Ivy League Bucking the Trend, Winning Recruiting Battles Anyway

By Kevin Sweeney

Ohio State. Clemson. Purdue. Virginia.

Those are among the many high-major programs that offered 4-star point guard Jaelin Llewellyn a scholarship this summer. For most mid-major programs, that would be enough to end any chance of landing the player. He would have been deemed to have “blown up”, and the staff likely would have moved on to other targets.

Instead, Princeton stunned the college basketball world by landing the commitment of Llewellyn on Monday. It was the latest, but hardly the first, victory by the Ivy League over a high-major school on the recruiting trail in recent years. In doing so, these programs (and the players committing to them) continue to prove the general notions we have about college basketball recruiting to be wrong.

We tend to think of college basketball recruiting as an arms race. Athletic departments across the country are pouring money into facility upgrades to make their programs more attractive to prospective student-athletes. Whether it be at the highest level with Kansas building an $11.2 million apartment complex for basketball players or at the mid-major level with teams building practice facilities to separate themselves from the competition, the message from athletic departments nationwide is that better facilities will recruit better talent.

Yet the Ivy League continues to see recruiting success without the red carpet that other programs are pulling out. While Penn has the Palestra as well as a practice facility to wow recruits with and Princeton does have beautiful Jadwin Gymnasium as its home court, the other 6 Ivy League programs play in smaller venues that wouldn’t stand out to a prospective recruit. Harvard, which landed a top-25 ranked recruiting class in 2016, plays in a modest facility that seats just under 2,200.

And while academics are often scoffed at in the recruiting process in the age of the one-and-done, Ivy League programs are thriving as a result of them. The ability to pitch a world-class education, combined with the increased exposure that the Ivy League’s recent NCAA Tournament success has provided, makes the Ivy League a much more attractive destination than ever before. Many top players care about more than just basketball and the Ivy League programs are providing the opportunity to leave school in 4 years with an excellent basketball resume and a degree that will help them be successful in life even if basketball doesn’t work out.

Basically, the Ivy League has gone back to the roots of college basketball. Great coaching, great education, and winning. The 3 Ivy League programs that have seen the most recent success on the recruiting trail are evidence of that. Harvard’s academic reputation is among the best in the world, it has won a pair of NCAA Tournament games in recent years, and coach Tommy Amaker is a well-regarded man in the business who has also been the head coach at Seton Hall and Michigan. Princeton has a great tradition of basketball success and reached the NCAA Tournament this season, while head coach Mitch Henderson is thought of by many as a rising star in the business. James Jones led Yale to its first NCAA Tournament since 1962 in 2016, and parlayed that success into recruiting victories in the 2016 and 2017 classes.

Meanwhile, other Ivy programs are on the rise on the recruiting trail as well. Penn, under the direction of former Boston College head coach Steve Donahue, is bringing in an excellent class this season, one that I named as one of the most underrated mid-major classes nationally. Meanwhile, former NJIT head coach Jim Engles has also had some major victories on the recruiting trail since arriving at Columbia last summer.

So, what’s the next accomplishment for the Ivy League? A 5-star recruit? A team reaching the Top 25? An at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament?

If these programs continue to bring in top talent, I wouldn’t rule any of those out.

10 Transfers Fresh Off Sitting Out a Year Ready to Impact Their New Teams

By Kevin Sweeney

As transfers have become more and more prevalent in college basketball, monitoring the movement of players from one team to the next has become a job of its own. With the season less than 4 months from tipping off, I decided to take a look at some of the transfers coming off a redshirt season who will make the biggest impact on their teams this season. Here are ten players who could be immediate stars at the mid-major level:

#10. Byron Hawkins-Murray State

The Racers already had one of the best guards in the country in Jonathan Stark. However, with a pair of talented guards in Bryce Jones and Damarcus Croaker graduating, there are plenty of minutes to be had in the backcourt. Enter Hawkins, a transfer from Towson who posted 13.2 ppg as a sophomore for the Tigers. The only knock on Hawkins was his struggles from beyond the arc, as he shot just 31% from 3 while at Towson. Still, he provides another excellent offensive weapon for the Racers, who are among the favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference.

