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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

Prince scores career-high 34, No. 23 Baylor tops NMSU 85-70

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WACO, Texas (AP) Taurean Prince scored a career-high 34 points, Lester Medford had 10 points and 12 assists and No. 23 Baylor beat New Mexico State 85-70 on Wednesday night.

Prince was 13 of 19 from the field, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range, and led the Bears (9-2) with six rebounds in their 32nd consecutive non-conference home win.

Ishmail Wainwright scored a career-high 14 points and Al Freeman added 10 for Baylor.

Pascal Siakam had 26 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Aggies (7-6), who were facing their first nationally ranked opponent of the season.

Redshirt likely for New Mexico State guard Landry

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After serving as a reserve in each of his first two seasons at New Mexico State, guard Travon Landry underwent microfracture surgery on his knee in the offseason. Landry has yet to return to the floor for Marvin Menzies’ team, most recently missing their Crimson and White scrimmage Saturday night.

And following the game, Menzies said that it was likely that Landry would redshirt this season, thus preserving a year of eligibility according to Mark Rudi of the Las Cruces Sun-News.

“We’re going to have to play it by ear and we’re going to have to make a decision relatively soon,” Menzies said about Landry. “But, right now it’s not looking like he’s going to be able to play this year. That’s kind of where it’s at.”

Landry averaged just 2.1 points per game as a sophomore, with the majority of the minutes on the perimeter going to players such as Daniel Mullings, Ian Baker and DK Eldridge. With Mullings and Eldridge out of eligibility minutes opened up, with Landry being one possible competitor for more playing time. But with his still recovering from offseason surgery, it’s tough for the San Antonio native to make any kind of statement for the upcoming campaign.

Baker is expected to be one of the top guards in the WAC, but he’s going to need help if the Aggies are to make a fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. Among those who will compete for minutes are sophomores Braxton Huggins (8.0 mpg), Jalyn Pennie (9.1 mpg) and Matt Taylor (8.5 mpg), redshirt freshman Sidy Ndir and freshman Jermaine Haley.

VIDEO: Gonzaga hosts madness event

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Gonzaga opened its season with its annual Kraziness in the Kennel as fans gathered to celebrate the start of the basketball season. While not much can be learned of a half-paced scrimmage in an exhibition setting, the Bulldogs did play without center Przemek Karnowski, who is battling pneumonia.

In a story with Jim Meehan of the Spokesman-Review, Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said that the 7-foot-1 center will be out for a little while as he recovers from the illness.

“He had a great run (playing for Poland) in the European championships,” said Few. “He’s going to have to sit for a while now. Hopefully, we’ll get him back by the end of the month.”

Other than the senior center being out a few weeks, redshirt freshman guard Josh Perkins looked healthy and led the scrimmage with 17 points. Here are some highlights of last night’s action:

Mountain West, Pac-12 expand officiating alliance to include three other conferences

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When the Mountain West and Pac-12 announced last year that they would enter into an officiating alliance, one of the goals was to improve uniformity between the leagues when it came to how games were called. Tuesday the leagues announced that they’ve taken another step in this direction when it comes to basketball in the western United States, with the Big West, WAC and WCC joining the alliance.

As a result of this move, five of the six conferences in which most of (if not all) of their members are located in the western United States are part of this alliance with the Big Sky being the lone exception. According to the release, Bobby Dibler will preside over the alliance as the officiating coordinator.

A major focus of the expanded alliance will be training. Prior to the season, Dibler and staff will host a training clinic for all roster officials to review mechanics, game situations, rules knowledge and other key factors to ensure they are among the best trained in the country. Officials from all five of the conferences will participate, furthering the impact of the collaboration on officiating in the western United States.

With the changes occurring within college basketball, including the move to a 30-second shot clock and increased calls to do a better job of allowing freedom of movement, expanding the alliance isn’t a bad idea at all. Of course this hinges on officials not only being consistent with calls but sticking to it the new initiatives throughout the year.

A couple years ago when there was a move to improve freedom of movement, complaints about the length of games eventually led to a return to things being let go by the time conference play rolled around. There will be complaints, especially in games deemed to be “whistle-fests,” but that’s something people will have to deal with as officials and the rules committee look to do things that will improve offensive production.

Utah Valley head coach Dick Hunsaker to step down at season’s end

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Following Utah Valley’s win over Bakersfield Saturday night, head coach Dick Hunsaker announced that he has decided to step down at the end of the season. Hunsaker, who’s also been a Division I head coach at Utah and Ball State, has been the head coach Utah Valley since 2003. During his time at the WAC program, Hunsaker’s won 205 games and last season led the Wolverines to a WAC regular season title.

Hunsaker stated that this was the right time to make the move, with his youngest son returning from his LDS mission and there also being the desire to spend more time with his grandchildren.

“My wife likes the timing, as this opens the window to allow us to pick up our youngest son Zachary from his LDS mission in Africa,” Hunsaker said in the statement. “Also, I am looking forward to getting to know my seven grandchildren.”

Utah Valley currently has a record of 11-15, 5-9 in WAC play, and the Wolverines will be the six seed in next week’s WAC tournament.