How does one college basketball program become a bigger fish? Make the pond smaller, of course.
That’s been New Mexico State’s game for the last five years. Once the Western Athletic Conference – a conference that at one point was the first in football to have 16 teams in it– discontinued football after the 2011 season, the Aggies lord over the diminutive eight-team conference.
They haven’t missed the NCAA tournament since the WAC downsized, by virtue of winning the conference tournament each time. Even though last year’s regular season championship was its first since 2008.
There really hasn’t been much to show for their tournament streak. The Aggies haven’t reached the sweet sixteen since 1992 (vacated by the NCAA due to academic fraud) or the Final Four since 1970.
This season may not be any different for the Aggies, who will be led by sophomore forward Pascal Siakam. Siakam earned first team All-WAC honors last year when he averaged 12.8 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game. Joining him in the frontcourt will be 7-3 sophomore center Tanveer Bhullar, who, like his older brother Sim Bhullar did before him, will be tasked with clogging up the paint.
Junior guard Ian Baker (9.3 PPG) is expected to continue on as one of the better shooters in the WAC, and will be reinforced by newcomers Rene Esparza, Sidy Ndir and Rashawn Brown.
While New Mexico State may still have the best team of the WAC, Missouri Kansas City has the conference’s best player in junior guard Martez Harrison. On top of being the conference’s leading scorer with 17.5 points per game, he is also the best defensive guard. That alone makes him a huge threat to the Aggies’ run at WAC Tournament dominance should they clash with the Roos in Las Vegas.
Grand Canyon looks to be New Mexico State’s biggest competitor. Even though the Lopes are in their third season as a Division I program and are two years away from being eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament, former Phoenix Suns great and head coach Dan Majerle is gunning for the regular season banner.
Thanks to Majerle’s keen ability to recruit through the transfer wire, the Lopes will also have a new look in their frontcourt with forward Grandy Glaze (coming from St. Louis) and center Uros Ljeskovic (coming from Costal Carolina). Still, the most efficient high-tempo offense in the WAC centers around the backcourt duo of senior point guard DeWayne Russell (14.2 PPG, 90 assist) and sophomore guard Joshua Braun (11.8 PPG, 4.9 RPG).
Seattle is expected to big this season. With a frontcourt that consists of forward William Powell (7.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG) along with 7-3 center Aaron Menzies and 6-11 center Jack Cook (6.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG) as the twin towers from Manchester, England, the Redhawks are going to usually be coming out as the victor in the rebound battle.
Speaking of big rebounders, Cal State Bakersfield has the conference’s leading rebounder in senior forward Kevin Mays (9.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG). He and fellow returning senior big Aly Ahmed (13.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG) will lead a squad that consists of eight junior college players, including Damiyne Durham from Baylor, making the Roadrunners the wild card of the WAC.
Mark Pope will make his debut as head coach at Utah Valley this season and his first task will be to turn around the lowest scoring offense in the WAC. Junior power forward Zach Nelson is the only returning player who averaged more than 10 points per game last season.
Chicago State finished last season tied with the newly named Texas Rio Grand Valley for last place in the WAC. With four starters not returning, senior small forward Jared Dimakos (6.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG) to break out and create a spark that can lead to a surprise conference tournament run.
With all its competitors, New Mexico State is still the favorite to represent the WAC in the NCAA Tournament. We’ll get a good look at the Aggies when they take on New Mexico, Baylor and Wichita State.