There’s really no way around it; there is a perceived gap between New Mexico State and everyone else in the Western Athletic Conference, and that gap was quite real in the 2014-15 season.
The lone link between the WAC’s former days as a solid top 15 basketball conference and its current location near the bottom of NCAA Division I, the Aggies dominated the league, winning the regular season title by five games and eventually nabbing their fourth consecutive WAC tourney title and NCAA Tournament bid. NMSU lost just once in WAC play and outscored league opponents by an average of 14.2 points, winning 13 straight games entering the NCAA Tournament.
Weathering a rash of injuries from early-to-midseason, Marvin Menzies’ team improved and by the end of the year was pretty darn good. New Mexico State almost certainly would’ve been a trendy upset pick in the NCAA Tournament-that is, if the selection committee didn’t conveniently ignore its supposed consideration of teams’ injuries and instead plunked the Aggies with a 15 seed and a matchup with Kansas in the first round.
The Aggies currently are on a different level from their league peers, a Mountain West- or Conference USA-type program competing against a mix of long-time Division I wanderers and newbies. Those other seven programs give it their best shot and occasionally even beat NMSU, but the Aggies’ talent and resources are clearly a notch or two above.
At this point, the WAC continues to be New Mexico State’s personal sandbox. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, though, it is in the conference’s location (metropolitan areas such as Kansas City, Phoenix and Seattle) and that it includes multiple programs that appear to be on the upswing.
Still in its transition to full Division I membership, Grand Canyon advanced to the CIT for the second consecutive year. Seattle made its first postseason appearance since rejoining D-I and defeated respected Pepperdine and Colorado of the Pac-12 in advancing to the semifinals of the CBI. Missouri-Kansas City featured the league’s player of the year in Martez Harrison, and coach Kareem Richardson’s building plan continues to be on track, with a big step up possible in Year Three.
Utah Valley proved a year ago that New Mexico State is not infallible and that WAC teams at their best can challenge the Aggies. Four straight WAC tourney titles, though, says the road to the league title clearly runs through Las Cruces until proven otherwise.
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Grand Canyon remains in its transition phase to Division I, so seven teams converged on the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas for the WAC Tournament, where top seed New Mexico State went hunting for its fourth consecutive tourney title.
The three quarterfinals went according to seed. No. 2 UMKC topped No. 7 Texas-Pan American 70-61, third-seeded Seattle held off No. 6 Chicago State 49-45 and 4 seed Cal State-Bakersfield handled No. 5 Utah Valley 55-40. The semifinals brought the tourney’s lone upset, at least by seed, as Seattle knocked out UMKC 69-63. New Mexico State had a struggle with Bakersfield in the other semi but held off the Roadrunners 57-53 with Tshilidzi Nephawe piling up 19 points and 14 rebounds.
For the second straight year, the Aggies came into the WAC title game as a heavy favorite and quickly established their superiority. Seattle was the lone team in the WAC to defeat New Mexico State in the regular season, but the Redhawks’ hopes for another were dealt a blow out of the gate. Not known for their outside shooting, the Aggies hit three quick three-pointers and 8 of 15 from deep for the game. NMSU also stifled Seattle defensively with its backcourt pressure, never trailing in a dominating 80-61 win.
Player of the Year: Martez Harrison, G, So., Missouri-Kansas City
Freshman of the Year: Pascal Siakam, F, New Mexico State
Coach of the Year: Marvin Menzies, New Mexico State
Aly Ahmed, C, Jr., Cal State-Bakersfield
Martez Harrison, G, So., Missouri-Kansas City
Daniel Mullings, G, Sr., New Mexico State
Pascal Siakam, F, Fr., New Mexico State
Isiah Umipig, G, Sr., Seattle
- As mentioned, New Mexico State won its fourth consecutive WAC Tournament and made its fourth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
- Seattle played in the CBI and advanced to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Loyola (Ill.). The Redhawks defeated Pepperdine in the first round for their first Division I postseason tourney win since 1964.
- Seattle’s Umipig ranked third in Division I in three pointers made (123) and threes per game (3.62).
- Cal State-Bakersfield and High Point opened their campaigns with what was one of the longest games of the entire season, with High Point defeating the Roadrunners 100-99 in four overtimes.
- In addition to Seattle’s postseason run, WAC schools posted several notable regular season wins. The Redhawks defeated Big West champion UC Davis, Bakersfield upset California, UMKC knocked off Missouri in its season opener and Grand Canyon defeated New Mexico.
What we expected, and it happened: New Mexico State dominated the WAC, to the surprise of no one.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: The conference race developed largely as predicted before the season, but if there was one minor disappointment it was that New Mexico State was generally unsuccessful against the biggest names on its non-conference schedule. Injuries were a factor in some cases as the Aggies’ came up shy against Baylor, Colorado State, New Mexico (twice), St. Mary’s, Wichita State and Wyoming, with conquests of UTEP and UC Irvine their best wins.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Few thought Utah Valley would tie New Mexico State for the top spot in the WAC again as it did before, but it also was not expected that the Wolverines would slip to 11-19 overall and a sixth-place finish in the league.
Team(s) on the rise: Grand Canyon, Cal State-Bakersfield. The Antelopes continue to build under former NBA star Dan Majerle and arguably are already the WAC’s No. 2 program behind New Mexico State. The Roadrunners bring back Ahmed, one of the top post players in the league and a preseason player of the year favorite, and could take a big step forward if they improve on a 3-11 record in games decided by six points or less.
Team on the decline: Texas-Pan American. Literally. Come August, the school will no longer exist, as UTPA is merging with the University of Texas at Brownsville to form the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley. On the court, the Broncs also will be no longer, but the soon-to-be Vaqueros should be no worse than this year’s 10-21 record.
Next Season Conference Outlook
At first glance, it looks like more of the same for the WAC. New Mexico State remains on a different plane from the rest of the conference, and the loss of three starters won’t change that. The Aggies will again have more height than nearly any opponent-inside or outside the WAC-though the back court needs some retooling. That could mean a small step back, but Pascal Siakam appears to be a star in the making.
Coinciding with the Aggies’ superiority is that there still does not appear to be a team set to significantly challenge them. The closest might be Grand Canyon, which has proven lack of NCAA Tournament eligibility is no obstacle to its growth as a D-I program, and that should continue with top scorers DeWayne Russell and Joshua Braun returning, plus the addition of Saint Louis transfer Grandy Glaze. The Lopes still must wait two more years to be eligible for an NCAA Tournament automatic bid, though.
We like Cal State-Bakersfield’s chances of winning at least some of the close games it lost last year. UMKC is a first division challenger too, with the goal of an overall winning record the next logical step in its improvement. The Kangaroos still have work to do-like fixing a -4.1 rebounding margin-but should continue to improve, especially with forward Shayok Shayok healthy for a whole year.
Seattle will be expected to take a step back after losing Umipig, while Utah Valley and Texas-Pan American, er, Texas-Rio Grande Valley, both could take steps forward with experienced rosters returning. Chicago State was one of the lowest-scoring teams in D-I last year (58.0 ppg, 337th of 345 teams) and looks like it will struggle to score again.