By Scott Haynes, Associate College Basketball Editor
OUTLOOK: Of all the conferences in the nation, perhaps none has gone through more of a transition from last season to now than the Western Athletic. The league has said farewell to both Fresno State and Nevada, who have moved on to the Mountain West, and Hawaii has chosen to hook up with the Big West Conference instead of sticking around. Instead of completely falling apart and dissolving, the WAC has gone out and rustled up some additions to the league for this year with UT Arlington, Texas State and UT San Antonio all coming over from the Southland Conference, Denver jumping from the Sun Belt and Seattle University transitioning to a more stable situation as well.
Many of the newcomers will experience considerable growing pains as they acclimate themselves to new conference rivalries and different travel scenarios, which is why existing members such as Utah State and New Mexico State will most likely be fighting for conference bragging rights come February and March.
There are quite a number of unknowns about the conference and how it is currently constituted, but if nothing else it should make for very few dull moments in 2012-13.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Utah State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Utah State; 2. New Mexico State; 3. Denver; 4. Louisiana Tech; 5. UT Arlington; 6. Idaho; 7. UT San Antonio; 8. San Jose State; 9. Seattle University; 10. Texas State.
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
UTAH STATE: One of the most dominating teams outside of the so-called power conferences the last several years, Utah State struggled a bit last season with a record of just 21-16 overall and 4-10 on the road. The team hit a major low with an overtime loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi only a few weeks into the campaign and never fully recovered for head coach Stew Morrill who is now entering his 15th season with the program. In addition to having Texas A&M-CC on the schedule once again this year, the Aggies also clash with the likes of Grand Canyon and Simon Fraser right out of the gate so hopefully the squad will be feeling good about itself long before the conference schedule begins to take a toll. The good news this time around for USU is that top scorer Preston Medlin (17.0 ppg) is back for another turn and is just a junior, which means the Aggies will probably be revolving around him for another year beyond this as well. One of the better three-point shooters in the conference and the nation Medlin, selected as the WAC Preseason Player of the Year, made good on 95-of-222 (.428) which means he was letting fly from long distance on more than half of his field goal tries. Medlin also made an effort in the paint with 4.4 boards per contest, but as long as he can remain a perimeter threat it would be smart to leave that hard work to someone like Kyisean Reed (10.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg). The key for coach Morrill will be working into the rotation a huge collection of newcomers that need experience in order to contribute down the line when the games become more important.
NEW MEXICO STATE: The lineup for the Aggies this year may not look as overwhelming as it has been in season's past, but most believe that NMSU is still one of the team's to beat in the league nonetheless. In 2011-12 the team came within one win of tying the school's all-time record for victories in a single season with 26, set almost two decades earlier, and a lot of that had to do with the program having a total of three 1,000-point scorers on the roster at the same time in Wendell McKines, Hernst Laroche and Hamidu Rahman. Unfortunately, that powerful trio is no longer hanging around Las Cruces which means there's just two returning starters from a group that finished 26-10 overall and 10-4 in conference to finish second in the WAC. Making quite the impression for the Aggies as a freshman was Daniel Mullings, so much so that he was picked for the All-WAC Preseason First Team heading into this year. Mullings started 26 of the team's 36 games as he averaged 9.3 ppg and 4.1 rpg. However, the youngster had his issues both behind the three-point arc (.217) and at the free-throw line (.619) which made him a liability at crucial times. In addition to Mullings, head coach Marvin Menzies also has Tyrone Watson as a returning starter, although Watson often operated in the background with his 7.0 ppg. Senior Bandja Sy (8.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and junior Tshilidzi Nephawe (5.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) will be handed more responsibility for sure, while they try to carry much of the load for an otherwise young group.
DENVER: A member of the Sun Belt Conference before making the jump to the WAC, the Pioneers are entering a new phase of their existence after posting their best record as a Division I entity last season when they delivered a 22-9 mark overall. Head coach Joe Scott, now in his sixth year with the squad, was able to raise more than a few eyebrows during the first weeks of the 2011-12 campaign when he guided Denver to wins over, Southern Miss, Saint Mary's and Utah State, so the other members of the WAC are well aware of this team's capabilities. Coach Scott is a bit thin on experience heading into this season as there is just one senior listed on the roster in Chase Hallam and a mere four juniors. A starter in all 28 games in which he appeared, Hallam was responsible for 7.5 ppg and 4.1 rpg and was also one of the better passers for the group with 63 assists. Most of the attention this season will fall on junior Chris Udofia who tied for the team-high in scoring with 14.5 ppg a year ago as he converted an impressive 53.4 percent of his field goal attempts. Now, if the forward could just give up on his dream of being an outside threat, having shot only 29.2 percent behind the three-point line, he and the Pioneers should be in better shape. A starter in every game as a freshman, Brett Olson is already mature beyond his years, averaging 7.6 ppg while placing second on the unit with 54 three-point conversions. Assuming Olson can again be a perimeter sniper and can get some of his teammates to also pick up that slack, that will allow Udofia to change his mindset.