#9. A.J. Harris-New Mexico State

The best way to describe Harris is “fun to watch”. The former top-100 recruit stands just 5-9, but he’s lightning-quick with the ball in his hands, a capable outside shooter, and makes plays defensively as well. While he struggled in his only season at Ohio State, his game should be much better suited for the mid-major level, where his quickness is even more of an advantage and the players guarding him won’t have such a big height advantage. I anticipate Harris starting at point guard for NMSU and making a big impact from day 1.

#8 Milik Yarbrough-Illinois State

A transfer from Saint Louis, Yarbrough follows in the footsteps of his father, who starred at ISU from 1976-1980. With 4 starters departing from last season’s team, Yarbrough should get the chance to be a top option right away. In 2 solid seasons at SLU, Yarbrough demonstrated a versatile skillset, as his muscular 6-6 frame allows him to finish at the rim while also being a threat to knock down threes at an excellent clip. If Illinois State wants to stay near the top of the Missouri Valley, Yarbrough must have a big season.

#7. Brekkott Chapman-Weber State

Chapman, who was a solid role player for 2 seasons at Utah, will be looked to to play a big role for this Weber State club this season. A versatile 6-8 forward who can impact the game in a variety of ways, Chapman is a matchup nightmare at the mid-major level. He can handle the ball, make shots from the outside, and has added strength during his redshirt year to become a force down low. He certainly has the talent to be an all-conference performer with the Wildcats.

#6. Kameron Chatman-Detroit

Some outlets had Chatman as a 5-star prospect coming out of high school. While he didn’t live up to that hype in his two seasons at Michigan, he will get a chance to redeem himself the next 2 years, and that’s bad news for the rest of the Horizon League. Chatman is a beast of a wing who struggled with his jump shot while with the Wolverines. However, with a redshirt year to improve his game and the drop in competition level, Chatman should be able to to impose his will off the bounce and in the post. If the shooting has improved, Chatman is one of the most talented players in the Horizon League.

#5 Caleb Martin-Nevada

It is rare at the mid-major level to land a player who is a proven starting-caliber player at the high-major level. However, that’s exactly what Eric Musselman and his Nevada Wolf Pack landed with Martin, who averaged over 11 ppg as a sophomore at NC State in 2015-16. Martin is a long, fluid athlete who can stroke it from outside (36% from 3 in 2015-16). Martin is one of the guys who makes this Nevada team have such incredible positional versatility on both offense and defense. Look for him to be one of the stars of the Mountain West favorites this season.

#4 Devin Watson-San Diego State

Watson is such an important piece for this San Diego State team this season. Last year, the Aztecs were anemic on offense, and it caused them to stumble to a 6th-place finish in the Mountain West. Watson hopes to change those offensive struggles, and if he can even come close to his production at San Francisco (20.3 ppg as a sophomore), it would be a massive boost to the SDSU offense. Watson is capable of playing both guard spots, is a good shooter, and is explosive going to the basket. He’s the type of offensive weapon that every team would love to have, and I’m sure 1st-year head coach Brian Dutcher is happy Watson will be suiting up for his squad this season.

#3 Lamonte Bearden-Western Kentucky

Overshadowed by incoming 5-star big man Mitchell Robinson at WKU, Bearden is quietly one of the top players who changed teams last summer. Now, after choosing Rick Stansbury’s HIlltoppers over a host of other top programs, the dynamic PG who led Buffalo to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances is ready to lead WKU to a C-USA title. He’s an explosive athlete who is proficient at getting to the rim and is a good distributor. The only weakness of his game at Buffalo was 3-point shooting, as he shot just 26% from downtown as a member of the Bulls. If he can improve on that number, the sky truly is the limit for Bearden and his Hilltoppers this season.

