elsewhere after that and the Wildcats pounced to lead at the break and stretch the advantage to 30 points in the second half. The Mastodons’ 12 3-pointers were their third-highest total this season.

Kentucky: Something had to give after all those tense performances and the Wildcats thrived because of their size and best shooting effort this season. Richards couldn’t be stopped on either end, and teammates seemed in sync for the first time. Sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel came up just short of a double-double with 10 rebounds and nine points.

UP NEXT

Kentucky hosts Illinois-Chicago on Sunday to wrap up the Rupp Classic before getting a few days off.

Fort Wayne visits East Tennessee State on Saturday. ETSU lost 78-31 to Kentucky last Friday.

VIDEO: Providence beats Belmont on Kyron Cartwright’s buzzer-beating three

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We got the first wild buzzer-beater of the college basketball season on Wednesday night, as Kyron Cartwright answered a Belmont bucket with 3.7 seconds left by going 94-feet to hit a leaning three at the buzzer:

Providence won the game 65-63.

Cartwright finished with 17 points in the win.

Four Takeaways from N.C. State’s upset win over No. 2 Arizona

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Five games into the Kevin Keatts era and N.C. State already has themselves a signature win.

The Wolfpack upset No. 2 Arizona in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis, 90-84, sending Sean Miller home without reaching the Final Four once again. Allerik Freeman led the way with 24 points, while Braxton Beverly chipped in with 20 points off the bench and the combination of Abdul-Malik Abu and Omer Yurtseven combined for 21 points and 17 boards.

This wasn’t a fluky win, either.

N.C. State had control throughout. They were up 15-6 before Arizona woke up, they didn’t trail in the first half and they were the ones that made the Wildcats chase them down in the second half. It was quite impressive, as Keatts had this group playing hard and pressing for 40 minutes. It’s been a while since N.C. State fans can say that they’ve seen that.

Here are three things to takeaway from that win.

1. Arizona is going to have some things to figure out on the defensive end of the floor if they want to win a national title: Deandre Ayton is a man amongst boys. In his first college basketball game against competition that actually deserved to be on the same floor as him, Ayton finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds, a performance that makes me so damn excited to see just how good Marvin Bagley III, Miles Bridges and players of that ilk are if Ayton does not end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Trier struggled in the first half, but he still managed to put together a 27-point performance, with 24 of those 27 coming in the second half. They put up 84 points. That wasn’t the issue.

The 90 points they allowed was.

Even more concerning was the fact that the Wolfpack scored those 90 points on just 73 possessions. The bottom-line is this: That’s not good enough, not when N.C. State is hardly a contender for the Final Four, let alone a national title challenger.

2. Kevin Keatts is making the most of the talent Mark Gottfried squandered: I’m not sure quite how good the Wolfpack actually are. I don’t think it’s possible to tell this early, even after a win over a team like Arizona. But what is undeniable is the simple fact that this N.C. State team plays are and with most passion and intensity than any Mark Gottfried team did.

They look like they are trying. They look like they care. And frankly, that often matters more than the simple stock-piling of talent. There’s no way anyone could look at this N.C. State roster and think that it has more talent on it than, say, a team with Dennis Smith Jr. or a team with T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack may not have a future lottery pick on this roster. But they do have guys that play their tails off, that play as if they have a point to prove and that play as if they are being coached.

It makes you wonder what could have been had Keatts been in Raleigh last season.

3. Braxton Beverly getting ruled eligible is going to be a big deal for N.C. State: Earlier this fall, Braxton Beverly was one of the biggest stories in college basketball, believe it or not. He had transferred to N.C. State from Ohio State after enrolling in summer courses prior to Thad Matta’s firing. He was ruled ineligible for this season with the Wolfpack, and it turned into the cause celebre for college basketball media members looking to circle the wagons and bash the NCAA.

It took longer than it should have, but Beverly was eventually cleared by the NCAA. He’s eligible to play this season, and he just so happens to be the point guy on the N.C. State press and one of their best shooters. He put up 20 points on the No. 2 team in America. I think he’s going to be relevant this season.

4. Arizona’s point guard issues rose to the forefront: When the Wildcats made their push in the second half, they did it on the strength of hustle plays and transition buckets. Jumping passing lanes and going coast-to-coast. Beating N.C. State’s press and getting a layup. Points that came off of offensive rebounds. Where they struggled was with their half court execution. The question with this team entering the season was with the point guard play. Was Parker Jackson-Cartwright going to be good enough to carry this team to a title? I’m not sure we can truly say we got on answer on Wednesday – N.C. State’s pressure, which was ratcheted up by the fact that Arizona couldn’t get a stop, played more of a role than anything – but Jackson-Cartwright certainly did not put in the kind of performance that would make Arizona fans feel comfortable.