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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

Three Things To Know: Memphis embarrassed; Luka Garza shows out again

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The story of the night in hoops was Zion Williamson’s return to the basketball court.

But there was plenty of action in the college ranks that is worthy of talking about.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. No. 20 MEMPHIS LOST BY 40 TO TULSA

That is not a typo.

The 20th-ranked team in the country went into Tulsa, Okla., and lost to the Golden Hurricane, 80-40. Tulsa was up 40-17 at halftime. This was a butt-whooping that was so bad that all Tulsa needed to do was score a single point in the second half and they would have been able to get the win.

Memphis shot 28 percent from the floor. They were 2-for-21 from three. They finished the night with more turnovers (20) and fouls (22) than field goals (16). This was the worst loss that a top 25 team has suffered against a ranked team in 27 years, since UConn beat then-No. 12 Virginia by 41 points.

For Tulsa, this is a massive, massive win. They are currently sitting all alone in first place in the American standings, a half-game up on Houston.

So good for Frank Haith.

But the story here is Memphis, because the Tigers, considered title contenders before the season began, look anything-but right now.

“We let our defense dictate our offense,” head coach Penny Hardaway told reporters after the game. “We didn’t play any defense today. I think today was the first day we’ve done that ll year. I don’t know if guys overlooked Tulsa because of the name. We did our due diligence as a coaching staff to let them know what was going to happen with the matchup zone and how hard they play.

“It’s pretty embarrassing.”

2. LUKA GARZA WENT NUTS AGAIN

If it seems like Garza is putting up monster numbers every games, it’s because he is.

On Wednesday night, the Hawkeyes welcomed newly-ranked Rutgers to campus and sent them home with an entertaining, hard-fought, 85-80 win. And Garza was the star of the show. He finished with 28 points, 13 boards, four blocks and two steals in the win, anchoring the paint as Iowa out-scored Rutgers 47-37 in the second half.

The big fella is now averaging 23 points and 10.5 boards.

Iowa has now won four straight games to move into a tie for third in the Big Ten standings — with Rutgers, among others — and they have won eight straight games in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are a third of the way through a three-game homestand as well.

3. VIRGINIA TECH TAKES DOWN NORTH CAROLINA

Virginia Tech kept up their push to finish as the fourth-best team in the ACC with a 79-77 double-overtime win over North Carolina.

The Hokies are now 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC, but the more interesting story might actually be the Tar Heels.

They are 8-10 on the season and 1-6 in the ACC. They have been a disaster for the last month, but there may be some reinforcements on the way in the shape of Cole Anthony. If he returns and the Tar Heels, who are 2-7 in his absence but have wins over Alabama and Oregon with him, get things back on the right track, they are likely going to find themselves in an incredibly awkward situation on Selection Sunday.

Big 12 hands down Kansas-Kansas State fight suspensions

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The Big 12 handed down suspensions to four Kansas and Kansas State players for their role in the fight that occurred in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Silvio De Sousa, who tried to fight three different Kansas State players and picked up a stool during the melee, received a 12 game suspension from the conference. David McCormack, who went into the stands to confront James Love III, received a two game suspension. Love was given eight games for part in the fight, while Antonio Gordon, the freshman that turned a messy situation into a fight, was hit with a three game suspension.

“This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last evening’s events,” said Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.  “I am appreciative of the cooperation of both institutions in resolving this matter.”

In the final seconds on Tuesday night, after DaJuan Gordon stole the ball from him at halfcourt, De Sousa blocked Gordon’s shot and towered over him. That sparked an incident that turned into a full-fledged brawl, as De Sousa threw punches at three different players on Kansas State before picking up a stool as the fight spilled into the handicapped section of Kansas seating.

Self called the fight “an embarrassment” after the game, adding on Wednesday that “we are disappointed in [De Sousa’s] actions and there is no place in the game for that behavior.”