#2. Jordan Johnson-UNLV

Johnson is perhaps the most important transfer to his team in the country. The Milwaukee transfer averaged 8.1 assists per game in 2015-16 before transferring to Las Vegas following a coaching change. With an influx of talent in 5-star center Brandon McCoy and #1 JUCO player Shakur Juiston, UNLV wants to challenge for a Mountain West title, and to me, Johnson is the key to that. Teams with so many new faces often struggle to mesh and lead to disappointing seasons despite having lots of talent. However, a true distributor in Johnson who can get all of his teammates involved and help the Rebels get out in transition. Check out what Johnson said in a recent interview with Mike Grimala of the Las Vegas Sun:

“I love passing. My teammates shoot — I’ll just pass. I love to see my teammates score. When you start passing, it makes everybody happy and it brings everybody close, because they know if they pass the ball, I’m going to pass it back. They don’t have to worry about not getting the ball back. That’s how you want to play. That’s what I do.”

-Jordan Johnson, per the Las Vegas Sun

#1 Kendrick Nunn-Oakland

Oakland won 25 games last season and brings back 4 starters. That would be scary enough for most teams. However, Greg Kampe’s squad adds Nunn to the mix too, an extremely talented guard who scored over 15 ppg at Illinois before being kicked off the team. Nunn is one of the best players in all of mid-major basketball, and elite scorer who can get buckets from anywhere on the court. His strength and size allow him to be an excellent defender as well, and Kampe mentioned in an interview on the Marching to Madness podcast with Blake Lovell and Ken Cross that Nunn is getting already getting looks from NBA teams. Nunn may be the piece that helps Oakland put their recent Horizon League Tournament struggles behind them and get the Golden Grizzlies back to the NCAA Tournament.

10 More To Watch

  • Jontrell Walker-Ball State
  • Elijah Minnie-Eastern Michigan
  • Kanayo Obi-Rapu-ETSU
  • Ricky Doyle-Florida Gulf Coast
  • Akolda Manyang-Utah Valley
  • Stuckey Mosley-James Madison
  • Taishaun Johnson-Kent State
  • Kendall Small-Pacific
  • Devine Eke-Rider
  • Joe Burton-Valparaiso

Underrated Mid-Major Recruiting Classes That Will Make Their Mark This Year and Beyond

By Kevin Sweeney

Yesterday was the beginning of the July Evaluation Period, the most important recruiting period for players hoping to fulfill their dream of playing Division 1 basketball. So, I figured I’d do a recruiting-themed piece today discussing some underrated incoming mid-major recruiting classes. While we’ve all heard about the classes put together by Western Kentucky, UNLV, and St. Louis, there are plenty of other programs that have put together very talented classes that will come in and make an immediate impact. Here are 5 2017 classes that I really like:

NOTE: This only considers freshmen and JUCO players, not transfers. Player ratings from VerbalCommits.com

UAB

The Class:

  • 2-star 6-1 PG Zack Bryant (Jacksonville, FL)
  • 3.5-star 6-5 PG Luis Hurtado (Decatur, GA)
  • 2-star JUCO 6-3 SG Jalen Perry (Louisville, KY)
  • 3-star 6-10 PF Makhtar Gueye (Dakar, Senegal)

It may get overshadowed by C-USA rival WKU’s incredible class, but Robert Ehsan has put together a very talented class in his first full recruiting cycle as head coach at UAB. The headliners are Hurtado and Gueye, two highly-rated prospects who each spurned offers from multiple high-major programs to join the Blazers in Birmingham. Hurtado is a versatile guard, as his size allows him to play the 1-3 in the C-USA. If he improves as a shooter, he could be a star. Gueye is very skilled for his size and can learn from 2 excellent bigs in Chris Cokley and William Lee before moving into a starring role in his sophomore campaign. However, it’s the depth of this class that makes it special. Bryant, who broke scoring records set by Grayson Allen at the Providence School, will compete for minutes at the point right away and is considered a steal for UAB by most recruiting experts. Perry rounds out the class, an excellent shooter (46% from downtown at JUCO) who can also contribute right away.

