WAC SEASON PREVIEW: LAST HURRAH FOR HALF THE LEAGUE
By Raphielle Johnson
No conference was hit harder by realignment than the WAC, which will go through an interesting 2012-13 campaign as a result. Six of the ten programs will be playing their final season in the WAC, and for three of those schools (UT Arlington, UTSA and Texas State) will enjoy a one-year pit stop in the conference. So for a number of teams this becomes a race to see who can go out with a bang, but it’s also important to note that two of the teams due to remain in the WAC has the tools needed to put up a fight and win the crown themselves.
Two of the teams expected to contend for the WAC title are familiar faces: Utah State and New Mexico State. Stew Morrill’s Aggies (that’s Utah State) had a tough year when compared to prior campaigns, going 8-6 in WAC play and finishing with a record of 21-16. A trip to the CIT moved Utah State’s postseason streak to 13 consecutive years, and they didn’t allow the disappointment to hold them down as they advanced to the championship game.
Junior guard Preston Medlin, who averaged 17.0 points per game last season, leads the way and has a realistic shot of being a 180 player (50+% FG, 40+% 3PT, 90+% FT) after missing the mark by ten percentage points from the foul line and 0.4 points from the field. Forward Kyisean Reed is the leading returning rebounder, and he’ll need help in the paint when it comes to accounting for the loss of Morgan Grim. Utah State has three starters back (Danny Berger being the other), and even without Grim and Brockeith Pane that’s enough to contend for a WAC title.
As for New Mexico State, it was Marvin Menzies’ Aggies who reached the NCAA tournament behind the play of the talented Wendell McKines. Of course McKines had help, but he is one of three starters gone from last season’s WAC champions. That means a lot more will be expected of sophomore guard Daniel Mullings, who has the talent to be one of the WAC’s best players. Forwards Tyrone Watson and Bandja Sy are also back, and New Mexico State landed some talented newcomers to boot. If a few of those players can apply the lessons they’re sure to learn in non-conference game to the WAC, there’s no reason to believe that NMSU can’t win another WAC crown.
The newcomers with the best chance of winning the conference? Look no further than Denver and UT Arlington, with both teams returning impact contributors from last season. The Pioneers have one of the country’s most underrated “Swiss Army knives” in wing Chris Udofia. Simply put, whatever head coach Joe Scott needs done on the floor the junior can do. He’s one of four starters back at Denver, and the key for the Pioneers will be how they account for the 14.8 points and 2.1 assists per game supplied by the departed Brian Stafford.
Scott Cross’ Mavericks are coming off of a spectacular season that had a bit of an anticlimactic finish. UT Arlington dominated the Southland during the regular season, winning 15 of their 16 league games. But a loss in the conference tournament meant an NIT bid for a team that finished with 24 victories. This may be a new conference but that doesn’t mean the three returning starters led by forward Kevin Butler won’t be motivated to script a more suitable ending. However the loss of their top two scorers from last season (Bo Ingram and LaMarcus Reed III) could be a lot for them to overcome.
Louisiana Tech returns one of the WAC’s best guards in sophomore Raheem Appleby (13.9 ppg; WAC Freshman of the Year), and all three of their returning starters do the majority of their work on the perimeter. The key for the Bulldogs: rebounding. They were one of the worst teams in the WAC in that regard last season, to the point where newcomers Chris Anderson (Weatherford College) and Gilbert Talbot will be needed to contribute alongside returnees such as J.L. Lewis and Michale Kyser.
The best big man in the WAC? That could very well be Idaho senior center Kyle Barone, who is expected to lead the way for a Vandal squad that finished third in the WAC and won 19 games in 2011-12. He and Stephen Madison will be asked to lead the way for a team that lost three starters, the most important of which being guard Deremy Geiger. Madison raised his scoring nearly nine points from his freshman (3.7 ppg) to sophomore (12.1) season, and while expecting a similar jump this year may be a bit unrealistic getting to 15 or 16 points/game shouldn’t be too much to ask.
UTSA returns guards Kannon Burrage and Jeromie Hill, and the goal for the Roadrunners has to be redemption after a disappointing 2011-12. Coming off of an NCAA tournament appearance and returning wing Melvin Johnson III, UTSA was expected by many to contend for another Southland title and an NCAA berth. But they went 10-6 in conference play and lost their opening Southland tournament game to McNeese State in overtime. Johnson III is gone, so the burden falls upon the shoulders of Burrage and Hill.
San Jose State had a brutal season last year, winning just one of their 14 WAC games and going 9-22 overall. Senior guard James Kinney, who was named to the conference’s All-Newcomer Team last season, will be asked to lead the way for a group that lost two double-figure scorers in Will Carter and Keith Shamburger. But regardless of what Carter and Shamburger provided offensively, San Jose State was not a good defensive team. Opponents shot 49.3% from the field, something that has to change if they’re to improve the win total.
There’s also Seattle and Texas State to take into consideration, with the former finally having the carrot of playing in a conference to dangle in front of recruits. Cameron Dollar’s got some solid players, most notably junior guard Sterling Carter and forward Clarence Trent, but the loss of high-scoring guard Aaron Broussard will be tough to account for. If Central Arizona CC transfer D’Vonne Pickett can pick up the slack offensively the Redhawks are capable of pulling a surprise or two in league play.
As for the Bobcats, Doug Davalos’ squad returns three starters but just one double-figure scorer (forward Matt Staff). The have four junior college transfers who will be asked to contribute immediately, and despite the personnel losses the Bobcats have averaged 76.4 points/game or more in each of Davalos’ seasons at the school. The WAC may be in flux, but all ten members will look to make the best of it in 2012-13. Hopefully the uncertain future of the conference doesn’t overshadow some of the WAC’s talented players and teams.
1. Utah State
2. New Mexico State
4. UT Arlington
5. Louisiana Tech
8. San Jose State
10. Texas State
All-Conference Team (* denotes Player of the Year)
G Raheem Appleby (Louisiana Tech)
G Daniel Mullings (New Mexico State)
G Preston Medlin (Utah State)*
F Chris Udofia (Denver)
F Kyle Barone (Idaho)
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