|Sim Bhullar has dominated WAC like undersized teams of late. Aggies could ride Bhullar to another WAC title.|
LAS CRUCES — The Western Athletic Conference has survived as a basketball league for the time being.
But this is truly the last year the league will remotely resemble the same conference that New Mexico State joined in 2005-06 as Utah State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech join the mass exodus of familiar foes after this season. The quality of the league has suffered, but this year’s WAC consists of 10 schools, including five newcomers — four of whom won’t be around next year.
It could be a fun race to watch, but don’t get too attached to one particular team because it will all continue to shake up next season.
Here are five story lines as WAC play opens this weekend:
Off to an average start: It doesn’t get much more mediocre than this. WAC teams combined for a 49-49 start to the season in non-conference play. The WAC is the No. 18 RPI conference in the country as only three teams enter conference play better than .500. Some schools like New Mexico State and Denver have played challenging non-conference schedules while failing to gather quality wins while others such as Utah State has collected wins without testing themselves against quality competition. More teams means 18 league games. It’s likely that 15 wins can win the league title in what should develop into a three, possibly four-team race. It results in what has been the case for some time — only one WAC team will enter the NCAA Tournament.
Aggies vs. Aggies: Either New Mexico State or Utah State has won the last four WAC Tournament championships. Rivalries are born when championships are on the line, but this year will be the last time both will be in the league as the UtAgs head for the Mountain West next season. NMSU has won three tournament titles since joining the league with Utah State in 2005-06. The Aggies are 2-1 against Utah State in WAC Tournament play, beating Utah State in the 2006-07 and 2009-10 championship games. Utah State has appeared in the WAC Tournament championship game in five of the seven years since joining the league. The two programs were picked atop the WAC once again. It would only be fitting to settle things with another NCAA bid on the line.
Watch out for those Bulldogs: Louisiana Tech is proving to be no one-hit wonder after spoiling its way into the WAC Tournament championship game last year as a No. 5 seed. The Bulldogs are 9-3 this season and they lead the WAC in scoring with 73.8 points per game. Defensively the Bulldogs are fourth in the league at defensive field goal percentage (40.8 percent) and they force 17.5 turnovers per game.
New faces: WAC coaches picked Denver to finish third in the preseason poll as the Pioneers were the highest regarded of the five new schools. But the Pioneers have done little in the non-conference to inspire confidence with just four wins despite playing one of the league’s toughest schedules. Texas Arlington is 5-3 entering WAC play.
Top players: Daniel Mullings is the best player on New Mexico State’s roster, but the Aggies have found a dominant presence in 7-foot-5 freshman center Sim Bhullar. The Aggies will have a substantial size advantage on opponents in league play. In the Aggies last three games against such teams (Southern Mississippi, South Alabama, Missouri State), Bhullar is shooting 78 percent and averaging 18 points per game. San Jose State’s James Kinney leads the WAC ins scoring with 22.6 points per game and Louisiana Tech’s super sophomore Raheem Appleby is third at 17.8 points per game. The WAC’s preseason player of the year, Utah State’s Preston Medlin, has been slow to heat up, averaging 13.6 points per game to start the year.