WAC Preview: Does New Mexico State reclaim the league?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Western Athletic Conference.

The WAC season ended with Dedrick Basile sinking a buzzer-beating three in the conference championship game to send CSU Bakersfield to its first-ever NCAA Tournament. The heroics by Basile also snapped a four-year stranglehold New Mexico State had on the league.

Entering 2016-17, will the Aggies reclaim their place in the NCAA Tournament or are the Roadrunners poised for another trip to the Big Dance?

After a wild coaching search, UNLV introduced Marvin Menzies as the program’s new head coach in mid-April. Pascal Siakam, the reigning WAC Player of the Year, declared early for the draft and was selected in the 27th overall by the Toronto Raptors. Despite the loss of its head coach and a first-rounder, New Mexico State should be tabbed as the favorites again this season. New head coach Paul Weir, who spend the past nine seasons on the bench, inherited four starters, including Ian Baker, an all-conference guard. With a faster pace and a number of versatile athletes, the Aggies could be a nightmare to defend on a nightly basis.

In his third season as a head coach, former NBA star Dan Majerle led Grand Canyon to 27 wins. The Antelops return three starters, including all-conference guard Joshua Braun, along with two other players who each started more than 10 games each. Grand Canyon’s season should be another fun one. The Antelops open the season against preseason favorite Duke, host Louisville and travel to Arizona. However, the program isn’t eligible for postseason play until next season.

That mean’s CSU Bakersfield, the reigning champion, serves as the Aggies’ greatest threat again. Basile is still there, and will be looked upon more following the graduation of Aly Ahmed and Kevin Mays, the team’s top two scorers and rebounders. The cabinet is far from bare for Rod Barnes. Jaylin Airington and Brett Wrapp are two other starters returning this season. Damiyne Durham averaged double figures off the bench last season, while Matt Smith can provide a presence on defense and on the glass left behind by the graduating bigs.

After New Mexico State and CSU Bakersfield, the next three could emerge in any order. UMKC has the most dynamic backcourt led by Martez Harrison and LaVell Boyd. Both averaged better than 14 points per game. For the Kangaroos to be true contenders, they can’t just rely on points from the backcourt, they’ll also need stops and turnovers, leading to points on the other end.

Seattle will look to the inside-out duo of Brendan Westernhorf and William Powell. The backcourt will need to be much improved around Westernhorf, especially in a league where contenders like New Mexico State, CSU Bakerstfield and UMKC all have experienced guards. The Redhawks had one of the most inefficient and turnover-prone offenses in the country last season.

Utah Valley lost all three of its top scorers from a season ago, but if Zach Nelson, a 6-foot-7 forward who missed last season due to injury, is healthy, he can lead the Wolverines to a surprising finish en route to first-team honors this season. Utah Valley’s season is dependent upon how quickly several transfers joining the program can gel together.

A rebuilding project continues at UT-Rio Grande Valley despite the Vaqueros returning double-digit scorers Antonio Green and Dan Kimasa.

Chicago State finished winless in conference last season. The Cougars won four games last season, only one of which came against a Division I program.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

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

The 6-foot-5 redshirt junior is the Western Atheltic Conference’s top returning scorer after averaging 16.5 points per game and was a first-team all-WAC selection during the 2015-16 season. His best game last season came against Utah Valley, where he dropped 34 points, off an efficient 8-of-12 from the field, while also connecting on 17-of-19 free throws.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON WAC TEAM:

  • Ian Baker, New Mexico State: A returning all-conference first teamer averaged 13.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. The top returning scorer for the Aggies should expect his points per game to increase.
  • Dedrick Basile, CSU Bakersfield: The 5-foot-10 senior sent the Roadrunners to the NCAA Tournament. He will be the focal point of the offense this season, a year removed from averaging 12.0 points 3.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
  • Martez Harrison, UMKC: The 2015 WAC Player of the Year averaged 15.4 points per game as a junior, making him the second-highest returning scorer in the conference. He anchors the most explosive backcourt in the WAC along with LaVell Boyd.
  • Brendan Westenhorf, Seattle: In his first season in Division I, the 6-foot-5 guard posted averages of 12.8 points (42 percent from three), 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @WACSports

PREDICTED FINISH

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