|Photo by Shari V. Hill|
I have Sim Bhullar as my Preseason WAC Player of the Year. The WAC preseason Poll and Player Awards will be released Tuesday morning from Las Vegas.
This year’s preseason ballot was the toughest yet since I’ve covered the Western Athletic Conference for the Sun-News.
And not in a good way.
The departure of teams like Utah State, Nevada, Fresno State, Boise State, Hawaii and Denver to name a few over the past handful of years has diluted a once relevant basketball conference.
New Mexico State has proven to be a player in the league each and every year since joining in 2006. Aggies fans can rejoice in the fact that NMSU should be near unanimous selection as the preseason favorite to win the conference on Tuesday when the preseason coaches and media polls are unveiled from Las Vegas at the Orleans Arena, site of the WAC Tournament in March.
NMSU has won the last two tournament championships. The only thing missing from Marvin Menzies’ WAC resume in his first six years is an outright regular season title. Menzies should be able to cross that off the list this year.
It’s extremely early and with six new teams joining the conference in 2013-14, any preseason ballot should be taken with a grain of salt, but here is how I voted:
New Mexico State Aggies >>> The Aggies were very big and very good last year. They are bigger and could be better this year.
NMSU’s 7-foot-5 sophomore center Sim Bhullar was the WAC Tournament Most Valuable Player as a freshman last season. Bhullar should be a first-team talent this year after averaging 10 points on 62 percent shooting with seven rebounds per game and blocking a school record 85 shots last year in 24 minutes per game. Bhullar was only able to contribute at that level due to season ending thumb surgery to 6-foot-10 junior Tshilidzi Nephawe. Nephawe returns this year, as well as 6-foot-8 senior power forward Renaldo Dixon. The Aggies also added Bhullar’s younger brother, 7-foot-3 Tanveer Bhullar. The elder Bhullar and Dixon join All-WAC guard Daniel Mullings and junior point guard K.C. Ross-Miller as returning starters from Menzies’ third NCAA Tournament team. The Aggies hope that junior college transfer DK Eldridge, a 6-foot-2 transfer from New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, could add some scoring and athletic ability on the wing. Freshmen point guard Travon Landry signed at Tennessee but found his way to Las Cruces and Ian Baker will also compete in the second semester for time at point guard, a position that will be key if the Aggies hope to take another step forward in the Big Dance.
Idaho >>> The Vandals only land here because they are one of three returning programs to the WAC and they have two solid returners. The truth is, the Vandals finished sixth in the WAC last year at 7-11 in league play. The Vandals lost the best player in the conference in center Kyle Barone and this year’s team looks like a young group with six freshmen and 12 new players overall. Fortunately for the Vandals, they have the leading returning scorer in the league and the best 3-point shooter in the WAC. Senior wing Stephen Madison is the leading returning scorer in the WAC with 14.1 points per game last year, which was seventh in the conference. Junior guard Connor Hill was second in the league in 3-point percentage last year at 44 percent. Don Verlin is in his sixth year at Idaho. He’s typically done better when his team is a question mark rather than a front runner. You could argue this year’s team is both.
Seattle >>> Seattle finished dead last in the WAC last year at 8-22 overall and 3-15 in the league play. So why so high this year? Simply put, transfers and the fact that although the WAC was not as strong as previous years, it was still a better league than the competition incoming schools faced. Seattle also found a way to compete against the better teams in the league last year. Seattle lost its two games to NMSU by a combined four points, taking the Aggies to double overtime in Seattle. The Redhawks lost to conference runner-up Texas-Arlington by two at home. Perhaps transfers such as Isiah Umipig and Emerson Murray could help get the Redhawks over the hump. Umipig was the sixth man of the year in the Big West at Fullerton in 2010-11 and he averaged 13 points per game his sophomore season in 2011-12.
California-Bakersfield >>> The first of the six incoming schools, Bakersfield went 14-16 as an independent last year. Bakersfield beat former WAC member Texas-San Antonio twice, beat Seattle on the road and beat WAC newcomer Utah Valley and lost in overtime to fellow WAC newcomer Texas Pan American last year. Bakersfield has also given the Aggies close games in the past, nearly beating NMSU in Bakersfield two years ago.
Texas-Pan American >>> I went with the team with the best record of the three incoming teams from the Great West Conference here. Pan Am was second in the Great West, finishing second at 5-3. Chicago State and Utah Valley University finished 3-5. Former Stetson and Akron head coach Dan Hipshire was hired in April as head coach. Hipshire was the associated head coach at Alabama the past four years.
Missouri-Kansas City >>> Missouri-Kansas City finished in the middle of the Summit League last year, but UMKC lost its top two scorers from a team that went 5-11 in the Summit League and 8-24 overall. UMKC also hired a new coach in the offseason, first-time head coach Kareem Richardson, who was an assistant most recently at Louisville last year. The Summit League featured South Dakota State and North Dakota State last year, both Top 75 RPI programs, but the league as a whole finished as the No. 19 RPI league, six spots lower than the WAC.
Grand Canyon University >>> Grand Canyon wasn’t a Division I school last year and isn’t eligible for postseason play this year, but with a former NBA player heading up the program and a number of Division I transfers ready to play, GCU is an intriguing program in the desert. Former Phoenix Sun Dan Majerle was hired to coach GCU after a 23-8 season and appearance in the Division II National Tournament. University of New Mexico transfer Demetrius Walker and Texas A&M transfer Daniel Alexander are each eligible to play this season.
Utah Valley University >>> Utah Valley finished 14-8 overall last year and 3-5 in the Great West. UVU returns leading scorer and rebounder Ben Aird, a 6-foot-9 senior center who led the team with 15 points and nine rebounds per game. Guard Holton Hunsaker averaged 13 points per game and shot 36 percent from 3-point range.
Chicago State >>> Chicago State won the Great West Tournament last year and reached the CollegeInsider.com tournament. Chicago State’s best player is Quinton Pippen, a nephew of NBA Hall of Fame player Scottie Pippen on a team that finished 11-22 and was the No. 320 ranked RPI team.
My individual ballot
Player of the Year >> Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State: Dominant force as last season wore on. Should only improve in 2013
First team All-WAC
Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State: Mullings was eighth in the WAC in scoring last year with 13.8 points per game and he led the league with 2.26 steals per game.
Stephen Madison, Idaho: Madison is the leading returning scorer in the WAC after scoring 14.1 points per game last year.
Isiah Umipig, Seattle: Umipig was the sixth man of the year in the Big West Conference as a freshman at Fullerton in 2010-11. He averaged 13 points per game and shot 37 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore the following year.
Demetrius Walker, Grand Canyon: University of New Mexico transfer who was a starter early last year for the Lobos. Streaky player who showed a scoring touch in limited minutes at UNM before leaving the program.