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2014 Western Athletic Tournament Preview: Another title within sight for New Mexico State

Mar 12, 2014, 5:11 PM EST

Daniel Mullings Getty Images

Even though New Mexico State is the WAC’s top team, they aren’t walking into Orleans Arena with the No. 1 seed. That would be Utah Valley, the former member of the Great West Conference that joined the WAC when it imploded after the 2013 season. And while UVU recently beat the Aggies, Marvin Menzies’ team is the favorite to garner another NCAA autobid, which would mark the third tournament title for Menzies.

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The Bracket

When: March 13 – 15

Where: Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada

Final: March 15, 10 PM (an ESPN Network)

Favorite: New Mexico State

Daniel Mullings is the team’s key. He attempts the majority of the team’s shots — the only other Aggie with a comparable attempted shots percentage is DK Eldridge, and he doesn’t play as many minutes — and with the extended suspension of KC Ross-Miller (who’ll miss the WAC tournament following a late-February scuffle versus Utah Valley), Menzies will have to rely even more heavily on the WAC’s player of the year. The Aggies also have the conference’s most fascinating statistical footnote: though Ken Pomeroy ranks their effective height as tops in the nation, the team is dreadful at keeping WAC opponents off the glass. The Aggies haul roughly a third of teams’ misses, a mark bested by five other WAC squads.

And if they lose? Utah Valley

Should New Mexico State fail in their record-tying quest, the team most likely to scoop up the WAC title is Dick Hunsaker’s squad. This is a problem for the conference: NMSU has a potential to win an NCAA tournament game, whereas UVU’s prognosis is cloudier. The Wolverines’ efficiency margin isn’t great (plus-4), and since they struggle to score, the squad prefers to play at a slow pace and use their skills on the defensive glass as well as keeping opponents from converting on the perimeter to win conference games.

Sleepers:

  • Idaho: The Vandals are riding a winning streak into tournament play, taking four of their past five, including a win over Grand Canyon (the team which would have been the favorite to challenge New Mexico State but is ineligible for the tourney). Of the teams playing at Orleans Arena, Idaho features the conference’s second best offense, and the team is led by Stephen Madison, who some have argued should have been the conference’s player of the year.
  • UMKC: Kareem Richardson had quite a task for his first season in Kansas City. Not only did he have convince KC-area talent to stay home for college, but he also had to field a competitive team. He is making headway on the first assignment: Martez Harrison, who is a Kansas City native but prepped at Brewster Academy, was named the WAC freshman of the year and was the offense’s focal point. Richardson’s second goal has steadily progressed: four of their nine losses were by single-digits, and crucially for a team trying to make a statement during its first WAC tournament, the Kangaroos rarely commit a turnover (roughly 16 percent of their possessions result in a giveaway).

Studs:

  • Stephen Madison, Idaho: The forward dropped 42 points in a loss to Utah Valley, and can single-handedly keep the Vandals’ offense churning. What Madison does very well, in particular, is get to the free throw line: he has attempted ten or more free throws in nearly half of Idaho’s 2014 contests.
  • Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State: The guard is best suited when he is able to penetrate the defense and create for himself, but without Ross-Miller, Mullings will now have to generate offense for the other Aggies.
  • Isiah Umipig, Seattle: The Cal State Fullerton transfer has emerged as one of the conference’s most electric scorers, but since he recently suffered his two worst games — both UMKC and Chicago State held him to single digits — he is bound for an offensive outburst.
  • Tshilidzi Nephawe, New Mexico State : After last year’s tournament, everyone knows Sim Bhullar, but the Aggie big to pay attention to is Nephawe. The 6-foot-10 senior is the WAC’s most improved player, earning all-second team recognition after three seasons of using less than 50 percent of NMSU’s minutes. Nephawe converted 55 percent of his twos this season, and as he possesses a soft touch from the field and the free throw line, has evolved into a consistent option for the Aggie backcourt.

CBT Prediction: According to Pomeroy’s WAC log5, more than 60 percent of his simulations point to New Mexico State as winning the league’s autobid, and we’d be surprised if the Aggies didn’t dance for the third straight season.