Halfway through the "30 In 30" series, it's now time to start profiling the mid-majors as we continue the run up to the start of college hoops season with "Midnight Madness" at various programs across the country. Up first at the elevated level of competition is the Western Athletic Conference, now an eight-team league with Boise State's defection to the Mountain West.
1) Utah State - The Aggies seemingly have it all in the WAC: The best program, the best student section, the best players, the Top 25 ranking, you name it. Despite the fact that Stew Morrill loses a big part of last year's squad, including leading scorer and rebounder Tai Wesley, Utah State is still the team to beat until proven otherwise. Senior point guard Brockeith Pane is a big reason why. Pane averaged just under twelve points and a little over three assists per game for the Aggies last year, and his role in the offense will only increase in the absence of Wesley and sharpshooter Brian Green. Swingman Brady Jardine, a senior who averaged a blocked shot per night, will now get the chance to be an everyday contributor in the starting lineup.
2) Nevada - The Wolf Pack possess their deepest threat in the WAC since the days of Kirk Snyder and Nick Fazekas in the early 2000s by returning each of their top six players, a group that includes all five starters. Junior guard Malik Story comes back to lead the offense, and his numbers off the ball will improve with sophomore Deonte Burton at the point. Senior Dario Hunt nearly averaged a double-double per game last season, and should be the inside presence Nevada needs to get over the top in this conference.
3) New Mexico State - The Aggies return their Canadian duo of guard Christian Kabongo and Hernst Laroche to their starting backcourt, and fellow Maple Leaf native Tyrone Watson comes back to spearhead the rebounding effort as well. The Aggies also possess the best incoming freshman class in the conference, a group led by former St. John's target Remi Barry and 7-5 big man Sim Bhullar.
4) Fresno State - The Bulldogs aren't the same team Jerry Tarkanian kept near the top of the WAC in recent years; but if Utah State comes back to the field, the conference could be theirs just as much as anyone else's. Kevin Olekaibe returns for his sophomore season after a rookie campaign in which he led the team in scoring, and could see more shot opportunities with Tyler Johnson returning at the point. Garrett Johnson (no relation) also returns to the Bulldog backcourt for his junior season.
5) Hawaii - The Rainbow Warriors leave the WAC after this season in favor of the Big West, and the Rainbow Warriors are led once again by 6-6 senior guard Zane Johnson as they close an era in the WAC. Johnson shot 41 percent from three-point range last year en route to averaging nearly sixteen points per game, and will get help up front from returning big men Joston Thomas and Vander Joaquim.
6) San Jose State - Keith Shamburger, the 5-11 combo guard who had an impressive freshman season, returns for year two in the Spartan backcourt. Exactly where he plays is still unknown at this time, but what is certain is that he is the key to the SJSU offense. Wil Carter, the team's leading rebounder a season ago, returns as well; and so too does fellow big man Matt Ballard.
7) Idaho - The Vandals finished third in the WAC a year ago, but that effort will be hard to replicate with the loss of sharpshooter Jeff Ledbetter. Center Kyle Barone should be a full-time starter after averaging more than ten points per game primarily in a bench capacity last year, and Idaho will get both of their 5-11 senior guards back in shooting guard Deremy Geiger and point man Landon Tatum.
8) Louisiana Tech - The Bulldogs return after a season in which they only won two games in WAC play intent on crashing the party and making some noise. Doing it without both of last year's leading scorers is no easy task, and 6-5 junior guard Brandon Gibson will be the man charged with leading the resurgence. Gibson is also the team's leading rebounder, but picks up a boost in the backcourt with the return of Lonnie Smith, Louisiana Tech's top outside threat from a season ago.