Clearly, this is a outstanding class that could lead UAB to the top of Conference USA for years to come.

Stephen F. Austin

The Class:

  • 2-star 6-0 JUCO PG John Comeaux (Beaumont, TX)-3 years left
  • 2-star 6-3 JUCO SG Shannon Bogues (Killeen, TX)-3 years left
  • 3-star 6-3 PG Cameron Mack (Austin, TX)
  • 3-star 6-8 PF Stefon Fisher (Washington, DC)

Like UAB, this class is the first full class for Kyle Keller, who enters his second season as the replacement for Brad Underwood at SFA. Mack and Fisher are two highly-regarded prospects, each of whom will make an impact right away.

With his 6-3 frame, “elite playmaker” Cam Mack may run the show from day 1 in Nacagdoches. Mack, who also reportedly considered offers from Boise State, Old Dominion, Rhode Island, and others, is expected to be part of a core that will lead the Lumberjacks to the top of the Southland for years to come. Fisher had an extensive list of mid-major offers, and his strong frame will allow him to compete for minutes in the frontcourt right away. Comeaux and Bogues each provide the ability to handle and score the basketball, traits that can always be used on your roster. They will also fill valuable roles this season on an SFA team that looks to be the favorite in the Southland.

Northeastern

The Class:

  • 2-star 6-4 PG Myles Franklin (Villa Park, CA)
  • 2-star 6-4 PG Derrick Cook (Mableton, GA)
  • 2-star 6-8 SF Jason Strong (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
  • 3.3-star 6-8 PF Tomas Murphy (Wakefield, RI)

This is truly a national recruiting class for Bill Coen and the Northeastern Huskies. It’s also a loaded class that will help Northeastern contend on the CAA for years to come. The steal here is Murphy, a skilled 6-8 forward who is the brother of former Florida star Erik Murphy and Alex Murphy, who played at Duke and Florida before grad transferring to Northeastern for the 2016-17 season. Tomas decided to join the Huskies over numerous high-major offers, including Maryland, Florida, Iowa, and Northwestern. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he steps in and takes his departing brother’s starting lineup spot this season. The other 3 prospects are all very solid mid-major recruits who should have nice careers for the Huskies. Frankin, a long, smooth guard from California, has the potential to be a steal. Cook led his high school team to a state title as a senior and is the type of versatile guard every team can use. Strong has interesting potential as a 3 or a stretch 4, and had a strong summer 2016 on the AAU circuit.

Don’t be surprised if we are talking about this class as the one that led Northeastern to the NCAA Tournament in a couple of years.

Ball State

The Class:

  • 3-star 6-1 PG Ishmael El-Amin (Minnetonka, MN)
  • 3-star 6-6 PF Zach Gunn (Fishers, IN0
  • 2-star 6-10 C Blake Huggins (Union City, TN)

James Whitford has recruited very well since becoming the Ball State head coach in 2013. This may be his best class yet.

Gunn is a huge get for a mid-major in Ball State, as he held offers from in-state powers Indiana (Crean), Butler, and Indiana State yet chose BSU once Tom Crean was fired in March. He’s the latest example of Whitford bringing top in-state talent into his program, the mark of  a very good mid-major coach. El-Amin, the son of former UConn great Khalid El-Amin, is also a very nice pickup, tapping into the talented state of Minnesota to land a guy who is likely the program’s point guard of the future. The class sealed with a center in Huggins who has excellent size at 6-10. Big men recruits at the mid-major level are mostly a crapshoot, but Huggins has the tools to develop into a really solid piece as well.

