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Majerle, Grand Canyon closing WAC gap on New Mexico State

By Greg Peterson  (VSiN.com) 

November 9, 2017 10:10 PM

Essentially, the Western Athletic Conference is a bunch of misfits and outcasts who could not find another league to join.

At first, there was nothing but domination from New Mexico State, which has made the NCAA Tournament in five of the past six years. Though the Aggies once again represented the WAC in the dance last season, Cal State Bakersfield actually won the regular-season conference crown and made it all the way to the final four of the NIT.

Combine that with what Dan Majerle is building at Grand Canyon and Seattle attempting to get back to the basketball success it had in the 1950s and 60s with the hiring of coach Jim Hayford and you are looking at a suddenly competitive conference with any one of four teams capable of making it to the NCAA Tournament and putting a team on upset alert.

For the second straight season, New Mexico State is going through a coaching change. Last year it was Paul Weir taking over for Marvin Menzies, who bolted for UNLV, and this time it's Weir leaving for New Mexico with Chris Jans trying to fill his shoes.

For Jans, he gets the benefit of taking over the school with the conference's best backcourt. The combination of Ohio State transfer A.J. Harris and Sidy N'Dir should set the team up for immediate success. N'Dir is the team's top returning scorer. New Mexico State saw five players transfer during the offseason, yet it's going to be a challenge for anyone to stop the Aggies from going back to the dance.

Thanks to its NIT run, Bakersfield had arguably the most successful season of any team in the conference last year despite not going to the NCAA Tournament. That type of season will be tough to duplicate as the Roadrunners have a lot of players to replace.

The team leader will be Damiyne Durham, a 6-foot-4 guard who should be one of the league’s top players. Bakersfield will get ugly wins but ultimately will be in the middle of the pack in the WAC given its offseason losses.

Grand Canyon has had a team each of the past two seasons that was capable of making the NCAA Tournament from the WAC, but it was ineligible due to the NCAA's rules on schools transitioning to the D-I level. Over the past two seasons, the Lopes racked up a total of 48 wins, including wins against San Diego State the past two years.

This season, the team is eligible for postseason play and brings in guard Casey Benson from Oregon to try to lead the charge. Joshua Braun was a sophomore last year and should pair well with Benson in the backcourt after he had 17.5 points per game during the 2016-17 season.

Expect another 20-win season for Grand Canyon, but the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance is unlikely to come due to New Mexico State’s talented roster.

The conference's biggest question mark is Seattle, which has gone all-in on Hayford, who coached Eastern Washington to the 2015 NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed. He's bringing with him six transfers who played D-I basketball last season. While three of those players must sit out the 2017-18 season, Jordan Hill from Wisconsin is ready to roll.

The team also has a healthy Aaron Menzies, who towers over everyone else in the WAC with his 7-foot-3 size. He missed the final 16 games of the season due to a foot injury, but averaged 12.3 points and 6.1 rebounds before going down.

Though Utah Valley was a .500 team last year, it pulled off on of the most stunning upsets of the regular season by going to Provo and slaying Brigham Young.

The Wolverines have the most upside of any team in the conference with five of their top six scorers returning. Coach Mark Pope has done a great job of bringing in transfers from bigger schools with Kenneth Ogbe coming in from Utah, Brandon Randolph from Xavier and Isaac Neilson from BYU.

Greg Peterson’s Western Athletic Conference forecast:

1. New Mexico State

2. Grand Canyon

3. Seattle

4. Utah Valley

5. CSU Bakersfield

6. UT Rio Grande Valley

7. UMKC    

8. Chicago State

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