For as much as the Western Athletic Conference got kicked while it was down, one might’ve expected the league to be dead by now.
As the WAC teetered on the brink of extinction after watching its football members run for cover in other leagues, a floodgate of stories of its demise was opened. Some took almost a morbid glee in its struggles, apparently because watching and discussing endless conference realignment brings them more joy than even the games themselves. The conference survived, though, and while it’s still a long climb back to stability in the NCAA Division I college sports landscape, the good ol’ WAC also continues to show that there is hope of better days ahead. Not a guarantee, mind you, but at least reason for optimism.
The venerable conference actually had three pretty darn good teams in 2015-16, and also started shedding some of its recent rep as being New Mexico State’s personal playground. Oh, the Aggies-with league player of the year Pascal Siakam and another tall tree front line whose height would be the envy of many college teams-were still the cream of the regular season, romping through with a 13-1 mark and coming within five points of an undefeated league mark. But upstarts Grand Canyon and Cal State Bakersfield were not far behind, both finishing 11-3 in the WAC and winning 20-plus games.
Grand Canyon was the lone league team to beat New Mexico State in the regular season, coming back for a 79-75 win in front of a sellout crowd at home. Bakersfield, meanwhile, played the Aggies to a pair of low-scoring, every-possession-counts dandies, though the Roadrunners came up short in both.
Cal State Bakersfield got another chance at the four-time defending WAC champs in the conference tournament, though, and this time took advantage as Dedrick Basile hit a three-pointer just before the buzzer to send the Roadrunners to the Division I NCAA tourney for the first time. There, they gave eventual Final Four participant Oklahoma a difficult time, trailing by just four at the final TV timeout before the Sooners pulled away late.
Grand Canyon-still ineligible for the NCAA Tournament during its D-I transition period-also advanced to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament quarterfinals and finished with 27 wins, the most since the school’s 1988 NAIA championship. New Mexico State also won 23 games without a senior on its roster and gave St. Mary’s a tussle in the NIT before falling by two on the road.
After dropping like a rock in 2014-15 to 30th of 32 conferences in the RPI, the WAC eased back up to 26th, and there’s still room for improvement. Seattle fell off some after a trip to the College Basketball Invitational semifinals, though the Redhawks were the only team outside the top three to beat one of them, winning at Grand Canyon. Utah Valley continued to rebuild after winning the league title two years ago. Missouri-Kansas City also was in every one of its WAC games, though finishing those games was a problem as evidenced by a slip to 4-10 in the league.
|New Mexico State||13-1||23-11|
|Cal State Bakersfield||11-3||24-9|
|Texas-Rio Grande Valley||4-10||8-22|
Still at seven teams while Grand Canyon remains on Division I standby, the 2016 WAC Tournament in Las Vegas got off to a hot start when fifth-seeded Missouri-Kansas City rallied from 13 points down to eliminate No. 4 seed Utah Valley 80-78 in a very good game. That would be the highlight of the first two rounds, for top seeds would dominate the rest of the way. Second-seeded Cal State Bakersfield handled No. 7 Chicago State 79-57 and 3 seed Seattle pulled away from No. 6 Texas-Rio Grande Valley 75-52 to round out the quarterfinals, and the semifinals weren’t much closer. Top seed New Mexico State controlled UMKC throughout for a 78-64 win, and Bakersfield hammered Seattle 72-47 to set up a title game between the top two seeds.
The title game lived up to everything two regular season meetings suggested it would. A pair of defensive-minded teams also provided a matchup of size against quickness, and Cal State Bakersfield used solid guard play to take a 32-22 halftime lead. In fact, top seed New Mexico State never led once, but the bigger Aggies still made a push late, pounding the glass as 7-foot-3 Tanveer Bhullar overwhelmed the Roadrunners inside with 13 points and 11 rebounds, including a tying free throw with 13 seconds remaining. Tied at 54, the Roadrunners’ Basile ran the clock down, used a ball screen and then canned a cold-blooded dagger from the left wing with the 6-9 Siakam in his face, giving Bakersfield a 57-54 win. With the victory, CSUB defeated New Mexico State for the first time in 12 all-time meetings.
Player of the Year: Pascal Siakam, F, So., New Mexico State
Freshman of the Year: Antonio Green, G, Fr., Texas-Rio Grande Valley
Coach of the Year: Rod Barnes, Cal State Bakersfield
Aly Ahmed, C, Sr., Cal State Bakersfield
Ian Baker, G, Jr., New Mexico State
Josh Braun, G, So., Grand Canyon
Kevin Mays, F, Sr., Cal State Bakersfield
Pascal Siakam, F, So., New Mexico State
- Cal State Bakersfield had its best season since moving to Division I in 2007-08 and made its first-ever trip to the D-I NCAA Tournament.
- Grand Canyon won 27 games and earned its first-ever Division I postseason tournament wins, making it to the quarterfinals of the CIT.
- New Mexico State won the regular season title for the second straight year, earning a WAC title (regular season or tournament) for the sixth time in seven years. The Aggies also played in the NIT, losing to St. Mary’s 58-56.
- Seattle also played in the CBI again, defeating Idaho before bowing to Vermont in the quarterfinals.
- New Mexico State’s Siakam recorded 27 double-doubles, tying Evansville’s Egidijus Mockevicius for most in the country. The sophomore also finished eighth in the nation in rebounding, averaging 11.6 boards per game.
- In addition to being a first team all-WAC selection, Grand Canyon’s Braun also was a first team Academic All-American, the league’s first in 11 years.
- UMKC-which tied for sixth in the WAC-won at Mississippi State in December, defeating an SEC school for the second consecutive season.
What we expected, and it happened: Well, we picked Grand Canyon and Cal State Bakersfield as teams on the rise, and both came through. New Mexico State also once again dominated the regular season.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought UMKC would be better, but the Kangaroos took a few steps backward and fell well out of the WAC first division just a year after tying Grand Canyon for second.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: There was little reason to think New Mexico State wouldn’t keep building on its streak of four straight WAC tourney championships, but Cal State Bakersfield knocked off the Aggies.
Team on the rise: Grand Canyon. Still. New Mexico State may soon have a challenger for the title of best program in the WAC. That’s saying a lot.
Team on the decline: Chicago State. The Cougars have been in a perpetual struggle almost from the time they joined Division I in 1984, and now the future of athletics at the school-and maybe even the school’s survival-is in some question due to Illinois state budgeting issues.
Next Season Conference Outlook
There’s no reason not to expect another good race at the top of the WAC between at least the top three teams, and maybe even more. Grand Canyon will continue on a path that sure looks like it will be a regional power very soon. The Antelopes will no doubt be a trendy pick to unseat New Mexico State, but the Aggies will remain formidable, even with Siakam and Ian Baker testing the waters in the NBA draft. Siakam chose to stay in the draft but Baker returns. The Aggies will be fine in league play, and if anything Baker may be the more valuable of the two in some ways because of the team’s relative weakness in the backcourt.
Cal State Bakersfield loses Ahmed and Mays, the heart of its inside game, but the Roadrunners showed moxie in hanging with Oklahoma in the NCAAs, and with their toughness should be solid again. Seattle also will be a tough out, and perhaps this is the year Missouri-Kansas City puts it together and makes a run. It’s possible the top teams won’t be quite as strong individually as they were a year ago, but the WAC can reasonably hope teams ranking 4-8 are improved, keeping the league around where it was a year ago. It’s not a glittery outlook, but it’s a reasonable one at this time.