We hope all Aggie fans had a wonderful Christmas wherever you may reside. The holidays are almost over and the Aggie men's and women's basketball teams are back in action as WAC play begins tomorrow. The Aggie men were picked to win the league by the coaches and picked to finish second by the media. It's been a big of a rough go so far for the Aggies. They enter WAC play at a mediocre 6-6 (actually 5-6 for RPI purposes with one of their wins coming against a non-Division I opponent). That being said the Aggies have reason for optimism heading into league play. For starters, 7'5" freshman behemoth Sim Bhullar is really coming into his own and has started to realize that he is indeed 7'5" and can overpower just about anyone he comes across. His career-high night against Missouri State saw him score 25 points, the third most by a freshman under head coach Marvin Menzies (only Jahmar Young's 33 against Boise State in his freshman year and 28 from Daniel Mullings at home last year, his triple-double game, were better). Bhullar's continued development over the remainder of the season, in particular with the absence of Chili Nephawe, will be a big factor in winning not only the regular season but the WAC tournament in March (which is the only way any WAC team is getting into the NCAA tournament).
Second reason for optimism? The WAC is brutally bad this year (and just wait until next season when three-fourths of the league is turned over and WAC play will consist of teams like Chicago State and UT Pan American). Just how bad is the WAC? The league is the 18th best conference in the RPI (out of 31 leagues) and has fallen behind other mid-major leagues such as the Metro Atlantic (MAAC), Northeast, Big West, Horizon (sans Butler), Mid-American (MAC) and Ohio Valley (we can name a couple teams in the OVC but can you?). Just one team in the WAC is inside the RPI Top 100 and that is Utah State at 88. The UtAgs are 8-1 (9-1 if you count their non-D1 win) but that should tell you how weak their schedule has been. If New Mexico State had just one loss heading into WAC play, their RPI would be in the Top 15 or even Top 10 but we digress. LA Tech is sitting right at 100, UT Arlington is at 132, New Mexico State is 169 and the remaining six WAC teams below 200.
The league as a whole is 49-49 with arguably the best wins in league coming via New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech with their victories over Southern Miss (currently RPI 72).
This is a league that is top heavy (if you can even call it that) and will likely be a four team race for the regular season title between New Mexico State, Utah State, Louisiana Tech and Denver. With 18 league games there's a little more margin for error than there was last season with just 14 league games, however, we do think that a 15-3 record will win the regular season title. As is always the case, but even moreso in a watered down WAC, protecting home court will be vital as there should be plenty of road wins for the top contenders. The toughest road games in the WAC figure to be at Utah State, at New Mexico State, at Louisiana Tech, at Denver and at Idaho.
Third reason for optimism is the Aggies seem to have found a little bit of depth late in non-conference play with the increased playing time of Remi Barry (who has looked better inside the arc than outside the arc), the recent hot shooting of Kevin Aronis (who needs to take more shots) and freshman Matej Buovac (who started his Aggie career with eight points). The only concern we have is that one or more of these players may get lost in the shuffle and lose playing time. We've seen at times the Aggies seemingly forget a player is on the bench (prime example being Kevin Aronis against UNM at home). We liked what we saw from Buovac in terms of his shooting but also his movement without the ball, especially considering it was his first game.
Can the Aggies put it all together and make a run through the WAC regular season and even more importantly, a run through the WAC tournament? That's the question that will be answered through the next three months. One thing is for certain. The Aggies won't face any teams in the WAC that are better than the teams they've faced in the non-conference in terms of New Mexico, Oregon State, Southern Miss and UTEP.
The Aggie women's basketball team also opens up WAC play tomorrow but they'll be at home to host UT Arlington and Louisiana Tech (Monday). Despite being picked to finish near the bottom the Aggie women can in fact finish near the top in the conference. The Aggies have upgraded talent-wise but are still trying to piece things together on a night-in and night-out basis. There have been moments that make you think the team will win the WAC (see most of their second half comebacks that have had strong defense combined with good shooting) but there have also been moments where the Aggies have been painfully inept on offense (see point totals of 37, 44 and 44 against New Mexico twice and UTEP respectively) that make you think that things won't be any different this season than last.
The key to the Aggies' play will be getting more out of their "marquee" players, Stephanie Gilbreath and Danesia Williamson. Prior to the duo's "breakout" against a bad UMKC team last week, the two were leading the team in scoring but shooting a miserable 32.7 (Williamson) and 27.5 (Gilbreath) percent from the floor. If those two can start hitting at a better rate (low to mid 40s) and the Aggies can get Kelsie Rozendaal more involved, they will be a very, very difficult team to beat. The young freshmen that the Aggies have in Sasha Weber, Shay Young, Abby Scott and Elena Holguin have shown at various points through the non-conference that they can contribute a bit on a nightly basis.
If the women can avoid these lengthy scoring droughts that have plagued them throughout the early season they can win a lot of games in WAC play. The team plays excellent defense and their offensive sets are effectively, they just need to hit the open shots that they're getting.
The WAC on the women's side is equally bad as on the men's side. Similarly the WAC is 18th in RPI with New Mexico State at 82nd actually having the highest RPI in the league. Texas State is second at 92 and those two teams are the only two above .500. The league as a whole is 37-63 against Division I opposition. Utah State, the preseason pick to win the league, has stumbled out of the gate to a 2-8 record while traditional favorite Louisiana Tech is only marginally better at 4-6.
Unlike the men's side, there's no clear-cut favorite and if you were to base things solely on record, New Mexico State would actually enter conference play as the favorite to win the league. And unlike on the men's side, we don't think a gaudy record will win the regular season. The league's regular season winner will likely have five or six losses in conference play so you could see a team win the league with a 13-5 or 12-6 record.