What’s the best mid-major conference west of the Rockies again?
Okay, it’s clearly the WCC (at least this year). But our beloved WAC more than held its own against the traditional standard-bearer over the past week. New Mexico State and Grand Canyon beat MWC teams, while UVU took another to overtime in a game the Wolverines should have won.
These were good times, and since it’s the holiday season let’s stick with the positives. This week’s WAC Wednesday looks at the good things that happened last week, and the stars shining on each team.
But first to business. The Aggies retain the top spot and earn their second (!) Twitter embed. This one goes out to Ian Baker, who notched his 1,000th point against UTEP.
1. New Mexico State
The positive: Anything better than snapping a five-game losing streak to the Lobos? NMSU followed that up by handling UTEP on the road. The Aggies got to the line a combined 57 times over both wins. That’s their game, and they did it without injured free throw whiz Sidy N’dir.
The star: The man in the embed himself. Baker posted back-to-back 20+ point games for the first time this season against UNM and UTEP, and is rounding into form right before WAC play. The Lobo win was particularly special. “We needed that one. Me personally, I definitely wanted that one,” he told the Las Cruces Sun-News after the game.
2. Cal St Bakersfield
The positive: The Roadrunners can win a shootout. Though calling their 81-79 win at Portland State a “shootout” is generous. CSB led by nine with under a minute to go and survived a furious comeback while going without a field goal over the final 4:31. Still, they won the game because of all the points they’d racked up, and that’s not their modus operandi.
The star: Damiyne Durham was stellar against the Vikings (28 points, 7-13 3FG). “He was a great difference-maker, he’s shooting the ball so well, he hit some big shots, some timely shots,” Rod Barnes said after the game.
3. Grand Canyon
The positive: Aside from the jump in these rankings? They’re officially a thorn in Steve Fisher’s side. Beating SDSU in consecutive years was important for a program with big ambitions (and a rising stock price). The Lopes followed that up with another tight home win over UIC.
The star: It’s always Dewayne Russell, but he’s had some help. Freshman Oscar Frayer averaged 16.5 points over the two wins and was pivotal late against SDSU. Keonta Vernon had his second double-double of the season against UIC (15 points, 15 rebounds).
4. Utah Valley
The positive: UVU could very easily be 8-1 and - hold your breath - the recipient of votes in the national polls. But like they did in Pullman, the Wolverines let winnable games slip away late against Utah and Utah State. Forget moral victories, the bones of this team return next season (Brandon Randolph, Isaac Neilson, Conner Toolson, Kenneth Ogbe), so those close losses may help down the road.
The star: Conner Toolson is Mr. Pedigree: his dad (Andy) starred at BYU and played in the NBA, and he went to a high school (Lone Peak) known for producing quality college basketball players. He’s also been Mr. Efficiency, posting a 60.0 eFG% and 62.8 TS%, and scored 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting last time out in the loss to Utah State.
The positive: It’s hard to sugarcoat the dismissal of Martez Harrison. It’s a devastating on-court blow to a team that appeared on the rise. But the Roos do have some backcourt depth. LaVell Boyd is great, and freshmen Isaiah Ross (46.5% on 43 3PA) and Xavier Bishop have shown potential. The next step for Bishop is a strong outing against a Div. I opponent.
The star: It’s Boyd’s team now. Going forward, no WAC player may be more important to his team. “He’s got great poise coming off of the ball screens. We’re really pleased with his play – six assists and zero turnovers – that’s awesome,” Kareem Richardson said after a win over Div. II William Jewell. He’ll need to carry that kind of assist/turnover production into league play.
6. UT Rio Grande Valley
The positive: The Vaqueros have won two-straight games against teams KenPom didn’t “think” they should beat (Texas State, North Florida). They’ll have a good chance to continue the winning streak Friday against Lamar, a team that similarly fancies an up-tempo game. The upshot? We’re inching closer to Bert Ogden Arena’s opening, and UTRGV is showing signs of life under Lew Hill.
The star: Antonio Green doesn’t take a backseat in a league full of good guards. His eight three’s against the Ospreys ran his season total to 52, far and away the most makes in the WAC. Put the high-volume chucker sneer away. Green has connected on 42.6 percent of his 122 three-point attempts.
The positive: The Redhawks were dead against UAPB. They took a six minute field goal-less stretch and three point deficit into the final four minutes. But they got their second Div. I win of the season with some clutch free throws, which has been one of the bright spots of Seattle’s offense. Mississippi Valley State visits the cozy Connolly Complex before the Redhawks return to KeyArena against Southerh Utah. Smells like a 7-5 Seattle team.
The star: The youth movement. Freshman Scott Ulaneo had a career-high 12 points against UAPB. The other two Redhawks in double figures - English giant Aaron Menzies and wing Zachary Moore - were sophomores. Freshman Morgan Means has also had his moments this season. Cameron Dollar has a core.
8. Chicago State
The positive: The Cougars have plenty of chances to get better. Most teams have at-most four non-con games left at this point. CSU has seven, including a trip to the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic. They’ll also get looks at quality mid-majors in Valpo, Central Michigan and Missouri State.
The star: Trayvon Palmer was busy over the weekend. The senior played every minute except one in CSU’s back-to-back against Bradley and SLU. He wasn’t just a warm body either, posting a combined 36 points and 28 rebounds. He was the Cougars’ only offensive threat in a plodding loss to the Billikens.