WAC Preview: Can anyone catch New Mexico State?

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the WAC.

While realignment has drastically changed the WAC, there’s been one constant over the last four seasons: New Mexico State representing the league in the NCAA tournament. Marvin Menzies’ program has won at least 23 games in each of those seasons, and even with personnel losses to account for the Aggies have remained the WAC’s dominant program. However New Mexico State lost a lot of production from last year’s team, and with that being the case there’s a feeling that the rest of the WAC may be able to get closer to dethroning the reigning kings.

Four of the team’s top six scorers from a season ago, including forward Remi Barry and guard Daniel Mullings, have moved on. However, with forward Pascal Siakam (12.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and the WAC’s best three-point shooter in guard Ian Baker (9.3 ppg, 45.7 percent 3PT) back in Las Cruces it isn’t as if Menzies and his staff will be building from scratch.

As for who can step in to help fill the the void, players such as guards Jalyn Pennie and Braxton Huggins and forward Jonathon Wilkins will have the opportunity to contribute. And another positive of last season was that New Mexico State had enough available talent to redshirt five freshmen, and while those players may not have Division I experience they were part of the program a season ago. That all should help New Mexico State as they look to hold off a group of contenders led by one of Division I’s newest additions.

Grand Canyon has only been a Division I program since 2013, and as a result they won’t be eligible for an NCAA tournament bid until the year 2017. But it should be noted that in each of the last two seasons Dan Majerle’s program has played in the CIT, and a third straight appearance isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Senior point guard De’Wayne Russell averaged 14.2 points and 3.9 assists per game last season, and he’ll lead a group that also returns redshirt sophomore guard Joshua Braun.

GCU’s rotation will be bolstered by multiple transfers, including forward Grandy Glaze (Saint Louis) and Dominic Magee (Memphis). But if the Antelopes are to harbor any thoughts of dethroning New Mexico State, they have to get better defensively. Last season GCU ranked at or near the bottom of the WAC in many of the major defensive categories (conference games only), including field goal (last in the WAC) and effective field goal (6th) percentages.

Kansas City lost three of its top five scorers from a season ago, but they do return one of the WAC’s best players in guard Martez Harrison. Named WAC Player of the Year last season, Harrison averaged 17.5 points and 3.9 assists per game but he still has room for growth when it comes to the shooting percentages (39.3 percent FG, 28.0 percent 3PT). What should help Harrison is the improved health of point guard Noah Knight, forward Shayok Shayok and center Thaddeus Smith, as all three missed time due to injury last season with Shayok playing in just eight games before being lost for the season.

The Kangaroos’ returnees will be joined by a seven-member recruiting class that has six junior college transfers, with forward Kyle Steward (Butler CC), guard LaVell Boyd (South Suburban College) and wing Dashawn King (Erie CC) being possible immediate impact players. If the parts can mesh together in time for conference play, thus helping Harrison with the scoring load and in turn making him a more efficient scorer, UMKC has the pieces needed to contend.

Rod Barnes’ CSU Bakersfield Roadrunners finished right in the middle of the WAC standings a season ago, and with one of the WAC’s best post players in Aly Ahmed leading the way they’re hoping to take a step forward in 2015-16. In his first season on the court for CSU Bakersfield Ahmed averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, with fellow forward Kevin Mays averaging 9.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest despite being just 6-foot-4. Add in redshirt junior Jaylin Airington and CSU Bakersfield returns not only three of its top four scorers but arguably the best front court in the WAC.

Whether or not the Roadrunners make a run at the WAC title will ultimately depend upon their guard play, with Brent Wrapp (4.4 ppg, 20.6 mpg) being their lone returnee, and junior college transfers Dedrick Basile and Justin Pride and freshman Damiyne Durham needing to be immediate contributors. The big men can get Bakersfield to the finish line, but where they’re positioned for the stretch run will be decided by the growth of their perimeter options.

Beyond the top four, Seattle and Utah Valley may be best equipped to make a push to get into the top half of the WAC. While the Redhawks did lose leading scorers Isiah Umipig and Jarell Flora from last season’s team, they do welcome back one of the conference’s better forwards in junior William Powell and Deshaun Sunderhaus returns after playing in just eight games due to injury.

As for the Wolverines, they embark on a new era as former BYU assistant Mark Pope takes over as head coach. While they did lose two of their top three scorers from a season ago, forward Donte Williams and guard Marcel Davis return, giving Pope some solid options to work with. Closing out the standings are UT-Rio Grande Valley and Chicago State, with the Vaqueros returning four starters from a season ago (but adding ten newcomers) and CSU working to account for the loss of four starters.

While conference realignment dealt New Mexico State a tough hand, the Aggies have set their sights on dominating the WAC and over the last four years they’ve managed to do that. With this being the case, it’s going to take an awful lot for someone to knock NMSU out of the WAC’s top spot.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Absolutely New Mexico State’s the favorite. They should be, hands down, until somebody proves that they can consistently contend with them. What makes them dangerous is that they’re big, they’re athletic. They have high-major size and high-major athleticism; they can roll the ball out with just about any team in the country in those aspects.”
  • Sleeper: “I think that Grand Canyon’s done a good job in recruiting. I know they can’t go to the (NCAA) tournament, but I think they’ve done a good job in building their program with some transfers and they’ve got some talented guys who have come in.””I think everybody (in the league) has upped their talent, size and athleticism. Bakersfield with what Coach (Rod) Barnes is doing over there and their size, and they’ve improved their guard play. I wouldn’t be surprised if they pushed New Mexico State. Dan Majerle and Grand Canyon. As far as the regular season, with their size and athleticism they have a chance to do some things as well.”
  • Stars to watch: “I love Siakam at New Mexico State. I thought he was a Player of the Year-caliber player last season as a freshman. I think he poses so many challenges. He’s tremendous offensively and defensively; there’s nothing the kid can’t do so. I think he’s a big-time talent.””Martez Harrison at UMKC is a very, very talented player. He’s a special guard, and I think his defensive prowess is really undersold by a lot of people. And Aly Ahmed at Bakersfield is another one who jumps out at me as being a really skilled big man who’s versatile and really hard to guard.”

PRESEASON WAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Martez Harrison, Kansas City

Harrison’s percentages leave something to be desired, as he shot 39.3 percent from the field and 28.0 percent from three. But in spite of that he still averaged 17.5 points to go along with nearly four assists per contest last season. UMKC enters this season healthy, and those additional options should help make Harrison a more efficient player as a junior.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-WAC TEAM:

  • DeWayne Russell, Grand Canyon: Russell averaged 14.2 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game in his first season at GCU.
  • Ian Baker, New Mexico State: One of the top three-point shooters in the WAC, Baker will be asked to do even more on the perimeter this season.
  • Pascal Siakam, New Mexico State: Last year’s top freshman, Siakam was the media’s choice for Preseason WAC Player of the Year and with good reason.
  • Aly Ahmed, CSU Bakersfield: Ahmed averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season, and he can be even better if the field goal percentage (49.2 percent) improves.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WACSports

PREDICTED FINISH

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

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.