LOUISIANA TECH: The ability to put together a starting lineup that could remain consistent for stretches at a time last season was difficult for the Bulldogs. In fact, not a single player started all 34 games for the group and no one was credited with more than 25 starts and now the team has lost some major contributors to the bottom line from 2011-12 so you have to expect a drop off in production and success. Head coach Michael White will be expecting Raheem Appleby to carry much of the responsibility for this unit even though he is just a sophomore. Appleby, the top scorer from last season with 13.9 ppg, played so well in his first campaign in Ruston he was named Preseason First-Team All-WAC this time around. A player who doesn't shy away from contact, Appleby made good on 71.4 percent of his free-throws and that's a key area for the Bulldogs because last season the team was outscored by 126 points at the charity stripe. Although he shot just 40.6 percent from the floor and 61.4 percent at the line, Cordarius Johnson (9.6 ppg) is still a crucial piece to the offensive puzzle for LaTech moving forward. The same goes for Brandon Gibson (7.7 ppg) who ended up being the only player to start all 14 league bouts for the Bulldogs and averaged 10.7 ppg while doing so. As someone who has a hard time hitting his mark from the field (.348), Gibson has to be more selective this season.
UT ARLINGTON: A juggernaut in the Southland Conference last season with a record of 15-1 in league play, the Mavericks may have to lower their expectations a bit this year as they kick off their first campaign as members of the WAC. Head coach Scott Cross, who himself was a UTA player not that long ago, enters his seventh season at the helm where he has made great strides. Not only did the team string together a school-record 16-game win streak in the middle of the 2011-12 campaign, the squad also reached the postseason for the third time in history and the second time in just the last several years. Unfortunately, another trip to the NIT this time around might not be in the cards considering the program has lost a couple of heavy hitters in Bo Ingram (17.8 ppg) and LaMarcus Reed (12.8 ppg) who shouldered quite a bit of the scoring load for a Mavericks group that posted 76.9 ppg overall and outscored the competition by more than nine points per outing. Kevin Butler stands as the only returnee who averaged double figures (10.8 ppg) and hopefully this year he'll be able to carve out some more room for himself in the paint where he captured almost six rebounds per game and maybe give up some of that dream of becoming a three-point shooter after knocking down just 29.4 percent of his attempts on the perimeter. Fellow senior forward Jordan Reeves (9.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) will again be a key figure on the glass for a program that cleared almost 40 rebounds per game to rank as one of the best in the country in that category.
IDAHO: While they may not have been trips to the NCAA Tournament or NIT, the Vandals have to be pleased with the fact that for just the fourth time in school history they made it to the postseason in consecutive years in 2011 and 2012, thanks to the tutelage of head coach Don Verlin who is heading into his fifth season with the program. During one stretch in 2011-12 Idaho rattled off five straight wins and victories in seven of eight contests so it was a legitimate threat to opponents who were not bringing a full effort to the floor every night. The bad news this time around is that the squad has lost three starters from a year ago, one of them being Deremy Geiger who tied for the team lead in scoring with 12.9 ppg and was the principle three-point threat who converted 87 of his 131 made field goals from beyond the arc. The good news, Idaho brings back a pair of double-digit scorers in Kyle Barone and Stephen Madison who are both capable of attacking on the inside. Now a senior, Barone averaged 12.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest a year ago, an effort that brought him All-WAC Second Team honors. Madison, one of four players to have started all 33 games for the Vandals a season ago, also has the potential to pick up some of the slack in the three-point shooting department after knocking down 47 triples which tied for second-most on the team a season ago, but his efforts on the glass (5.5 rpg) is as important if not more so. There are only a handful of underclassmen on the roster in Moscow, which means this is a season that should be successful, at least by their standards.
TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO: One of the newest additions to the WAC, Texas-San Antonio and head coach Brooks Thompson could be in for a rude awakening given the team's early schedule and the limited number of returning players who are familiar with the system. Formerly of the Southland Conference where they were 10-6 in league action and finished third in the West Division, and were 18-14 overall in 2011-12, the Roadrunners are slated to play just one game at home before kicking off action in the WAC versus Utah State near the end of December, so there's little time to waste. Listed as a player to watch for UTSA, Jeromie Hill is a junior forward who earned Second Team All-Southland honors last season as he produced 12.5 ppg and was the leader on the glass with close to six and a half boards per outing. Although he also led the team in turnovers with 80 over the course of 32 starts and shot a mere 59.6 percent at the free-throw line, Hill has proven to be a competent three-point shooter (.407), but he needs to understand that he is far more valuable in the paint than out on the perimeter. A starter in just four games a season ago, Kannon Burrage is actually the top returning scorer for the group after posting 13.5 ppg, thanks in large part to his 78.9 percent accuracy at the charity stripe. Burrage will more than likely have his minutes increased this time around since there are far too many newcomers entering the program that the Roadrunners cannot wait around for to develop. Senior guard Michael Hale III (9.9 ppg) paced the group with 99 assists last season and will be expected to serve in a similar capacity now as well.
SAN JOSE STATE: The Spartans were far from a successful program last year, able to win back-to-back games only once, against the likes of Coppin State and Seattle University, and generating just a single league win in 14 attempts as they finished eighth in the league standings. Head coach George Nessman and his players certainly expect a better outcome this time around, but losing a pair of top-notch performers will make it that much harder. Gone is Wil Carter who not only posted 13.2 ppg, he also was one of the top rebounders in the league with better than eight and a half per contest. So too is Keith Shamburger who despite his inconsistent play, he notched 13.1 ppg, 5.2 apg and 2.9 rpg as someone who could do a little bit of everything for San Jose State. Last year's leading scorer, James Kinney (15.8 ppg) will now get most of the spotlight to himself but you can be sure defenders will pay more attention to him this time around if he's capable of coming even close to his nearly 40 percent accuracy from behind the three-point line. D.J. Brown will handle much more of the passing responsibilities, and Stephon Smith will mix it up a bit more on the glass. With six newcomers added to the roster the team will need some time to blend together, and that could actually take more than just this season to bear fruit.
SEATTLE UNIVERSITY: One of the new kids on the block in the WAC, the Redhawks have completed their reclassification process to reach Division I status again, the school last was an active member at this level back in 1979-80 when it competed in the West Coast Athletic Conference. With enrollment at less than 8,000, Seattle University most likely doesn't swim in the same talent pool as most of the other schools in the league at the moment, but that doesn't mean there aren't some players to keep an eye on this season. The loss of leading scorer Aaron Broussard (18.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg) will certainly hurt the squad's chances of making a major impact right out of the gate, but given some time a new set of starters will give the team something to cheer about. The good news is that there are two returning starters from a year ago in Sterling Carter and Clarence Trent, both of whom are juniors, and together they averaged close to 20 ppg and eight rebounds per contest. Now in his fourth season at Seattle, Cameron Dollar may not have an impressive coaching record to show for his efforts just yet, but the fact that he played on the 1995 UCLA National Championship team should give him plenty of juice when it comes to motivating his players. Playing on the road in 2011-12 wasn't exactly the best experience for the Redhawks, the team winning just two of 11 true road dates, but hopefully that's something the group can improve upon moving forward.
TEXAS STATE: Even with three players scoring in double figures last season, the Bobcats finished four games under .500 overall (13-17) and a mere 5-11 in the West Division of the Southland Conference, so it only figures that the team is destined to struggle in 2012-13 with just one of those top scorers coming back. Head coach Doug Davalos is still 21 games below .500 himself as he enters his seventh campaign with Texas State, and this could easily be his toughest test of all. A Third-Team All-Southland Conference performer a year ago, senior forward Matt Staff is the one that coach Davalos will be asking to lead his squad on the floor. Not only did Staff pace the team with 13.3 ppg, he was also by far the chief rebounder as well with almost eight per game, and yet he also found time and opportunity to knock down 24-of-56 (.429) behind the three-point line. The best line of defense for the Bobcats, Staff was credited with 44 blocked shots, nearly half the unit's total of 96, which means he has a considerable amount of pressure weighing on him right now. Senior guard Vonn Jones (7.7 ppg) scored his fair share of points last season, but he was much more valuable as a passer and defender as he led the program with 118 assists and 52 steals, but even those numbers were not enough to mask the fact that he shot only 37.4 percent from the field and 28.4 percent from beyond the arc.