Penn

The Class: 

  • 2-star 6-5 SG Jelani Williams (Washington, DC)
  • 2.5-star 6-5 SF Eddie Scott (Washington, DC)
  • 3-star 6-8 PF Jarrod Simmons (Pittsburgh, PA)
  • 2-star 7-3 C Mark Jackson (Salt Lake City, UT)

Honestly, you could make a case for several of the incoming Ivy League’s incoming classes to make this list, but I decided to go with the one that Steve Donahue has put together at Penn. Simmons is a high-major talent by all accounts, earning offers from Pitt, Texas, VCU, Providence, and Boston College before committing to the Quakers. The frontcourt pairing of Simmons and rising sophomore AJ Brodeur has a chance to be special.

Added to the class are a pair of dynamic wings from the DC area in Williams and Scott who have the prototypical size and athleticism to make an immediate impact. Scott, who has been committed to the Quakers since July of 2016, was on a potential high-major trajectory had he not committed early, having already garnered offers from top mid-majors from across the country. The class is sealed with the massive 7-3 Jackson, who is raw but has a ton of potential if he can grow into his frame.

BREAKING: Dave Wojcik Resigns as SJSU Head Coach 

By Kevin Sweeney

Some stunning news in the Mountain West dropped tonight.

San Jose State head coach Dave Wojcik is reportedly resigning for personal reasons effective immediately, according to multiple media reports. Wojcik went 32-90 in his 4 seasons at the helm of SJSU, but the program had seemed to turn the corner this past season with a 14-16 campaign, as SJSU had really struggled in its transition to the Mountain West.

It’s unclear at this time what led to his resignation. Hopefully, he isn’t having any health issues. His brother Doug Wojcik was dismissed from the head coaching position at Charleston following allegations of verbally abusing players in 2014.

Meanwhile, SJSU is left in a rough position to replace a coach this late in the offseason. The logical move would be to hire from within to try and maintain some continuity in the program. It is huge that SJSU hold onto all its players, especially Mountain West Player of the Year candidate Brandon Clarke, in wake of the change.

Finally, Dave’s son Jake Wojcik is a rising senior at Bellarmine Prep in California. He is committed to Siena as a member of the recruiting class of 2018. It is unclear if this move could effect Jake’s commitment to the Saints.

Dave Wojcik released the following statement on the University’s website regarding his departure:

“This past year has been emotionally challenging for me with the loss of my father. His passing made me evaluate what is important in life and the value of family. With the considerable needs of my widowed mother as well as my son moving to the East Coast after his high school graduation, I believe it is the appropriate time to resign my position as head men’s basketball coach at San José University,”.

The Basketball Tournament: Northeast Region Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

When The Basketball Tournament started in 2014, it was a little-known event with 32 teams fighting for a $500,000 prize. Now, it’s the biggest basketball event of summer, showcased on ESPN and featuring players from the top levels of basketball worldwide. This year, 64 teams will face off in a single-elimination, NCAA Tournament-style event with the winning team taking home a massive $2,000,000 prize. Whether it be college alumni squads from traditional powers, players from the same town teaming up, or semipro teams looking to make a name for themself, TBT is an incredible event showcasing players from all levels of basketball.

Regional play in the South and Northeast begin Saturday, 7/8. Today I’ll preview the Northeast region. For my preview of the South region, CLICK HERE.

The Bracket

NORTHEAST BRACKET

5 Teams to Watch

#1 FCM Untouchables

The top seed in this region, FCM Untouchables is a talented squad made up of some of the best players in Europe. Guys like Mike James, Kyle Hines, and Jerrelle Benimon may not be household names to most, but are easily good enough to be on NBA rosters right now. These guys are veterans who have played basketball at the highest level for a long time, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be considered one of the top contenders at TBT this year.

#2 Supernova (Villanova Alumni)

This team is loaded with names you’d probably recognize. Whether it be Scottie Reynolds, whose famous buzzerbeater in the 2009 NCAA Tournament is still talked about today, or Darryl Reynolds, who just completed his senior season at Villanova, this team of Villanova alums is looking to cut down the nets at TBT this year. Last year’s run ended in disappointment after Supernova fell early after having to finish a game with 4 players due to injury, but Supernova has reloaded and is ready for a deep run beginning in Philly this weekend.

#3 Boeheim’s Army (Syracuse Alumni)

This team is LOADED with Syracuse stars of old. Guys like CJ Fair, Brandon Triche, Eric Devendorf, and Scoop Jardine headline this squad, the team that garnered the most fan votes of any team in the Northeast regional. In theory, this roster is as balanced as any in TBT. However, they’ll have a tough road just to get out of Philly this weekend, with a matchup looming Sunday with either City of Gods (2-time defending regional champions) or GaelNation (Iona Alumni team) assuming they can knock off DuBois Dream on Saturday.

#5 Zoo Crew (Pitt Alumni)

Our run on former Big East powerhouses concludes with Zoo Crew, the 5 seed in the Northeast. Bracketology expert Joe Lunardi of ESPN has picked this group of Panthers to win the region in a video posted on his Twitter page as he prepares to cover TBT for ESPN. I’m a little concerned with a frontcourt that has just one player listed over 6-8, but the Zoo Crew has a loaded guard unit that features Ashton Gibbs and Levance Fields that should carry them in games. Certainly a team to watch out for in the Northeast regional.

#11 GaelNation (Iona Alumni)

Even though this team is labeled as just an Iona Alumni team, GaelNation features far more than just Iona alums. While there are plenty of former Gaels (David Laury, Isaiah Williams, and Steve Burtt amoung them) on the squad, guys like Fuquan Edwin (Seton Hall), D’Angelo Harrison (St. John’s), and Kareem Canty (Auburn) compliment the talented Iona products and make GaelNation perhaps the biggest sleeper in the tournament. Their draw of City of Gods in the first round followed by a potential showdown with Boeheim’s Army is nothing short of brutal, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see GaelNation make a Cinderella run through TBT.

My Picks

NORTHEAST PICKS

A pair of big second round upsets highlight my picks, as Jamboree qualifier Paul’s Champions knocks off FCM Untouchables and GaelNation knocks off Boeheim’s Army. The Northeast Regional Final would be must-see TV, with Pitt taking on Villanova in a repeat of the 2009 NCAA Tournament game marked by Scottie Reynolds’ buzzer-beater. In the end, I’m rolling with Supernova to win the Northeast region and advance to the National Semi-finals in Baltimore.

The Basketball Tournament: South Region Preview

By Kevin Sweeney

When The Basketball Tournament started in 2014, it was a little-known event with 32 teams fighting for a $500,000 prize. Now, it’s the biggest basketball event of summer, showcased on ESPN and featuring players from the top levels of basketball worldwide. This year, 64 teams will face off in a single-elimination, NCAA Tournament-style event with the winning team taking home a massive $2,000,000 prize. Whether it be college alumni squads from traditional powers, players from the same town teaming up, or semipro teams looking to make a name for themself, TBT is an incredible event showcasing players from all levels of basketball.

Regional play in the South and Northeast begin on Saturday, so here’s a preview of the South Region. I’ll have a Northeast Regional preview on Friday, so stay tuned for that.

The Bracket

SOUTH TBT

5 Teams to Watch

#1 Overseas Elite

The 2-time defending TBT champions are back, and are as loaded as ever before. Joining the fray is former Pitt star and NBA veteran DeJuan Blair, while talented guards Paris Horne (St. John’s), Kyle Fogg (Arizona), Oliver Lafayette (Houston), and Errick McCollum (Goshen) form a loaded backcourt. Add Blair to an already solid frontcourt, and it’s clear why Overseas Elite is the favorite in this event. They have the experience from the 2 previous title runs, and are ready and hungry for a third. Hopefully, Overseas Elite can provide us with more special moments like last year, when Fogg’s explosion from downtown highlighted an incredible semifinal vs City of Gods.

#2 Ram Nation (VCU Alumni)

VCU is known for being the underdog at the national level. Their alumni team, however, will be one of the favorites at TBT this year. A team headlined by VCU alumni and former NBA players Eric Maynor and Larry Sanders, Ram Nation looks to avenge its Round of 16 loss last season and go all the way in TBT. Joining Maynor and Sanders are a group of former college stars, most of which played at VCU. Jamie Skeen, the star of the 2011 Final Four squad, teams up with Sanders to create a scary frontcourt. We all know Ram Nation will have a huge traveling fanbase in Charlotte this weekend, which should only help as they look to advance to the Super 16 in Brooklyn.

#3 Ole Hotty Toddy (Ole Miss Alumni)

Need a reason to watch TBT this weekend? Marshall Henderson, ’nuff said. Yep, one of the most polarizing players in recent college basketball history is suiting up for an Ole Miss Alumni squad that features many guys who helped the Rebels bring home the 2013 SEC Championship. Surrounding Henderson are guys like Terrico White, Jarvis Summers, and Christopher Warren, all of whom starred for Ole Miss over the years. Expect some fireworks from Ole Hotty Toddy this weekend and throughout the rest of The Basketball Tournament.

#9 Washington Generals

Yes, those Washington Generals. The team best known for how it loses games is looking to win 6 in a row and claim the 2 million dollar prize that comes with it. This team, put together by Kenny “The Jet” Smith, certainly has the talent and chemistry needed to make a big run in the event. One guy to watch from the Generals is Antoine Mason, the former Niagara and Auburn star who is the son of the late Anthony Mason (played for 13 years in the NBA). Expect an incredible celebration if the Generals can win their first game since 1971 on Saturday against the Matadors.

#13 The Citi Team

The South Region’s qualifier from The Jamboree, a play-in tournament that featured the Elam Ending, The Citi Team is a team who could bust brackets during their time in TBT. The Citi Team rolled through The Jamboree despite missing its best player, former UConn standout Jerome Dyson. All of the sudden, what is supposed to be a Round of 64 matchup with Kentucky Kings now feels like a Super 16-level matchup.

My Picks

SOUTH REGION TBT

I’m rolling with a stunner, the 2-time defending champions in Overseas Elite unable to claim the South Regional title. Instead, I’m picking Ole Hotty Toddy, a roster filled with college stars who have great chemistry with one another. Last time many of these guys played together, they were cutting down the nets in March. This time should be no different, except they’ll be doing it in July.

With Zach Lofton Headed to NMSU, Who’s the Favorite in the WAC?

By Kevin Sweeney

In the aftermath of Texas Southern grad transfer Zach Lofton’s commitment to New Mexico State on Monday, the debate of who will win the WAC this coming season has exploded. Over the past couple of days, I’ve spoken with college basketball writers Joshua Lovern (Mid-Major Madness), Connor Hope (Busting Brackets), and Kyle McDonald (covers Utah Valley for KSL), as well as countless fans of WAC basketball through Twitter. While I’ve tried to give my best take on the WAC race, it is difficult to express what you want to say in 140 characters. Thus, I figured I’d put together my full thoughts on what should be an excellent title race with any sort of character limit. Here we go:

The Contenders

To me, there are 3 teams that have enough talent and experience to be considered legit contenders for the WAC title: Grand Canyon, New Mexico State, and Utah Valley. When I woke up on Monday morning, I was fairly solid in my pick of Grand Canyon as WAC favorites, though I thought both challengers had a real chance at claiming the crown. However, Lofton’s commitment to NMSU left me waffling on my original pick. Here’s my in-depth look at each team:

