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2016-17 WAC Post-Mortem

July 5, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

If ever there’s a league that deserves to gloat a little bit, it’s the Western Athletic Conference.

It’s not an overstatement to say the WAC was left for dead by many a few years back, as one football member after another fled, leaving the league struggling to stay in business. To New Mexico State-the one holdover still playing Division I-A (FBS) football, it added schools like Missouri-Kansas City, Utah Valley, plus an NCAA Division I wannabe in Grand Canyon, a former NAIA power that had fallen on hard times, went to a for-profit model to regain its bearings and was an NCAA Division II member at the time it was invited.

Those additions were out of what even WAC leaders probably would privately acknowledge as desperation. And yet, they’ve worked out better than about anyone could have expected.

A league whose obituary had been all but completed by some fought back in 2016-17. While New Mexico State won its sixth league tourney title in the last eight years, the Aggies didn’t win the regular season title. That went to Cal State Bakersfield, which followed up its first-ever D-I NCAA tourney appearance the year before with a WAC title, chasing down NMSU at the wire. The Roadrunners then became one of the stories of the postseason, winning three games from a No. 8 seed in the NIT to improbably advance to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

Grand Canyon also challenged Bakersfield and NMSU to make for a spirited three-team regular season battle, and while GCU voluntarily sat out the postseason, Utah Valley picked up the slack in the College Basketball Invitational, winning two games on the road to advance to the semifinals and backing up the excitement of a program-defining win over BYU back in November.

Add in Missouri-Kansas City winning a game in the CBI, and the WAC had a March to be excited about. Its postseason performance also came on the heels of conference-wide regular season improvement. Two years after finishing 30th of 32 leagues in the conference RPI, the WAC was up to 19th this year, a plenty respectable number.

New Mexico State will be the league’s flagship program as long as it’s around, but the Aggies are no longer the only relevant basketball school, not by a long shot. The WAC may never be the league it once was. But it is no pushover anymore, either, and those who have fought hard to keep the league together deserve to enjoy every minute of it.

Final Standings

WAC Overall
Cal State Bakersfield 12-2 25-10
New Mexico State 11-3 28-6
Grand Canyon 11-3 22-9
Missouri-Kansas City 8-6 18-17
Utah Valley 6-8 17-17
Seattle 5-9 13-17
Texas-Rio Grande Valley 2-12 10-22
Chicago State 1-13 6-26

Conference Tournament
The WAC returned to Las Vegas again for its tournament, at seven teams one more year while Grand Canyon was still on NCAA Tournament eligibility standby. The quarterfinals saw No. 4 seed Utah Valley (65-53 over 5 seed Seattle) and No. 2 New Mexico State (67-53 over No. 7 Chicago State) both pull away in the second half to win, but 3 seed UMKC needed overtime to get past Texas-Rio Grande Valley 82-78 in a splendid game that had 18 ties and 15 lead changes.

Cal State Bakersfield earned the top seed in the tourney and thus was rested when it went into a semifinal game against Utah Valley. That advantage appeared to have been for naught when the Wolverines held a 49-41 lead with just 2:40 left in the second half, but Jaylin Airington scored the Roadrunners’ final 11 points in regulation, single-handedly muscling his team to a 52-52 tie after 40 minutes. The teams then played on. And on. Four overtimes, in total, essentially a third half, and one where neither team ever led by more than three points. Bakersfield finally prevailed 81-80 when UVU missed a go-ahead shot with two second left in the fourth extra frame. What a game!

