(SportsNetwork.com) - The wonderful world of musical chairs in college sports has changed the landscape for nearly every conference in the last few years, but perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the Western Athletic Conference as the 31st annual tournament tips off at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday.
Less than a decade ago, not a single current member of the WAC was part of the league, and in just the last year the bulk of the institutions have been replaced. A mere three schools (New Mexico State, Idaho and Seattle) were playing in this tournament last season, the other six were toiling elsewhere.
The Aggies figure to be a favorite to compete for the title, considering NMSU won it all the last two years and three times in the last four. Overall, New Mexico State, which is the second seed this time around, has taken the trophy four times, all since 2007. The Aggies are the only current members of the league to have won this event and are the one team with a winning record (17-4) as the Vandals and Redhawks have combined for just one win in 10 chances.
A brief overview of the eight-team tournament (Grand Canyon is not eligible to participate even though it finished third in the standings at 10-6), has every squad taking the floor in Sin City on Thursday, beginning with a meeting between eighth-seeded Texas-Pan American (9-22, 5-11) and top-seeded Utah Valley (19-10, 13-3).
The Broncs won the fewest total games of any team in the league and of their five league victories, four came against the pairing of Chicago State and UMKC, both times in a span of barely 48 hours. However, on a more positive note, UTPA did take Utah Valley down to the wire on the first of this month before suffering a 45-42 loss on the road. The Broncs get their drive from Javorn Farrell who led the group with his 16.1 ppg and was second on the unit both on the glass (5.4 rpg) and in assists (92). However, the knock on Farrell is his meager 24.8 percent accuracy behind the 3-point line, dragging the entire team down to just 27.8 percent on the outside.
Utah Valley, which a few weeks ago got caught up in a post-game skirmish with New Mexico State, managed to shake off a rough five-game, road losing streak during the first few weeks of 2013-14 to become the top team in the WAC. Claiming spots on the All-WAC First Team were guard Holton Hunsaker and center Ben Aird, while Mitch Bruneel appeared on the WAC All-Defensive Team after the Wolverines led the league in scoring defense (64.8 ppg).
Head coach Dick Hunsaker, who earned the Don Haskins Coach of the Year award, had the luxury of directing son Holton in the team's first year in the WAC. Young Hunsaker led his team in scoring (13.6 ppg) and assists (115), but his accuracy from the floor (.322) was simply dreadful. Aird (11.7 ppg) picked up some of the slack with his 44.4 percent effort, but that was to be expected given the fact that the big man rarely moved far from the paint where he was responsible for 8.2 rpg and led the program with 36 blocked shots. Zach Nelson accounted for another 10.7 ppg and 6.3 rpg, and while he was able to disperse 95 assists and block another 30 shots, it was his dismal 60.5 percent showing at the free-throw line that grabbed more attention.
The second game of the day on Thursday pits fifth-seeded Idaho against fourth- seeded UMKC. The Vandals (14-17, 7-9) finished strong with four wins in the last five games, but winding up in the top half of the standings simply wasn't in the cards.
Idaho was paced by Stephen Madison who led the league in scoring with 19.9 ppg, but did so while shooting a mere 29.6 percent behind the 3-point line. Madison would have been smart to stay in the paint due to the fact that he led the team and was one of the league leaders in rebounding with 7.6 per game. Connor Hill was responsible for 14.8 ppg and picked up the slack out on the perimeter with an outstanding 95-of-226 (.420) performance, accounting for nearly half the unit's 3-pointers.
The Kangaroos (10-19, 7-9) may have finished in a tie for fifth place in the standings, but they ended up with the second-worst overall winning percentage (.345) in the WAC, partly due to the fact that they came out of the chute and bowed in six of their first seven games. There was also a spurt between the end of January and the third week of February where the program suffered a six-game slide before delivering a three-game win streak. One of those victories came against Utah Valley (74-56), but UMKC has to be careful not to look back too fondly on that conquest.
Martez Harrison was not only named to the WAC All-Newcomer Team, he also picked up Freshman of the Year honors as the youngster generated 17.1 ppg, 107 assists and 49 steals, all of which paced the 'Roos. Nelson Kirksey and Trinity Hall pitched in with 13.1 and 10.2 ppg, respectively, while Fred Chatmon (7.8 ppg) focused much of his energy on the glass (6.9 rpg), but barely any at the free-throw line (.390).
Next on the docket is the matchup between Cal State Bakersfield, the sixth seed, and third-seeded Chicago State in the quarters. The Roadrunners (12-18, 5-11) tied for last place in the standings with both UTPA and Seattle, thanks to a three-week span where the program won three straight and four of five outings in league play. The squad also performed well early in the campaign, winning five in a row after dropping the opener to Washington State (62-56), which means it has pretty much been downhill ever since.
On a positive note, Bakersfield did lead the league in 3-point shooting at 39.5 percent and was also first in defending the 3-point shot (.310), but still that combination did not translate into an abundance of victories. Part of the issue was having just a single player scoring in double figures in Isaiah Grayson with his 16.0 ppg. Grayson was a one-man wrecking crew with his 47.7 percent shooting beyond the arc and team-best 122 assists, but there was little scoring support beyond that.
The Cougars (13-18, 8-8) were sporadic at best this season, winning back-to- back games only twice and in one of those instances a blowout win came versus tiny Urbana. More than anything else, the scoring defense has been almost non- existent for Chicago State, the team having surrendered 76.5 ppg, which was second-most in the league. Opponents averaging about seven 3-pointers per game and close to 20 points at the free-throw line, outscoring the Cougars at the charity stripe overall by 185 points over 31 games. At the offensive end, Quinton Pippen led the way with 15.4 ppg and if that name sounds familiar coming out of the Windy City it should, he's the nephew of Chicago Bulls great, Scottie Pippen.
Adding some depth in the scoring department were Clarke Rosenberg and Matt Ross with 14.0 and 12.2 ppg, respectively, the latter also responsible for a team-best 7.5 rpg. Unfortunately, Chicago State proved to be one of the weakest rebounding programs in the nation, getting beaten on the glass by an average of 8.7 rpg.
The team with the most experience and familiarity in this event is also one that will be trying to regroup and get back to the business of playing basketball after both Renaldo Dixon and K.C. Ross-Miller were recently suspended by New Mexico State (23-9, 12-4). However, when it comes to the ranking of importance on the NMSU roster, Dixon (8.7 ppg) and Ross-Miller (8.3 ppg) take a back seat to Daniel Mullings (16.9 ppg) who was the team leader in scoring, assists (105) and steals (59) and also found time to pull down more than five rebounds per game on his way to being named the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
While Mullings will certainly favor having the support of Ross-Miller, news has come from the athletic department at NMSU that his suspension will carry through the WAC Tournament at the very least, placing even more pressure on DK Eldridge (11.2 ppg) and Tshilidzi Nephawe (11.1 ppg) to step up their efforts on offense. Nephawe may have led the program on the glass with 7.8 rpg, but it is Sim Bhullar (9.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg) who has more of a potential to turn in a double-double effort on any given night, not to mention casting an imposing figure in the paint where he has blocked a team-best 91 shots, 11 more than all of the competition combined.
The Aggies will be pitted against a Seattle squad that has won just once in six all-time meetings between the programs. The Redhawks (13-16, 5-11), who have won a total of only five games since just before Christmas, have one of the more talented scorers in the conference in Isiah Umipig who ranked second in the WAC with 19.3 ppg. Of the 175 field goals notched by the gunslinger, 101 have come from beyond the arc, which tends to be where Umipig does his best work with having also handed out a team-high 106 assists. Unfortunately for Umipig, he appears to be on his own as the lone double-digit scoring threat, with Deshaun Sunderhaus (10.6 ppg) missing the last six weeks after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee.