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WAC Wednesday: Power rankings, expansion and the ultimate road trip

Hooray. Conference play is in full swing.

NCAA Basketball: Grand Canyon at Duke
Josh Braun is back.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a particularly exciting WAC Wednesday.

Why? Because for the first time we’re fully-immersed in WAC action, with each team having played at least one league game.

The main story, on the court, is still New Mexico State, which won its 12th and 13th straight games over the past week. But with a star returning to action and the expansion gears beginning to whir, there’s plenty to discuss.

First, here’s yet another NMSU Twitter embed with some NBA flavor:

On to the rankings:

Team Record Previous What They Do Well
Team Record Previous What They Do Well
New Mexico State 15-2 1 Win. NMSU is riding a 13-game winning streak that stretches back to Nov. 20.
CS Bakersfield 10-6 2 Defend the paint. CSB has allowed opponents to shoot just 40.3% on two-point field goals (4th best in the country).
Grand Canyon 10-6 3 Pack the house. As usual, GCU had 6,933 people attend its WAC opener.
Utah Valley 8-8 4 Run. The Wolverines haven't let an opponent completely take them out of their element, having not played a game with fewer than 73 possessions.
Seattle 8-8 5 Adapt. The Redhawks played CSB tough without Aaron Menzies, getting a great game from confident freshman forward Matej Kavas (13 points).
UMKC 8-10 7 Carry on. The slumping Roos used a late 8-0 run and clutch shots to beat UTRGV (more on that below).
UTRGV 9-10 6 Create havoc. The Vaqueros have come up with steals on 9.7 percent of their opponents' possessions.
Chicago State 4-14 8 Take care of the ball. Led by Fred Sims, the Cougars have turned it over on just 18.8 percent of their possessions.

The expansion merry-go-round

Yesterday we wrote about UVU President Matthew Holland’s comments that the league would have an expansion announcement shortly in its search for stability.

Speculation is inevitable. SB Nation’s Matt Brown wrote a great piece last April about the future of the WAC, which is a must-read to frame what’s to come. The key takeaways:

  • Chicago State is facing a budget crisis (which is still unresolved) that will almost certainly deeply affect its athletic department.
  • New Mexico State will not have a home for its FBS football program after its Sun Belt membership terminates following the 2017 season. Should the expansion gears turn nationwide, this could plop the Aggies in CUSA (if they maintain FBS football) or the Big Sky (if they drop to FCS).
  • Losing NMSU would likely lead to a mass exodus. UMKC (back) to the Summit? UVU to the Big Sky? CSB to the Big West? Seattle and GCU to the WCC?

This fluidity begs the question: what school would want to join the league? The most recent WAC reconfiguration relied on schools transitioning to Div. I. This, as Russ wrote, could make currently-Div. II UC San Diego a target. The Kansas City Star named Nebraska Omaha and Southern Illinois Edwardsville as “potential candidates” in 2013, but would that still hold true?

Further, what does “stability” actually mean? Does it mean building on the league in its current setup, or preemptively combating future losses, like NMSU?

There are a lot of questions and no answers at this point, but that’s the “fun” of realignment.

The ultimate midseason pickup

The cavalry arrived for the Lopes against UVU.

"It's great, I'm a lot better coach when Josh Braun is playing," said head coach Dan Majerle. "Our guys got in foul trouble early, Kerwin had a heck of a game for us, for his first start of the year. DeWayne hit some big shots in the second half. But Josh was just Josh, he amazes. He finds a way to get it done."

After missing nine games due to injury, Braun - the preseason WAC POY - showed no signs of rust scoring 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting in the first half. He would finish with a game-high 31 points in the Lopes 82-72 win.

GCU didn’t have its best offensive night of the season but the ramifications are clear: Dewayne Russell no longer has to shoulder a crushing amount of offensive responsibility. The KenPom chart below illustrates the Lopes’ dependence on the senior point guard.

Kerwin Smith’s night shouldn’t get lost in the excitement. In his first start of the season, the sophomore forward had arguably the best game of his career (12 points, 6-8 FG, 9 rebounds). His reward? A date with an athletic NMSU frontcourt Thursday night.

