By: Olivia Gerling
The 2016-17 season could turn out to be a battle between New Mexico State and Grand Canyon University.
Ranked No. 1 in the Western Athletic Conference during the 2015-16 season, New Mexico State is looking to continue their reign at the top of the leaderboard.
NM State was named preseason favorites to win the WAC. They tallied four first-place votes in the coaches’ poll, and senior Ian Baker gathered preseason first-team honors in both the coaches’ and media polls. Baker averaged 13.8 points and 3.7 assists last season, as well as 4.6 boards per game. He led the Aggies in free throws and was selected to the WAC All-Defensive Team and the All-WAC Tournament Team.
Baker started in all 34 games last season, making his every day influence a vital part of this year’s hopes to win the division.
Despite Baker’s strong performance in the previous season, a different player worth noting is Grand Canyon’s Joshua Braun. Braun was the 2016-17 preseason player of the year pick in both polls, while Baker joined him on the All-WAC Preseason First-Team.
During the 2015-16 season, Braun averaged 16.5 points per game and led the league in both 3-point field goal percentage (.417) and free throw percentage (.873). He also hit six 3-pointers to tie a career-best against UMKC.
Braun’s performance during the upcoming 2016-17 season may aid the Lopes in overtaking NM State. GCU had three first-place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll, just one behind NM State.
However, the Lopes begin the season on the road at No. 1 Duke. Despite a close 88-83 exhibition win over Adams State on Nov. 3, GCU had several turnovers that left the team looking like they had suffered defeat.
The return of DeWayne Russell may be an important factor later in GCU’s season. Russell led the team against Adams State with 17 points, 11 assists and six turnovers. He is ineligible to play in GCU’s first two games due to a waiver he received from the NCAA to return his senior year.
Though NM State and GCU are the likely first and second place favorites, not to be forgotten is CSU Bakersfield. They tallied third on the Coaches’ poll with one first-place vote, and it is plausible they will try to ride the momentum from their first appearance in an NCAA Division I Tournament during the 2015-16 season.
Senior Dedrick Basile will likely be the player to watch for the team. He played a key part in leading the Roadrunners to their NCAA Tournament appearance after hitting a clutch 3-pointer in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament title game with two-tenths of a second remaining on the clock. This win came over against No. 1 seed New Mexico.
Basile went on to win the WAC Tournament MVP after averaging 12.3 points per game.
Though CSU Bakersfield has proven they can defeat rival NM State, they will have to make up for the loss of Aly Ahmed this coming season, who completed a decorated three-year career with CSUB last season. Ahmed was one of four players in CSUB history to score at least 1,000 points and grab over 500 rebounds in his career.
(Featured Image: Sheila Dee, Flickr)