This Year’s WAC May Be Better Than You Think

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on November 21st, 2017

Utah Valley’s opening weekend road trip to Kentucky and Duke — dubbed the “toughest 24 hours in college basketball” — started out with a bang for Mark Pope’s upstart program: The Wolverines stormed out to a nine-point halftime lead in Rupp Arena, led by as many 12, and stayed within single digits for much of the second half. Big Blue eventually came back and won, of course, but not before a speechless crowd — and a stunned coach — took notice: “This team, Utah Valley, they’re going to win their share of games now. They’re big… they have got a couple guys that are out that can shoot… they’re legit,” John Calipari said afterward. And he’s absolutely right. Existing on the fringe of the national discussion, Utah Valley is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the WAC’s collection of top contenders this season: a nascent program fortified with impact transfers that’s built to surprise in non-conference play.

Oregon grad transfer Casey Benson should help Grand Canyon’s title hopes. (Grand Canyon University Athletics)

Believe it or not, the Wolverines were not picked to win (or even finish second) in the league this year. That distinction belongs to none other than Grand Canyon, which is off to a 3-0 start in its first season of NCAA Tournament eligibility. After winning a combined 49 games since 2015-16, the Lopes return Preseason WAC Player of the Year Joshua Braun and several other key contributors from last season’s unit. As if that were not enough, head coach Dan Majerle (with an assist from a certain member of the coaching staff) lured Oregon graduate transfer Casey Benson, a veteran point guard who logged 21 minutes in the Ducks’ Final Four loss to North Carolina last March. Through three games, Braun (20.0 PPG) and Benson (10.0 PPG) have been awesome, and Grand Canyon — a for-profit university with an impossibly raucous home crowd — looks every bit the favorite pundits thought it would be. Even if the Lopes don’t upend St. John’s in their semi-home tilt on December 5, don’t be surprised if Majerle’s group gives Illinois loads of trouble just before the New Year.

For New Mexico State, it’s a similar story. After fading down the stretch at Saint Mary’s last week, the Aggies pummeled New Mexico, 75-56, in the first of two match-ups against the Lobos this season. As Majerle is doing at Grand Canyon, first-year coach Chris Jans — a former Gregg Marshall assistant — is interweaving high-potential transfers with proven home-grown talent, with early results suggesting good things to come. Joining Sidy N’Dir and forwards Eli Chuha and Jemerrio Jones — two of the country’s best offensive rebounders — are transfer guards Zach Lofton and AJ Harris. Lofton, perhaps the most well-traveled player in college hoops, began his career at Illinois State before transferring to San Jacinto College, before finding his way to Minnesota (dismissed) and Texas Southern — where he earned SWAC Player of the Year honors — and finally to New Mexico State as a graduate transfer. Harris is a former four-star recruit who began his career at Ohio State. With Lofton’s superior scoring ability (the 25-year old is averaging 23.7 PPG through three games), N’Dir’s athleticism, and Harris’ ability to run the point, Jans suddenly has a loaded corps of guards to match his all-league talent down low. This reality makes the Aggies a legitimate threat to win several games at the Diamond Head Classic over Christmas. 

Utah Valley turned some heads on opening weekend. (Gerry Broome, Associated Press)

After running the gauntlet on opening weekend, Utah Valley doesn’t have any opportunities left to test the big boys during the regular season. Still, it remains equipped to win a lot of basketball games. Virtually every major contributor on Pope’s team began their careers at a more high-profile program, including BYU transfers Jake Toolson and Isaac Nielson, former Utah guard Kenneth Ogbe, one-time Xavier guard Brandon Randolph, and 7’0″ Oklahoma transfer Akolda Manyang. The former Sooner and the 6’11” Nielson give the Wolverines size and length uncommon at the mid-major ranks, while Randolph — whom Calipari said “kind of surprised us” — provides well-rounded ability at the point guard position. Pope, who is laying his program’s foundation with outside talent, said to the Deseret News in July: “With a transfer, you have a guy coming in who knows what it’s about. They don’t have to grow to understand and that’s an advantage.”

Even Cal State Bakersfield and Seattle are deploying outsourced talent this season. The Roadrunners, while less reliant on transfers, are anchored down low by former Mississippi State center Fallou Ndoye. In Jim Hayford’s first year with Seattle, the Redhawks are rife with transfers, including Jordan Hill (Wisconsin), Richaud Gittens (Weber State), and Josh Hearlihy (Tulane and Vermont) — all of whom are averaging double-figure points early on. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both teams exceed expectations this season.

Of course, to suggest that the WAC is going to be a great mid-major conference would be misguided; Chicago State is sure to finish among the worst teams in college basketball again this season, while UMKC and UT Rio Grande Valley are unlikely to be much better. However, there’s no denying the league often dubbed the “loser” of conference realignment is quietly thriving on defections from, in many cases, the very schools that benefited most from that reshuffling. Despite its member schools’ incoherent geographic dispersion and lack of basketball history, the WAC’s uncommon talent pool should give high-major opponents pause in non-conference play and beyond. 

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

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