Entering his 12th season in college, Nick Fazekas returns to lead the Nevada to another WAC title. A new challenge will come this season from Reggie Theus's New Mexico State Aggies. NCAA Tournament choices in bold italics, NIT choices in italics.
1. Nevada: Yes, Nick Fazekas still has one more year of college eligibility. Yes, he should run roughshod over the WAC once again. The 6'11 forward has a complete game, with his continually improving post skills complementing his excellent perimeter game. Also, don't confuse finesse with soft in Fazekas's case, as he averaged 10.4 rebounds per game last year to go along with 22 points per contest. Another key stat is that Fazekas hits his free throws, to the tune of 85% last season. Fazekas's likely partner upfront, athletic 6'9 forward Demarshay Johnson, will miss the first semester due to academics. If Johnson gets his grades in order, he will give the Wolfpack another strong rebounder and a potential game-changer on the defensive end with his shot-blocking ability. In the meantime, the starting spot in the frontcourt next to Fazekas may be freshman JaValle McGee's to lose. The 6'10 McGee, an athletic post player similar to Johnson, appears to ready for big minutes right off the bat. He eschewed interest from higher level conferences to play at Nevada, and has the potential to become an all-conference player in the WAC. The backcourt should be a strength for Wolfpack this season. At one guard spot, super scorer Marcellus Kemp returns. Kemp averaged 15 points a game last season, but has a tendency to fire up an ill-advised shot or two per game. However, his ability to put up points in bunches allows the Wolfpack to live with that. At the other wing spot, sharpshooter Kyle Shiloh returns. Shiloh averaged just under 9 points a game last season, shooting 47% from behind the arc. After a disappointing sophomore season, point guard Ramon Sessions should get back on track this year. Sessions struggled with his shot for most of the season, averaging just 4.7 points per game. Sessions did deal with injuries, but still averaged 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game. Assuming a return to health, he should vastly improve his scoring this season while still capably running the Wolfpack offense. Lyndale Burleson, NFL WR Nate Burleson's little brother, showed promising flashes his freshman season. Burleson can hit the deep ball, and should solidly run the Wolfpack offense when Sessions takes a breather. The Wolfpack may not have a ton of depth, but their superior talent should lead them to another WAC title this season. After last year's disappointing loss to Montana in the NCAA Tournament's first round, they will look to atone themselves in March.
2. New Mexico State: Like UMass, this will be another team that has to mesh talented newcomers with a group of solid returning players. In just his second year with the Aggies, Reggie Theus has assembled a really strong group of talent. Athletic 6'9 forward Tyrone Nelson will be the Aggies go to guy again this season. Nelson averaged nearly 18 points a game at 56% from the field, and added another 9 rebounds per contest. This season, Nelson may have to sacrifice his numbers with the Aggies upgrade in talent. He will have a very talented partner upfront in 7'0 Charlotte transfer Martin Iti. Iti struggled to live up to his heralded reputation enterting college, but should be more comfortable in Las Cruces. At Charlotte, Iti relied on his shot blocking and rebounding ability, but must develop his offensive game in order to play at the next level. Having a star next to him in Nelson should present Iti with plenty of opportunities to score. In the backcourt, St. John's transfer Elijah Ingram will once again run the show. A shoot-first point guard, the 6'0 Ingram will have to distribute the ball more this season. While he did average 13.4 points per game last season, Ingram averaged just 3 assists per contest. He will have to increase that assist average for the Aggies to meet expectations. Ingram will likely be joined by two other transfers in the backcourt, former Utah swingman Justin Hawkins and former Kansas State guard Fred Peete. The 6'5 Hawkins has the ability to score in many different ways, but did not fit with the Utes half-court system. He should enjoy the much faster pace of Theus employs. Fred Peete, a 6'4 guard, averaged 13 points a game his last season in Manhattan, but only shot 37 percent from the field. Two returnees, David Fisher and Ted Knauber, add depth to the Aggies perimeter. The 6'6 Fisher, who can also play the four, averaged just under 9 points a game last season along with 6 rebounds per contest. Knauber scored 7 points a game and can hit the three, shooting at 35% from behind the arc last season. If Theus can get his players on the same page, this should be an NCAA Tournament team. However, they will likely take a backseat to Nevada.
3. Fresno State: Steve Cleveland's crew could also challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth this season, which they will be eligible for again following the scandal with ex-coach Ray Lopes(part of the Kelvin Sampson cooaching tree for those keeping score at home). The Bulldogs return all five starters, including bigtime scorers in Ja'Vance Coleman and Quinton Hosley. Coleman, a strong 6'3 guard, averaged 17.5 points a game last season while shooting 39% from three. Using his 215 pound frame, he also frequently gets the free throw line, where he connects at an 80% clip. Hosley, an athletic 6'6 forward, averaged 18.6 points and 9 rebounds a season ago. At just 210 pounds, he has a knack for winning battles underneath as evidenced by his strong rebounding average. He can also hit the perimeter shot, a necessary component for his future pro career on the perimeter. Hector Hernandez gives the Bulldogs some muscle upfront. The 6'9 big man averaged 9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game last season, but will have to rebound better this season for Bulldogs to have a big season. Providing needed depth upfront will be 6'8 Cal transfer Dominic McGuire. An athletic forward, McGuire may allow Hosley to play more on the perimeter this season. Steady point guard Kevin Bell will run the Bulldogs offense again this year. Bell primarily looks to set up his teammates, averaging 6 assists a game last season. 6'3 guard Dwight O'Neill joins Bell in the backcourt. O'Neill averaged just under 11 points a game last year to go along with 4.5 rebounds per game. Heralded JC transfer Eddie Miller will provide depth in the backcourt. Fresno State should be a strong challenger for second in the WAC with New Mexico State, and that battle could also be for an NCAA Tournament spot. While I slightly favor the Aggies, it would not be a major surprise for Bulldogs to edge them out on both accounts.
Utah State should still be formidable, but the loss of star big man Nate Harris will knock them down a couple of spots this season. Sharpshooter Jaycee Carroll and athletic forward Chaz Spicer potentially form a potent one-two punch, which should allow for the Aggies to qualify for postseason play. The Rainbow Warriors will be motivated to make coach Riley Wallace's last season at Hawaii a grand one. They have a solid trio of players in Matt Gibson, Ahmet Gueye and Matt Lojeski. Also look for them to play in the postseason, but most likely not the Big Dance. George Karl's son Coby has a chance to join his dad in the NBA next season. The heady 6'4 guard will be in the hunt for WAC player of the year, but will need a herculean effort to propel Boise State into the WAC race.
G Coby Karl, Boise State
G Ja'Vance Coleman, Fresno State
F Quinton Hosley, Fresno State
F Tyrone Nelson, New Mexico State
F Nick Fazekas, Nevada
Player of the year: Fazekas
Newcomer of the year: Justin Hawkins, New Mexico State