The 2009-10 basketball season is just about a month away, and to kick off our 2009-10 preview, we’ll join Western Athletic Conference beatbloggers Chris Murray and Jason Groves in offering our picks for the WAC’s best senior ballers. Juniors, sophomores and freshmen will follow.
We’ll mix things up a little bit by requiring the picks to be by position, with a first and second team. Players are judged on the basis of overall performance and team impact.
G: Mac Hopson, Idaho
Really, there’s nothing to dispute here. Hopson was an utter machine last year, averaging 16.4 points, a WAC-leading 5.9 assists (19th-best in the nation), 4.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals, while playing 34.3 minutes a game (third-most in the WAC). With a deeper squad giving him more legit scoring threats to feed, Mac’s points may go down this year but his already-high assist numbers should rise. Simply swarming Hopson won’t be an option for the Vandals’ opponents in 09-10, and that makes him and his team all the more dangerous. Perhaps most importantly, with more point guards on coach Don Verlin’s bench of tricks, Mac can get a breather more than once a half. As we note below, the pairing of Mac with Pacific transfer Steffan Johnson may give Idaho a backcourt that no WAC rival can match.
G: Jonathan Gibson, New Mexico State
The Aggies very nearly upset the Utah State juggernaut in the semifinals of the WAC Tournament this year, and Jonathan Gibson’s huge 16 points on 6-13 shooting is a key reason why. A pure shooting guard who never got into an assist groove, Gibson averaged 14.1 points and 1.4 steals per game overall as part of coach Marvin Menzies’ run-and-gun, shoot-first-ask-questions-later offense. But Gibson’s defensive abilities have to get better this season if NMSU hopes to contend for the title — the Aggies gave up a league-worst 74.4 points per game last year.
F: Sylvester Seay, Fresno State
The keystone to Fresno State’s offense, Seay is a serious impact player who can dominate the paint. We saw it in Moscow last year, where he scored 14 points, made four huge blocks and nearly led the Bulldogs to an upset on the Vandals’ home floor. On the season, Seay averaged 15.3 points, 5.8 boards and 1.7 blocks, landing in the WAC’s top 15 in all three categories. He has a nice touch for the inside shot and is unafraid on defense — but that’s gotten him into trouble, with five foulouts on the season. Unusually for a 6-10 big man, Seay can also nail the trey — he was the Bulldogs’ second-leading three-point shooter behind freshman stud Paul George.
F: Roderick Flemings, Hawaii
In an awful year for the Rainbow Warriors, Flemings was one of the few bright spots. He led the team and finished fourth in the WAC in scoring with 16.6 points per game, while also leading the team in steals with 35. Like Hopson, he was a stalwart on the court, averaging a WAC-leading 36 minutes per game. A lack of teamwork (starting with ineffective point guard Kareem Nitoto) hurt him last year — with a rebuilt support cast that may be coach Bob Nash’s last hope, 2009-10 should be better for Flemings. Again like Hopson, he might score fewer points but be a more effective player overall.
C: Magnum Rolle, Louisiana Tech
Not only does he sport one of the conference’s best names, Rolle can rock his opponents in the paint. His numbers (12.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, .530 FG%, 52 blocks) were among the WAC’s best, and his dominant inside power forces opponents to open up the floor to the Bulldogs’ numerous outside threats — among them Kyle Gibson. Coach Kerry Rupp’s squad struggled as a whole to score, with a WAC-worst 63.3-ppg average, so the impact of Rolle’s buckets and boards can’t be overestimated. He sputtered in the WAC Tournament’s opening game vs. Idaho, but came up big against Nevada, nearly carrying La. Tech to a second straight bracket upset. What he needs to add in his senior year is consistency — four times he scored more than 25 points, but another four times he scored six or fewer points.
The second team and honorable mentions are below the fold.
G: Steffan Johnson, Idaho
OK, maybe some will call this homer bias. But having seen Mac and Steffan in action together over summer break, this combination may well be unstoppable in the backcourt. Johnson averaged 14.5 points, 4.9 assists and 1.5 steals per game in his junior year at Pacific en route to being named First Team All-Big West. The WAC competition might be tougher, but Steffan has some true hoops gifts and the redshirt year under Verlin has done nothing but improve him. A mix of two point guards can sometimes be volatile, but it seems that Mac and Steffan are committed to working together on the floor. If this pairing lives up to its potential, Johnson will be Newcomer of the Year and the Vandals might not stop until they reach the Big Dance.
G: Kyle Gibson, Louisiana Tech
The second of the Gibson guards to land on these lists, Kyle’s been a quiet anchor for the Bulldogs offensively. He averaged 16.1 ppg (sixth in the WAC) last season, and went off for 23 points in the WAC Tournament quarterfinals to lead La. Tech’s upset of the Vandals and 25 more in a near-upset of the Wolf Pack in the semis. Gibson led the league in 3-point buckets made and was third in accuracy (76 and 43.4%, respectively) but most impressive (in contrast to his teammate Magnum Rolle) is his consistent output — he finished the season on a streak of 11 consecutive double-digit scoring performances. Also credit Gibson with the WAC’s 10th-best free-throw shooting. He, Rolle and Jamel Guyton form a solid senior core that make the Bulldogs a dangerous team in 2009-10.
F: Chris Oakes, San Jose State
Keeping the Spartans in the game was Oakes’ mission. With one of the WAC’s worst defensive units, Oakes’ WAC-runner-up 7.6 rebounds per game came up big for San Jose State. He also posted a 58.2% shooting percentage, good enough for third in the conference. His overall scoring (8.2 ppg) could have been higher for a big man, but we quibble, as the senior forward crop is pretty thin and Oakes’ contributions were vital to what success the Spartans did find.
F: Brandon Wiley, Idaho
Wiley was the guy who quietly held everything together for the Vandals last season. With a critical lack of depth in the paint, the undersized power forward led the team in rebounding. Though Wiley’s 5.6 boards per game were merely 15th in the WAC, every one was precious for a team that struggled off the glass. But Wiley was also the Vandals’ smartest and most accurate shooter, making 56.7% percent of his buckets — good for fifth in the WAC. Now that Idaho has more quality post players, Wiley can move from power to small forward, the position that more suits his 6-6 frame. With hotshot freshman Corey Stern potentially gunning for his starting slot as the season goes on, expect Wiley’s game to heat up under the pressure.
C: Kurt Cunningham, Boise State
In a year that saw much disappointment for the Broncos (dropping from the NCAA Tournament to a CBI first-round loss), Cunningham’s contributions in the paint kept things in Boise from being even worse. He was the most accurate shooter in the league and the 12th-best in the nation, making an amazing 67.3% of his shots. Cunningham will probably be asked to step up the shooting this season, even at the cost of his percentage — with the loss of scoring leader Mark Sanchez to graduation, the Broncos are in desperate need of offensive weapons. His rebounding skills could also use some work, as he averaged just 4.1 boards per game.