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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

Luke Maye to return to North Carolina for senior season

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Here’s something I never thought I’d say: Luke Maye is returning to North Carolina for his senior season, meaning that the Tar Heels will have their preseason National Player of the Year candidate back in the fold.

Who saw that coming?

“I have had a great experience learning from the NBA process and growing as a basketball player during the past couple weeks,” Maye wrote on Instagram. “I would like to thank my family, friends, coaches and teammates for all of their support. Through this process, I have decided that I am going to comeback to school to improve as a player and finish my college career. I am looking forward to the opportunities and challenges that I will face and there is no better group to do it with than my teammates and the Carolina family! Time to finish the right way with two of the best players and leaders that I know! Let’s finish our legacy the right way!”

Maye, who averaged 16.9 points and 10.1 boards as a junior, declared for the draft last month, but he did not get invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. The 6-foot-9 forward is a stretch four that will fit perfectly at the four for the Tar Heels this season, with Nassir Little, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams on the perimeter and a trio of sophomore bigs to handle the five.

Getting Maye back was key, but expected. UNC reaching their ceiling this season will depend on whether or not their point guard play is up to par. With Jalek Felton gone and Joel Berry II graduated, that is going to come down to whether or not Seventh Woods can handle the lead guard role or if Coby White can step in and start as a freshman.

Old Dominion lands former four-star center

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Elbert Robinson came out of high school in 2014 as a borderline top-50 recruit with offers from the likes of Florida, Kansas and Louisville before he ultimately chose to attend LSU.

The 7-foot-1 center, though, never even averaged 10 minutes a game in Baton Rouge and now will be finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Old Dominion, according to multiple reports.

“Old Dominion was perfect for him,” Lawrence Johns, Robinson’s grassroots coach, told the Virginian-Pilot. “I know for a fact that nobody in (Conference USA) is over 7 feet.

“I told him to go there and show people why he was the No. 1 center the year he came out.”

Robinson, who sat out last year for medical reasons, could step right into a major role with the Monarchs, who lost their starting frontcourt this offseason. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game last year for the Tigers.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.