The Western Athletic Conference still has a pulse. It faces a long, long rehabilitation period to stability, but at least a few positive signs were visible in 2013-14.
As expected, the WAC struggled overall, with just two schools finishing with winning records. New Mexico State, the lone heavyweight left from prior days of prosperity, scored the league’s three biggest wins (at New Mexico, plus a sweep of UTEP) and, in fact, the WAC’s only three top 100 RPI wins. And, sure enough, the Aggies also won the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, just as expected before the season.
It goes without saying that, in the short term, the WAC will go as far as New Mexico State can take it-NMSU is capable of regularly competing for NCAA tourney wins, and its overall profile is similar to a Conference USA school. Long term, though, the WAC’s health will be determined by if other members can step up to the Aggies’ level, and how quickly they can do it.
In that regard, the year offered glimmers of hope. For while the Aggies were heavy favorites coming into the season, they were not the immovable object many expected. NMSU didn’t even win the regular season title, as Utah Valley surprised everyone by coming in first. The Wolverines won 20 games and posted a 13-3 league mark in their first year in the league, or 10 more wins than their previous year in the now-defunct Great West Conference. Dick Hunsaker’s team was upset by Idaho in the WAC Tournament semifinals but still advanced to the NIT for the first time in school history.
Grand Canyon, under former NBA star Dan Majerle, also finished third in the WAC in its first year of transitioning to NCAA Division I. It’s still four more years until the Antelopes are eligible for the NCAA tourney, but the resources and fan support suggest this is a program to keep an eye on, and perhaps one the WAC can build around.
The rest of the league was not very good, though it should be noted schools like Seattle and Missouri-Kansas City are capable of better. While far from a sure thing, there is still hope for the WAC to become a steady conference again. Modest as that goal may be, it’s more than many predicted of a league that was on the brink of extinction not long ago.
|New Mexico State||12-4||26-10|
The first and last games of the 2014 WAC Tournament were snoozers. Otherwise, quietly the WAC put on a very competitive tourney loaded with close games and some upsets in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Utah Valley jumped all over No. 8 Texas-Pan American in the tournament opener, shooting 80% in the first half and 70.5% for the game and looking the part of a No. 1 seed an 83-63 win. Two mild upsets followed, as No. 5 Idaho edged No. 4 UMKC 73-70 and sixth-seeded Cal State-Bakersfield knocked out No. 3 Chicago State 68-62, and another upset nearly took place in the final game of the day, as No. 2 seed New Mexico State had to hold on to defeat No. 7 Seattle 70-68.
The semifinals started with an upset, as Idaho got 21 points from its bench in a 74-69 win over top seed Utah Valley. Another stunner was brewing in the second semifinal when New Mexico State fell behind by nine at the half against Bakersfield’s Roadrunners, but the Aggies shot 73.9% in the second half to rally for a 69-63 win.
The championship game was close for about 10 minutes, but New Mexico State left little doubt of the outcome after that. The Aggies shot 55.8% for the game in a 77-55 win over Idaho to clinch their fourth WAC tourney title and accompanying NCAA tourney bid in five years.
Player of the Year: Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State
Freshman of the Year: Martez Harrison, Missouri-Kansas City
Coach of the Year: Dick Hunsaker, Utah Valley
Ben Aird, C, Sr., Utah Valley
Holton Hunsaker, G, Sr., Utah Valley
Killian Larson, C, Sr., Grand Canyon
Stephen Madison, F, Sr., Idaho
Daniel Mullings, G, Jr., New Mexico State
- Utah Valley won the WAC title in its first year in the conference
- New Mexico State scored the biggest win of the season by a WAC team, winning at rival New Mexico 67-61 on Dec. 17. The Aggies also swept a home-and-home with UTEP.
- Grand Canyon qualified for the College Insider Tournament in its first year of D-I competition. The Antelopes lost a narrow 69-67 decision in the first round to a Pacific team that advanced to the CIT final.
What we expected, and it happened: New Mexico State represented the WAC in the NCAA Tournament, and did so very nicely, nearly upsetting San Diego State. And NMSU’s Daniel Mullings was the best player in the conference, as expected.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Seattle was a disappointment. The Redhawks got off to an 8-3 start in non-conference play, but couldn’t sustain it and tied for the basement in the WAC.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: New Mexico State was expected to waltz through the WAC, but Utah Valley wrestled the regular season title from the Aggies.
Team(s) on the rise: Grand Canyon, Missouri-Kansas City. The easy choice is Grand Canyon, but the ’Lopes still have four more years until they’re eligible for the NCAA Tournament. We’ll go with the Kangaroos. Coach Kareem Richardson is regarded as an ace recruiter and will build around quality freshman Martez Harrison, the Kangaroos will gain some D-I transfers next year, and UMKC made a nice move in going back to venerable Municipal Auditorium in downtown K.C.
Team on the decline: Chicago State loses four starters, including Scottie Pippen’s nephew Quinton, and a total of eight seniors.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Idaho returns to the Big Sky next year, bringing the WAC back down to eight teams. Whether the Vandals were around or not, this is still New Mexico State’s league to rule in the near term. Utah Valley loses just too much to be expected to topple the Aggies, and even if Grand Canyon continues to improve, it is still a long way from NCAA Tournament eligibility.
The rest of the league you can draw from a lotto hopper. Utah Valley should stay in the first division, while Seattle returns four starters, including high-scoring guard Isiah Umipig. Can the Redhawks make a Utah Valley-like move and challenge for the title next year? UMKC, Chicago State, Cal State-Bakersfield and Texas-Pan American all look to be rebuilding, but most teams in this conference are so closely bunched right now that a surprise player or two could make the difference between fourth and eighth.
The bigger question for next year is just how far can New Mexico State go? Mullings returns for his senior year, and though 7-foot-5 mammoth Sim Bhullar declared for the pros, his smaller brother (7-3) Tanveer comes off a redshirt year and should step right into the lineup. As if that wasn’t enough size, 6-10 Tshilidzi Nephawe (second team all-WAC) also returns. The Aggies’ weakness is outside; they weren’t very good shooting from there last year. The inside game should be good enough to dominate the WAC, but better balance could make the difference between a team losing early in the NCAA Tournament and one capable of making a run to the Sweet 16.