Keep NMSU-GCU in perspective

First off, a round of applause for the handle (and dedication to a cause).

That may very well happen. The Aggies have a big advantage in the frontcourt and are a more talented, experienced team overall. Plus, GCU has shown it can be go ice cold from deep on a given night, and won’t be playing with its frenzied home court advantage.

But whatever happens Thursday, it’s worth keeping something in mind: the game in Phoenix on Feb. 11 will be a challenge because no venue is more daunting right now in this league than GCU Arena.

Braxton Huggins’ three-point breakout

The junior, who has now scored in double figures in six-straight games, had been a bit overlooked playing alongside Ian Baker and Sidy N’Dir, who was the team’s leading scorer before going down with a foot injury.

But that can’t still be the case.

“When we tell our guys that Huggins is an awesome shooter and he shoots it with deep range and we need to be there on the catch, they’ll believe us next time.”

Kareem Richardson said this after Huggins hit 6-of-11 three’s against UMKC en route to a career-high 31 points. He followed this up two days later by scoring 27 against Chicago State, including 5-of-10 from distance. On the season he’s shooting 47.0 on 100 three-point attempts.

He’s not overlooked anymore, and is firmly in the race for WAC POY.

UMKC busts slump

Huggins did indeed burn the Roos, and they might’ve taken out some frustration on another lethal three-point shooter. UTRGV’s Antonio Green, the nation’s leader in three-point makes, was held to just 2-of-9 from deep in Kansas City on Saturday as UMKC broke a six-game losing streak.

“I think we really grew [tonight],” Richardson said in a release mailed to media. “It was a different group of guys when they made their run. They were still upbeat, energetic, cheering each other on and being positive with it. This game will hopefully make us grow. I’m just so excited. It’s all for these guys. The excitement they they had in the locker room is an awesome feeling because they’ve stayed with it. Hopefully we can build from this.”

The Roos got some clutch play late, especially from Broderick Robinson and Broderick Newbill. But LaVell Boyd deserves ink for this game, and the All-WAC caliber season he’s been having. The senior had 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists in the slump-busting win.

Seattle’s dangerous second half defense

The Redhawks have locked it down after the break the past two games. After stifling UC Santa Barbara in a massive comeback win, Seattle allowed CSB to shoot just 37.5 percent in the second half of a hard-fought road loss. This came after the Roadrunners had scored 46 points on 52.0 percent shooting in the first half.

Seattle has showed resolve the past two games, and its mix of veterans and freshmen/sophomores still make them a dark horse in Las Vegas.

Planning the ultimate WAC road trip

There’s every incentive to get out and traverse the country taking in WAC games. Here are some suggestions that shamelessly reveal the author’s preferences:

  1. New Mexico State: The eerie beauty of White Sands National Monument is under an hour from Las Cruces. Don’t fall victim to a missed opportunity.
  2. Cal St Bakersfield: Like giant trees? Of course you do. Bakersfield sits on the doorstep of Sequoia National Forest.
  3. Grand Canyon: Camelback is beautiful but often has an endless, aggravating line of people making their way up the trail. So hop in the car and and make the ~2.5 hour drive to Organ Pipe National Monument, an underrated part of the National Park system.
  4. Utah Valley: Similarly, make the ~2 hour drive from Orem to the Golden Spike National Historic Site on the North end of the Great Salt Lake, and celebrate the origins of the cross-country travel that makes a league like the WAC possible.
  5. Seattle: The city is a gem and the nearby outdoor opportunities are endless. But whatever you do, just eat the Wild Alaska Salmon chowder at Ivar’s.
  6. UMKC: Some people dug up a pre-Civil War era steamboat in a Missouri field after the Missouri River changed course over time. Its perfectly-preserved contents are on display, and you can apparently still eat some of the preserved foodstuffs. If that’s not incentive enough to visit the Steamboat Arabia museum, I don’t know what is.
  7. UTRGV: Duh, go make the trip to South Padre Island and soak in some sun.
  8. Chicago State: Hyde Park’s Museum of Science and Industry has a German U-Boat on display, and is the only remaining fairgrounds structure from the 1893 Columbia Exposition.