By Jim HilleyLas Cruces Bulletin
The New Mexico State University men’s basketball team will begin Western Athletic Conference play 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 4, as they take on Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. The Aggies will return home to host Seattle University at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 9, and the University of Idaho, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11.
NMSU is considered the prohibitive favorites to win the WAC regular season title in 2014, and they begin conference play with the best non-conference record at 11-5.
The WAC conference has changed considerably in the last few years and changes continued in 2013. Gone are familiar foes such as Utah State, Louisiana Tech and San Jose State, as well as WAC short-timers Denver, UTArlington, UT-San Antonio and Texas State.
New teams joining the conference this season are UC-Bakersfield, Utah Valley University, Grand Canyon University, Texas-Pan American and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Remaining from last season are Idaho and Seattle.
Speculation is rampant that NMSU can go undefeated in WAC play, but there is enough talent lurking in the diluted WAC to make it a challenging task.
Do any of the following teams have what it takes to upset the Aggies? (Records and statistics as of Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013)
Seattle University has the second-best nonconference record at 8-5. The Redhawks are led by redshirt junior Usiah Umipig, who has the top scoring average in the conference at 19.8 points per game. He also leads in assists (4.2 per game) and three-point goals made (3.1 per game). Top rebounder for Seattle is Jack Crooks with 5.3 per game. Seattle is a good rebounding team with a 7.0 rebound margin, tops in the WAC.
The Redhawks’ toughest opponent so far this season has been Boise State, which defeated Seattle in Boise 86-68. In that game the Redhawks outrebounded the Broncos 37-31, but committed 17 turnovers.
UC-Bakersfield has a 7-7 non-conference record. Top scorer for the Roadrunners is redshirt senior guard Issiah Grayson, who is scoring 13.9 points per game. Bakersfield is a balanced team and has a deep roster, with 11 players averaging at least 11 minutes per game.
The Roadrunners’ biggest win this season was a 74-66 victory over the Mountain West’s Nevada in Bakersfield, Calif., but their best game may have been against the University of Southern California, out of the Pac-12, when they lost a late lead and fell by four points, 6359 in Los Angeles.
Utah Valley University
Utah Valley University is 4-7. The Wolverines are also a balanced team, with Holton Hunsaker leading the team in scoring at 12.5 ppg. He is closely followed by Hayes Garrity at 12.0 ppg and Zach Nelson at 11.1 ppg. Nelson is the team’s leading rebounder with 5.9 per game. The Wolverines lead the WAC in assists per game with 14.5 and assist to turnover ratio at 1.1. They are also the conference’s top free throw shooting team, hitting 76.3 percent from the foul line.
University of Idaho
The University of Idaho sports a 6-8 nonconference record. Along with New MexicoState University, the Idaho Vandals are the lone holdover from the old WAC conference, but the Vandals will rejoin the Big Sky Conference in 2014 for all sports but football. The Vandals have played in a number of close contests this year. Three of their last six games have been decided by one point: a 67-66 home loss to Washington State; a 76-75 win at Portland State, and their most recent game, a 72-71 loss at home to Montana. In that game, Stephen Madison, the WAC’s second leading scorer and rebounder, scored a career high 35 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, earning the senior his third WAC Player of the Week award of the season.
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Chicago State University
Chicago State is 5-8, and maybe the most difficult team in the WAC to figure out. The Cougars have played a tough road schedule, with games at Indiana, at Bradley, at Illinois and at Cincinnati. They are 0-8 on the road, but 5-0 at home. The Cougars are second in the WAC at stealing the ball, with 8.0 steals per game. They are also first in the WAC at turnover margin, 3.23. The farthest west Chicago State has played was at Creighton, in Omaha, Neb., Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, where they lost to the Bluejays 58-90. The Cougars are led by senior guard/ forward Quinton Pippen, who is scoring 14.6 ppg, and senior forward Matt Ross, who is second in the WAC in blocked shots at 1.4 per game. Ross also pulls down 6.8 rebounds per game. Chicago State makes 7.1 three pointers a game, second in the conference.
Grand Canyon University
Grand Canyon University is 5-8. Aggie fans hoping to see former Lobo Demetrius Walker play for the Antelopes will be disappointed. Walker, along with Jeff Lowery, was dismissed from the team Friday, Dec. 27, 2013, by GCU coach Dan Majerle. Walker was the leading scorer for the Antelopes with 16.9 points per game. Also dismissed was Jeff Lowery, who had seen little action this year due to a foot injury. Guard Justin Foreman was suspended indefinitely. The antelopes cupboard is not bare however, as they still have the WAC’s leading rebounder in 6-9 center Killiam Larson, who pulls down 11.5 rebounds per game and scores at a 15.3 ppg clip. Daniel Alexander has played in only four games but is scoring 14.8 ppg and has hit 12 of his 26 three-point attempts.
Texas-Pan American University
Texas-Pan American University is 4-10 so far this season. The Texas-Pan Am Broncs are led by Javorn Farrell with 16.5 points per game, good enough for fifth in the WAC. The team’sleading rebounder is Shaquille Hines, who pulls down 5.6 per game. Another Shaquille, Shaquille Boga, leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio and is among the conference leaders in steals with 1.9 per game. The Broncs’ best win this season was a 70-55 victory over former WAC member UT-San Antonio on the road Nov. 21, 2013.
University of Missouri-Kansas City
The University of Missouri at Kansas City has the WAC’s worst record at 3-9. Kansas City ranks near or at the bottom of the WAC in a slew of statistical categories, but the Kangaroos are not without talent. Freshman guard Martez Harrison is only 5-11, but he is filling up the state sheets in a big way, with 15.5 points and 1.9 steals a game. Leading rebounder for the Kangaroos is senior Trinity Hall, at 7.2 rpg.
The Aggies’ 7-5 sophomore center Sim Bhullar earned first team honors in the Western Athletic Conference pre-season coach’s poll.
Las Cruces Bulletin photo by Christopher Belarde
Junior Tshilidzi Nephawe will return to WAC conference play after missing most of last year with a hand injury.
Las Cruces Bulletin photo by Christopher Belarde