McCormack will be eligible to return for Kansas on Feb. 1st when they play Texas Tech at home. De Sousa will be available to play in the final game of the regular season at Texas Tech. Gordon can return on Feb. 3rd, when the Wildcats host Baylor, while Love will be out until late February. But he has played just one game and two minutes on the season, so there is no clear indication of when he will actually put on a Kansas State jersey again.

The four most important questions after Kansas-Kansas State fight

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Very other sport can treat brawls like comedy, and I think it’s about time that we did the same for basketball.

So let’s take a look at the four funniest moments from last night’s Kansas-Kansas State fight. Shouts to Jomboy:

1. IS THE KANSAS MASCOT OK?

Throughout the entire fight, the mascot is just in utter disbelief. He cannot believe what he just saw, and he certainly cannot be consoled:

2. CAN JEREMY CASE START AT LINEBACKER FOR KU’S FOOTBALL TEAM?

Case is the video coordinator for Kansas. He’s also a former Kansas point guard. He knows what this rivalry is all about, and he also is not going to be afraid to get in the middle of it.

Case starts out on the wrong side of the melee:

But when he sees De Sousa and Love squaring up and throwing punches, he intervenes by throwing himself into a player six inches taller than him:

3. WHAT HAPPENED TO JAMES LOVE III’S SHOE?

James Love the third has played in exactly one game this season. He has spent more time on the court fighting that he has actually playing, but he still found a way to get into the middle of this fight and, in the process, lost his shoe:

He’s not dressed for the game.

Did he bring an extra pair of shoes? Did he have to head back onto the bus without a shoe on this right foot? So many questions, so few answers.

4. WHO IS THE MAN IN THE ORANGE HAT?

He’s some kind of photographer.

He got his shot, that’s for sure:

Kansas-Kansas State fight: Nuance, context the key in Silvio De Sousa discussion

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So I wanted to elaborate on a point that I made on twitter this morning because 280 characters just is not enough to be able to parse through the nuance of this situation.

If you missed it, the thread is here.

First and foremost, everyone involved in this needs to be punished. Silvio De Sousa needs to be suspended. Antonio Gordon needs to be suspended. James Love III needs to be suspended. David McCormack, and potentially Marcus Garrett, probably need to be suspended, although I’m not sure either of them actually through a punch. Point being, anyone else that threw a punch needs to be suspended.

Full stop.

I am not saying otherwise.

But I think that it is important to add some context to the conversation, and I also think that it is important to say this: This doesn’t make any of the young men involved in this fight bad people. Silvio De Sousa is not inherently a bad person because he picked up a stool, and the faux-trage of people calling for him to get booted out of school, arrested or even deported are, at best, completely over-reacting and, at worst, showing off a bit of their racial bias.

Before I get into this, one more thing: I am not condoning any of it. Fights like this should not happen.

But the reality of hyper-competitive athletics is that in emotionally charged situations, fights are going to happen. And if you’ve ever been in a fight like this, you know that things happen incredibly quickly. You’re not thinking, you’re reacting. You can’t call a 20 second time out to come up with a way to defend yourself when someone is throwing haymakers, you just do what you can in the moment.

So let’s talk about the moment, shall we?

De Sousa is the guy that set this entire thing in motion with the way that he reacted to DaJuan Gordon’s steal and layup attempt. The reason the Kansas State bench rushes over to the scene is because De Sousa is towering over one of their freshman teammates, and the reason the Kansas sideline runs over is because the Kansas State sideline does. What turned this incident into a full-fledged brawl was Antonio Gordon flying in and shoving De Sousa over the back of the basket stanchion. De Sousa reacts by throwing punches at two different Kansas State players when a third player — James Love III, in the black polo — comes flying in and squares up with him. They both throw a few punches at each other, knocking De Sousa back over the stanchion again as Kansas staffer Jeremy Case comes flying in to break them up.

Put yourself in De Sousa’s shoes here. In the span of 10 seconds, he’s fought three different Kansas State players, sees nothing but purple in front of him and just got knocked to the ground. Is he getting jumped? Does he have to fight them 1-on-3? That’s when he grabs the stool, to defend himself, and when he sees that no one is coming after him anymore, he drops it:

Context.

He should be suspended for 8-10 games.

He set this entire thing in motion.

But maybe, just maybe, tone down the rhetoric.

Women’s Wednesday: A new column dedicated to the women of college basketball

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Welcome to CBT’s first ever weekly women’s basketball column. I’m here to help provide you with some insight into the world of women’s college hoops.

Women’s sports are reaching new heights, especially in basketball. The WNBA announced a new collective bargaining agreement starting in the 2020 season that includes a 53 percent raise, maternity benefits, a base salary and performance-based bonuses. This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament will be broadcasted in its entirety on ESPN, with the semifinals and championship game premiering in primetime.

Female athletes are beginning to garner the attention they deserve. Sabrina Ionescu is drawing national attention for a historic senior season, as she has 22 career triple-doubles and became Oregon’s all-time leading basketball scorer in her career-high 37-point performance against Stanford last week. In the WNBA, women such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and more are shattering gender stereotypes and proving that women can play basketball at a high level, just as men can.

While women’s sports have made a push into the public eye, there is still quite a way to go. It’s important to place an emphasis on the women who excel in their sport and give them the spotlight they deserve. Too many times women are only given credit through a masculine lens, whether that’s only getting attention after receiving praise from men, being compared to a male counterpart, or being a footnote in a male athlete’s story. Female athletes deserve to be their own story.

That’s what I’m hoping to do with this column over the rest of the season — give women a place to shine. I’d like to use this space to highlight some of the amazing women that play in the NCAA and hear from them about their experiences, the records they’re setting and their basketball journey. While I won’t even begin to make a dent in the breadth of talent available in women’s college basketball, I hope to use this column each week to take a deeper dive into some incredible women, as well as give you an idea of what’s happening around the country that week.

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

South Carolina sits atop the world of college hoops, earning 22 first-place votes from the AP panel to nab the No. 1 spot. The Gamecocks have an 18-1 record with wins over ranked opponents such as Maryland, Baylor, Kentucky and most recently Mississippi State.

Baylor — the reigning national champs —- sits in the No. 2 spot in the rankings after dethroning UConn and ending its dominant 98-game winning streak at home. The Lady Bears received six of the first-place votes from the AP committee.

The rest of the top five is filled out by UConn at No. 3, Oregon at No. 4 after beating then-No. 3 Stanford, and Louisville rounds it out at fifth, receiving the last two first-place votes.

In a monster performance against Stanford, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu had a career-high 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. She has four triple-doubles on the season and has a chance to become the NCAA’s first player to eclipse 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. As of Jan. 18, she has 2,265 points, 904 rebounds and 928 assists.

DePaul remains unbeaten in the Big East, with Chante Stonewall leading the team with 17.9 ppg while Kelly Campbell has 102 assists on the season, ranking No. 8 in the country.

Baylor’s 40-point victory over then-No. 17 West Virginia is their 45th consecutive Big 12 win.

Mississippi State’s JaMya Mingo-Young and Aliyah Matharu combined for 24 points and four steals off the bench in a close 79-81 loss to South Carolina on Monday.

Star freshman and No. 1 recruit Haley Jones suffered an apparent right knee injury and left Stanford’s Sunday win over Oregon State. She is scheduled to have an MRI but the team has given no further updates.

North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane has 20+ points in four of her last six games and 10 double-doubles on the season, helping the Wolfpack to a dominant win over Florida State last week.

UCLA became the last undefeated team to fall with a double overtime loss to USC — who hadn’t yet won a Pac-12 matchup —  on Friday.

Northwestern made its debut this season in the Top-25, coming in at No. 22 — its first ranking since the 2015-2016 season.

No. 3 Oregon faces rival No. 7 Oregon State on Friday in a crucial Pac-12 matchup.

Stanford freshman Fran Belini threw down a one-handed dunk in pregame warmup before facing Oregon that you HAVE to see: