LWOS finishes its conference previews with the 2020-21 WAC Basketball Preview. The Western Athletic Conference has been dominated by New Mexico State. The Aggies have represented the league in seven of the last ten NCAA Tournaments. Furthermore, the program has not lost more than three league games in the last six seasons. That includes a 16-0 run last season. Do not expect anything to change in 2020-21, as New Mexico State is the league favorite once again. The WAC does welcome two new programs to Division I in Dixie State and Tarleton State.
2020-21 WAC Basketball Preview
9. Chicago State Cougars
Key Returners: Xavier Johnson, Andrew Lewis, Isaiah Lewis
Key Losses: Jace Colley
Key Newcomers: Jongkor Unguec (JUCO), Isaiah Simpson (JUCO), Jordan Polynice (JUCO)
Chicago State has a decent amount of its roster back from last season. However, that does not mean much for a team that won just four games a year ago. Even worse, none of those four wins came against conference opponents. As with any team, a season of playing together figures to mean improvement can be expected. However, the Cougars have consistently been one of the worst Division I programs for awhile now. The new season does not appear to have any better luck in store for this team.
8. Utah Valley Wolverines
Key Returners: Jamison Overton, Trey Woodbury
Key Losses: Isaiah White, Brandon Averette, T.J. Washington
Key Newcomers: Jordan Brinson (UAB), Tim Fuller (Weber State), Colby Leifson (BYU), Evan Cole (Georgia Tech), Fardaws Aimaq (Mercer)
Utah Valley’s roster will look a lot different from last season’s. The Wolverines lost seven of the nine players that factored into their rotation in 2019-20. Thus, the program tapped heavily into the transfer portal to try and reload. The NCAA’s willingness to approve more waiver requests than usual has benefitted the team, with Brinson, Fuller, and Leifson all eligible immediately. Still, all of these new pieces will need to figure out how to fit together. The talent is there to finish higher, but too many new faces means this is more likely a rebuilding season.
7. Tarleton State Texans
Key Returners: Clashon Gaffney, Isaiah Range, Javontae Hopkins
Key Losses: Josh Hawley, Randall Broddie, Devin Bethely
Key Newcomers: Montre Gipson (JUCO), Heritier Ngalamulume (JUCO), Shakur Daniel (JUCO)
Tarleton State is the first of two programs transitioning to the top level of college basketball that is joining the league. The Texans have a proud basketball history at the Division II level and are hoping that will translate over to D-I. Unfortunately, there will be a heavy reliance on newcomers in year one. That includes the high-level hiring of Billy Gillespie as the team’s new coach. However, he brings three talented transfers from his prior junior college stop with him. Still, this will more than likely be a rougher season as the program adjusts.
6. Seattle Redhawks
Key Returners: Riley Grigsby
Key Losses: Terrell Brown, Morgan Means, Myles Carter
Key Newcomers: Daron Henson (Washington State), Jared Pearre (Cal State Northridge), Angelo Stuart (JUCO)
Seattle takes a huge hit with Terrell Brown opting to use his graduate season at Arizona. Grigsby is the only returning player with significant experience and will be expected to step up in a big way. That is the overall theme for the Redhawks, though, as many players are going to have to step up to help them compete. The hope is that Henson and Pearre will provide some experience into the lineup. However, the team seems to be a bit overwhelmed by the overarching inexperience, and will take lumps as they finish closer to the bottom half of the league.
5. Cal Baptist Lancers
Key Returners: Ty Rowell
Key Losses: Milan Acquaah, De’Jon Davis, Brandon Boyd
Key Newcomers: Russell Barlow (TCU), Jermaine Miranda (Hofstra), Elijah Thomas (St. Mary’s), Gorjok Gak (Florida)
Cal Baptist has enjoyed decent success in its first two seasons at the Division I level. However, a majority of the players responsible for that are gone. The biggest loss is Acquaah, who decided to turn pro rather than return to school. He was the league’s player of the year last season after averaging 18.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game. The Lancers will be relying on the incoming transfers to replace all of the key guys that have moved on. The depth behind those guys is young and inexperienced, meaning a step back is expected.
4. Dixie State Trailblazers
Key Returners: Hunter Schofield, Dason Youngblood, Frank Staine
Key Losses: Jack Pagenkopf, Cameron Chatwin
Key Newcomers: Mikey Frazier (Boise State), Cameron Goodwin (JUCO)
Dixie State is the other newcomer from the D-II ranks, and appears to be in decent shape for their first season. As with the other new programs, they were extremely successful in their prior era. Many of the key players that helped them go 23-7 last season are back, with Hunter Schofield leading the way. The Trailblazers have plenty here to avoid the typical rough first year, much like Cal Baptist did when they first joined the WAC. There will most likely be a few rough patches, but this team should shock a few teams and can finish in the top half of the league.
3. Grand Canyon Antelopes
Key Returners: Alessandro Lever, Mikey Dixon, Jovan Blacksher Jr.
Key Losses: Carlos Johnson, Isiah Brown
Key Newcomers: Asbjorn Midtgaard (Wichita State), Sean Miller-Moore (Oregon State), Gabe McGlothan (Southeast Missouri State), Jayden Stone
Grand Canyon has been about as successful as you can be as a team that is not far removed from moving up from Division II. The only thing missing is a league title and an NCAA Tournament berth. Those high expectations led to the hiring of Bryce Drew to be the next head coach. Drew knows success, both as a player and a coach, and the hope is that he can be the one to get the Antelopes over the hump. He will be helped by returning players Lever, Dixon, and Blacksher. Grand Canyon will push for a WAC title again this season, but they have to banish the demons that plague them when they play New Mexico State.
2. Texas-Rio Grande Valley Vaqueros
Key Returners: Javon Levi, Quinton Johnson II, Sean Rhea
Key Losses: Lesley Varner II, Jordan Jackson
Key Newcomers: Marek Nelson (Western Kentucky), Jeff Otchere (Stony Brook)
UT-Rio Grande Valley loses its top two scorers in Varner and Jackson. However, they do have Javon Levi back, who is a stellar defender. He will have to produce a little more offensively this season to help with the lost production. Many other key role players are back with Levi, though they will have to get their roles redefined as well. The Vaqueros do get a boost with grad transfer Jeff Otchere from Stony Brook, who should sure up the paint for them right away. UTRGV has the chance to improve upon their third-place finish from last season and potentially push New Mexico State off the perch at the top.
1. New Mexico State Aggies
Key Returners: Jabari Rice, Johnny McCants, Evan Gilyard
Key Losses: Trevelin Queen, Ivan Aurrecoechea
Key Newcomers: Donnie Tillman (UNLV), Marcus Watson (Oklahoma State), Wilfried Likayi (JUCO)
New Mexico State enters the 2020-21 season as the league favorites once again. The Aggies continue to dominate their league foes, and largely find their success by landing talented transfers. While they do have two promising transfers coming in once again, the team also has some big returning players as well. Jabari Rice is the leader among them, and he will be one of the favorites for this season’s player of the year award. The Aggies could be tested a bit more, but it is also not out of the question that NMSU could go undefeated in league play for the second season in a row.
2020-21 WAC Basketball Preview Award Projections
Player of the Year: Javon Levi, Texas-Rio Grande Valley
Levi is arguably the best player in the league entering 2020-21. He will face some stiff competition from talented guys on New Mexico State and Grand Canyon, but there is a good chance his offensive numbers will improve due to the new role he is expected to take for his team. Levi averaged 11.5 points and 7.9 assists per game in 2019-20. With his incredible passing abilities, it would not be far-fetched to think he could average a double-double with points and assists.
Defensive Player of the Year: Javon Levi
For as good as Levi can be on offense, the name of his game is defense. He has already won this honor twice, as he averaged 2.9 steals per game two seasons ago and 2.4 per game last season. He should easily lead the WAC in steals and steals per game for a third-straight season, and is easily one of, if not the best defender in league history.
Freshman of the Year: Jayden Stone, Grand Canyon
Stone comes to Grand Canyon after playing for the prestigious Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas. His efforts there led him to be a McDonald’s All-American nominee. He was highly sought after, but turned down offers from high-major programs to come to the Antelopes. However, he appears to feel comfortable with his college career taking him to Grand Canyon. His talent should shine right away as he works to be a game-changer in helping the program take the next step.
Newcomer of the Year: Hunter Schofield, Dixie State
It will not take long for Schofield to put the rest of the league on notice for how good he is. He was a first-team selection in the Trailblazers’ prior league after averaging 16.4 points and six rebounds per game last season. Schofield may have to adjust to a higher level of competition, but he is more than up to the task.
Coach of the Year: Jon Judkins, Dixie State
There is so much that goes into transitioning a team from one division to another. However, Judkins is the man for the job. He has already helped this program transition to NCAA player from the junior college ranks. Next, he gets to help the Trailblazers move from D-II to D-I. This may seem daunting, but Dixie State has the talent and the coaching to be a threat right away. Finishing in the top four of the WAC in their first year should be more than enough to have Judkins take this award home.
All-Conference First-Team Projection: Javon Levi (UT-Rio Grande Valley), Jabari Rice (New Mexico State), Johnny McCants (New Mexico State), Hunter Schofield (Dixie State), Alessandro Lever (Grand Canyon)