Grand Canyon

THE CASE: Finally eligible for the postseason after completing the 4-year transition period to full Division 1 status, Grand Canyon has a great chance to win the WAC in its first season of NCAA Tournament eligibility. While superstar guard DeWayne Russell graduates, the Lopes still bring back a lot of production from last season’s squad, including WAC Player of the Year candidate Joshua Braun. GCU also brings in a talented recruiting class headlined by 3-star point guard Damari Milstead. Plus, they add a veteran leader in Casey Benson, a grad transfer guard who spent the first 3 seasons of his career as a key role player at Oregon. Finally, they should get talented big men Matt Jackson and Boubacar Toure back from injuries that cost each their 2016-17 season.

dan_majerle_gcu

Former NBA player Dan Majerle hopes to lead his Grand Canyon team to a WAC title this season. By Jdhhauser [CC BY-SA 4.0]

So why GCU? Grand Canyon is deep, talented, well-coached, and hungry. While no one player can replace Russell, Benson should be a double-digit scorer who takes care of the ball (career 3.25 assist-to-turnover ratio), while Milstead should provide scoring punch as either as 6th man or starter. Rising sophomore forward Oscar Frayer oozes potential and is a definite breakout candidate this season. GCU should be able to go 10 or more deep, a huge advantage when you consider the toll the extensive travelling in the WAC takes throughout the season.

New Mexico State

THE CASE: The fact that NMSU is still in the thick of the title talk in the WAC given what they have lost this offseason is a credit to the job Chris Jans has done since he arrived in Las Cruces to replace Paul Weir. After Weir departed, multiple players transferred and others were released from their letters of intent to play for the Aggies this season. However, Jans has brought in a trio of talented JUCO players in 6-6 wing Wayne Stewart, 6-2 guard LaMarcus Lee, and 6-0 PG Marquiez Buchanan, along with Lofton and 2017 recruits Kortrijk Miles and Gabe Hadley.

All of the sudden, NMSU has what is in my opinion the best starting 5 in the conference in Ohio State transfer AJ Harris, talented guard Sidy Ndir, Lofton, and returning frontcourt players Jemerrio Jones and Eli Chuha. Now, the question is the bench. If the 5 newcomers can help the Aggies have some usable depth (something that was an issue last season), New Mexico State is likely the best team in the WAC. The question is: can all these new pieces mesh with each other with a new coach in Jans running the show? If they can, it will be another special season in Las Cruces.

Utah Valley

THE CASE: The forgotten man in what really is a 3-horse race is UVU. Mark Pope has assembled a roster full of players who transferred from high-major programs, and now in his 3rd year will have his full roster at his disposal. A nice core of guards in Conner Toolson (11.9 ppg), Kenneth Ogbe (10.6 ppg), and Brandon Randolph (10 ppg) returns along with a double-double machine in Isaac Neilson, while the Wolverines add a pair of impact transfers in former Oklahoma center Akolda Manyang and former BYU guard Jake Toolson. This UVU roster has excellent length and multiple guys who can hurt you on the offensive end. Per teamrankings.com, UVU ranked 9th in the country in tempo last season, so they certainly have the ability to get up and down. However, now that a center in Manyang is eligible, the best play may be to slow down and allow the frontcourt pairing of Neilson and Manyang to do work against the smaller bigs the rest of the WAC will trot out there.

While the 2 aforementioned squads will likely get the majority of the press, Utah Valley is a team that could surprise a lot of people in the WAC.

My Prediction

  1. New Mexico State
  2. Grand Canyon
  3. Utah Valley

Now I’ll start by saying that I have easily put any one of the 3 teams in any one of the spots, and that it wouldn’t surprise me if 1 game or less separates these 3 teams. However, I’m going to go with New Mexico State. Harris and Lofton will be impact newcomers, and if Ndir can stay on the floor he is an all-league talent. The talented JUCO players in Stewart, Lee, and Buchanan will be solid contributors right away as well.

The regular season title race will likely be decided by road games. Whichever team can steal a road win against the other 2 top contenders and can avoid a road slip-up against the rest of the conference will likely be in the drivers seat.