(Compare to our preseason preview here)
Notable Storylines from the season:
1. Bakersfield’s Follow-Up – After becoming the first WAC team other than New Mexico State to earn a tournament bid since 2011 (underrated streak!), Bakersfield then won the WAC regular season this year, ending the Aggies’ back-to-back run from 2015 and 2016. They lost their frontcourt from last year, but their deadly pressure defense and versatile lineup made lives miserable for WAC opponents. Another key – after barely playing during the first 2/3 of the year, junior college transfer Moataz Aly suddenly become a tower of terror defensively. Playing about 20 minutes per game, he posted an absurd block rate of 17.6% in WAC games, which would have been the best in the nation by a wide margin had he played that much all year. He was even voted to the league’s all-defense team despite one total minute in the first three games!
2. Grand Canyon Waits – Thunder Dan Majerle continues to craft his empire in Phoenix, building an elite home atmosphere and a talented roster that will finally be able to play in the conference tournament next year. They tied for 2nd in the standings this year, and despite losing stud PG Dewayne Russell, they’ll still be a force with gunner Josh Braun and developing frosh Oscar Frayer returning next year (my money says Frayer makes a sizable leap). Look out for the Antelopes!
3. No Menzies, (Mostly) No Problem – Hell of a job by Paul Weir in Las Cruces, as New Mexico State went 25-5 including a 20-game winning streak during which they beat Air Force, Arizona State, UTEP (twice), New Mexico, and UC Irvine. This was all despite a later-in-the-offseason departure by former coach Marvin Menzies, who took the UNLV job after all the drama played out in Vegas. Weir continued to preach pounding the offensive glass, and the emergences of Braxton Huggins, Jemerrio Jones, and Eli Chuha to complement Ian Baker made the Aggies as deadly as ever.
Because there’s only 7 teams, Bakersfield is already lounging in the semifinals, awaiting the winners of the three quarterfinals (I think that’s an oxymoron). The tournament is played at the Orleans Casino in Las Vegas, which makes me think two things: 1) Poor Chicago State (and UMKC) has to go to the Pacific Time Zone yet again, and 2) Wow I can’t wait to be in Las Vegas in exactly one week.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
As mentioned above, the best team is CSU Bakersfield, although they and New Mexico State would likely both earn 14 seeds if they win the tournament. It’s hard not to call the Roadrunners the favorite, though, simply because they’ll have to play one less game to secure the bid, but co-favorites is probably the most apt description. It’d be a fairly large surprise if those two aren’t squaring off on Saturday night, hopefully providing a classic like last year’s finish (check out the assistant coach taking the pile to the ground in that video – also try to avoid getting goosebumps while a school clinches its first ever bid, you can’t).
No Grand Canyon means I’m going with my other pet team in this league, Utah Valley. A team of transfers, the Wolverines notched great wins at BYU and at New Mexico State, but the consistency just wasn’t there. They have high-major talent (PG Brandon Randolph started at Xavier, Kenneth Ogbe was at Utah, Isaac Neilson was at BYU), but their disinterest in the offensive glass and their shakiness with the ball (looking at you, Brandon) ended up derailing them. They are capable of getting hot and winning three in a row, though.
(4) Utah Valley defeats (5) Seattle
(2) New Mexico State defeats (7) Chicago State
(3) UMKC defeats (6) UT-Rio Grande Valley
(1) CSU-Bakersfield defeats (4) Utah Valley
(2) New Mexico State defeats (3) UMKC
(2) New Mexico State defeats (1) CSU-Bakersfield
Despite the emergence of Moataz Aly as a shot-blocking force, he’s not much help on the defensive glass, and he’s constantly in foul trouble. I think the Aggies take advantage of numerous second-chance opportunities and open threes to narrowly edge the pesky Roadrunners in a great finale, getting revenge for last year’s heartbreaker. NMSU will need to make sure they’re sure-handed with the rock, though, or the ‘Runners could run away with it.