WAC men’s basketball looking to continue upswing in 2017-18

Asked if he notices a difference in the overall strength of WAC men’s basketball compared to just two or three years ago, CSU Bakersfield coach Rod Barnes could only laugh.

During the 2014-15 season — the first year with the current eight-team alignment — the WAC ranked 31st out of 33 leagues in both conference RPI and KenPom.com’s efficiency ratings. The league jumped to 26th in RPI and 24th in efficiency in 2015-16 and last season vaulted to No. 18 in conference RPI and No. 17 in efficiency, with Bakersfield leading the way as the regular-season champion.

Barnes attributed the upswing to the four new coaches who have stepped in since the 2014-15 season and the commitment from each school’s administration to improve its program. Rather than being pushovers, WAC teams have been challenging and beating teams from more highly regarded leagues — a trend all the coaches are hoping to continue in 2017-18.

“For the first few years when I got here, people were concerned about the league,” Barnes said. “I think everyone has come together and not only saved the league, but I think we’re thriving in this league.”

Bakersfield was the prime example last year. Though New Mexico State won the WAC Tournament title to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, Bakersfield made the biggest postseason waves, advancing to the NIT semifinals. On the way, the team knocked off California, Colorado State and UT Arlington.

The WAC did not defeat any traditional powers during the 2016-17 regular season, but the league did score wins against mid-majors. Grand Canyon took down San Diego State, and Utah Valley won at BYU.

“It’s amazing where we’ve come going into our fifth year in the league, and I expect as a whole, our conference RPI is going to be even higher than it was last year,” UMKC coach Kareem Richardson said. “The league is strong. It’s a league that I think is somewhat overlooked, which is fine. We have a lot of great coaches in the league, a lot of great players, and it’ll be a very competitive league again.”

The conference will once again be tested against top-flight competition during the non-conference season, as WAC schools have a combined 11 matchups against teams that finished in last season’s final AP top 25.

UTRGV will face SMU, which ranked No. 11 at the end of the season, in addition to Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.

“You want to play those games, but playing them and competing is one thing. We have to get some wins,” UTRGV coach Lew Hill said. “If we want to get the WAC name out there nationwide, you have to beat a few of those teams. We have to go upset them.”

In conference play, Hill said the league will again be chasing Bakersfield, New Mexico State and Grand Canyon. While New Mexico State has consistently produced strong teams, the emergence of both Bakersfield and GCU has been critical to growing the conference profile.

Bakersfield was KenPom’s 241st-ranked team in 2014-15 before rising to 90 last season. Grand Canyon was 264th in 2014-15 and 152nd last year. Utah Valley has also made a substantial jump: from 321 in 2014-15 to 147 in 2016-17.

“The popularity of the conference continues to grow, and that allows you to go out and get better players,” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said. “When your conference is strong, and you have some really good teams, that pushes other teams to get better, too. I’m excited about it, man. I think it’s going to be a great year.”

When Chicago State coach Tracy Dildy looks at his team, he sees many similarities to the 2013-14 group that earned the No. 3 seed in the WAC Tournament after finishing the conference regular season 8-8. But in the WAC preseason coaches and media polls released last week, Chicago State was picked to finish last in the league.

“The one thing I do acknowledge is that the conference has gotten a lot better since that time, also,” Dildy said. “A lot of it has to do with the coaching and the coaches now being familiar with the conference, and the players that this conference is getting now. You talk about players that have NBA interest. It’s clear when you talk about the players and the coaching, it really has taken the conference up a whole notch.”