Unfortunately for the Roadrunners, fatigue was obviously a factor in the championship game the following night against New Mexico State (which handled UMKC 78-60 in the second semi the night before). CSUB led by 11 with just over 15 minutes remaining in the game when the Aggies turned the game completely around with a 21-2 run. Ian Baker drilled three three-pointers, and NMSU hit all six of its three-point tries in a 70-60 win for its fifth WAC tourney title in the last six years.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year: Ian Baker, G, Sr., New Mexico State
Freshman of the Year: Matej Kavas, G, Seattle
Don Haskins Coach of the Year:
Rod Barnes, Cal State Bakersfield

All-Conference Team
Jaylin Airington, F, Sr., Cal State Bakersfield
Ian Baker, G, Sr., New Mexico State
LaVell Boyd, G, Sr., Missouri-Kansas City
Joshua Braun, G, Jr., Grand Canyon
DeWayne Russell, G, Sr., Grand Canyon

Season Highlights

  • New Mexico State won the WAC tournament title for the sixth time in eight years.
  • Cal State Bakersfield won its first WAC regular season title and then made a Cinderella run from an 8 seed in the NIT all the way to the semifinals. It was the longest NIT run by a WAC team since Tulsa won the tournament in 2001.
  • Utah Valley advanced to the semifinals of the 16-team CBI, while Missouri-Kansas City also made it to the CBI quarterfinals. In all, the WAC finished with a healthy 6-4 record in the postseason despite playing just one game at home.
  • Utah Valley also had one of the more stunning road wins in the non-conference season, winning at BYU 114-101. Bakersfield, NMSU and Grand Canyon also had wins over RPI top 100 teams, and UMKC defeated Summit League champion South Dakota.
  • New Mexico State’s Ian Baker was named an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press.

What we expected, and it happened: The top three in the WAC were a cut above the rest again, with Cal State Bakersfield, Grand Canyon and New Mexico State all strong.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought Seattle would be in or very near the top half of the conference, but the Redhawks continued to slip back, resulting in the ouster of Cameron Dollar as coach.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Utah Valley looked like a program in decline with two straight down years after its 2014 WAC regular season title, but the Wolverines picked it up again particularly out of conference and had a productive 17-win season.

Teams on the rise: Grand Canyon, Utah Valley. GCU is a perpetual pick here, but this year the school at last gets its chance for glory, finally eligible for the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines, meanwhile, are making facility upgrades and seem very close to turning the corner under Mark Pope.

Team on the decline: UMKC. The Kangaroos had a solid year but lose all five starters. Guards Isaiah Ross and pint-sized (5-foot-8) Xavier Bishop will be among those expected to step up after good freshman seasons.

2017-18 WAC Outlook
At first glance, the WAC is due for a drop. Six of the 10 players on the all-conference first and second teams are gone. New Mexico State will miss the league player of the year and will have a new coach for the second straight year, as Paul Weir quickly jumped ship for rival New Mexico. Grand Canyon will miss arguably the WAC’s second-best player. CSU Bakersfield has lost two straight talented senior classes.

Then again, maybe not. New Mexico State has long had no issues in the WAC with talent, and the Aggies should just reload again. Bakersfield has built an identity under Rod Barnes as one of the best defensive teams in the country and still has sniper Damiyne Durham. And while Grand Canyon loses DeWayne Russell, it returns just about everyone else, coach Dan Majerle continues to reel in talent and schedule name opponents, and now has the added carrot of NCAA Tournament eligibility. You can bet the Antelopes will be supremely motivated, and their already-rabid home gatherings will be even more so.

On top of that, Utah Valley has a good chance to be improved, and Seattle made an outstanding hire in Jim Hayford, whose teams at Eastern Washington never lacked for offense. Though it may take some time to contend, the Redhawks should at least be fun to watch right off the bat. Texas-Rio Grande Valley, nee Texas-Pan American, should return almost everyone and will have a second year under Lon Kruger disciple Lew Hill. Chicago State at least gets back Fred Sims and will keep fighting the good fight. Quietly, this has become a competitive (if still far flung) conference, and its race for the regular season title should quietly be one of the better to watch in the country. It’s time for TV networks to start to recognize it (maybe with a return of the Midnight Snack in the WAC?), as games among the top three for certain should be of the must-watch variety next year and into the foreseeable future.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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