|Utah Valley coach Dick Hunsaker hopes to lead the Wolverines to Big West title. (US Presswire)|
The league, which doesn't lay claim to an NCAA automatic qualifier, is down to a handful of teams after two-time defending tourney champion North Dakota left for the Big Sky. Houston Baptist is bolting for the Southland after this season and, while the future of the conference appears uncertain, so does this season's preseason favorite.
The title race might be as wide open as it has been since the league's inception.
Utah Valley, 9-1 in conference play last season before being upset by NJIT in the conference tournament, remains the frontrunner despite losing all-first teamers Isaiah Williams and Geddes Robinson. Dick Hunsaker still has his son, Holton, running the team and a force down low in junior big man Ben Aird. However, there should be plenty of competition -- especially because a shortened eight-game conference slate is certain to keep things tight.
NJIT loses Isaiah Wilkerson, the conference Player of the Year, but still has three starters back in seniors Chris Flores, Ryan Woods and P.J. Miller. Coach Jim Engles has turned the program around after a one-win campaign in 2008-09 and the Highlanders could make a legit run at the title.
Texas-Pan American coach Ryan Marks returns all three of his perimeter starters -- senior guard Brandon Provost, floor leader Aaron Urbanus and wing Jesus Delgado (who came on late last season) -- and might be ready to challenge for league supremacy. The key for UTPA will be what the Broncs get up front from junior college power forward Justin Leathers and freshman Shaquille Hines as well as the three-headed monster of Josh Cleveland, Ruben Cabrera and Lauri Toivonen.
Don't count Houston Baptist out. The Huskies, in their last season of the Great West, lost a couple of key pieces but return leading scorer Marcus Davis (12.4 ppg), fellow senior Art Bernardi and arguably last season's top freshman, Tyler Russell. Marcel Smith is also back -- which makes four returning starters for Ron Cottrell & Co.
Then there's Chicago State, which won only four overall games in 2011-12 and brings in a ton of new faces to go along with talented senior forward Jeremy Robinson -- who was the conference Newcomer of the Year a year ago after coming in from the junior college ranks.
"With the league going down to four teams, don't be shocked to see some sort of merger between the remaining teams -- except for maybe NJIT -- and the WAC. There's four teams left in the WAC -- New Mexico State, Denver, Seattle and Idaho. If we can merge with the WAC, it would preserve that league's automatic bid. I'm not sure if will happen, but it's definitely been discussed." -- a Great West head coach
The league's best
- Preseason Big West Player of the Year: Brandon Provost, Texas-Pan American. Put up 13.2 points ppg a year ago
- Chris Flores, NJIT. Averaged a team-high 13.1 points last season
- Ben Aird, Utah Valley. Best post presence in the league averaged double-figure scoring and 7.5 boards per game
- Jeremy Robinson, Chicago State. Put up 13.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg last season
- Holton Hunsaker, Utah Valley. No better PG in the league than the coach's kid
Numbers to know
1: Utah Valley's appearance in the CollegeInsider.com (CIT) was the program's first postseason basketball game since the school went to the D-I ranks. Utah Valley lost to Damian Lillard and Weber State in the first round of the CIT.
3 a.m.: Houston Baptist will play Hawaii as part of ESPN's College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon on Nov. 13. The game will tip at 3 a.m. ET.
13.6: Chicago State's Jeremy Robinson is the league's leading returning scorer at 13.6 points per game and is also tied with Utah Valley's Ben Aird as the top returning rebounder. Robinson also shared the league lead in blocks per game with Aird at 1.5 per contest.