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WAC Wednesday: Power Rankings, new additions and rivalry daydreams

Welcome to the party Cal Baptist.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Arizona State
Paul Weir and the Aggies roll on.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

New Mexico State is very good.

Winning is predictable for the streaking Aggies, but the rest of the league? It was a bit topsy-turvy the past week.

Road teams won a handful of games, including Chicago State pulling off a surprise win at Utah Valley. Every team now has a conference loss, except of course the Aggies, who ran their winning streak to 15 games (despite being tested).

But the biggest surprise?

The future new kid on the block. Cal Baptist will join the league for the 2018-19 season as it transitions from Div. II to Div. I. The move comes just five years after the Lancers moved up from the NAIA level. CBU’s women’s basketball coach Jarrod Olson talked to The Press Enterprise about the move.

“Some players are going to find themselves on a team they were not recruited toward, as far as a level,” Olson said, referring to freshmen and sophomores that will be playing a Division I schedule in two years. “There’s going to be some growing pains with that. On both of our teams, the type of competitors we have, they’ll embrace that.”

And the WAC should embrace the Lancers. Plenty can and will be said on this site and elsewhere about this move, and what it says about the trajectory of the league. For now, we should focus on the positives. CBU has a $73 million arena opening and adds a geographic partner for a Cal State Bakersfield program on the rise.

With apologies to NMSU, this week’s Twitter embed goes to the Lancers as a sign of hospitality.

On to the rankings:

Team Record Previous Best win to date
Team Record Previous Best win to date
New Mexico State 17-2 1 Arizona State was nice, but didn't have the juice of New Mexico (Dec. 10) at home.
CS Bakersfield 11-7 2 Home win over a Fresno State team (Nov. 22) that has been better than many expected.
Grand Canyon 12-7 3 San Diego State (Dec. 7) for a second straight year, this time at home.
Utah Valley 9-9 4 The hyper-speed game at BYU (Nov. 26), without question.
UMKC 9-11 6 South Dakota (Nov. 30) has emerged as the Summit Leage favorite.
Seattle 9-9 5 The frantic comeback at UC Santa Barbara (Dec. 30).
UTRGV 9-12 7 Taking down a solid Texas State team (Dec. 7) at home.
Chicago State 5-15 8 UVU on the road (Jan. 12), more on that below.

GCU’s road to success on Feb. 11

The Lopes did some nice things in Las Cruces. They held Braxton Huggins in check. They didn’t let a 24-6 first half run doom them, pulling within two midway through the second half.

In the end, it was something predictable that bit them.

"You're never going to win a game when you get outrebounded 40-26," Dan Majerle said in a release. "We shot 62 percent in the second half. 62 percent. We shot 50 percent from the free throw line. If you get outrebounded 40-26 and have five offensive rebounds and they have 15, it ain't going to work. That's the game."

NMSU holds a significant frontcourt advantage, and it showed in the big games posted by Eli Chuha (10 points, 4-6 FG, 13 rebounds) and Jemerrio Jones (19 points, 8-11 FG, 7 rebounds). But GCU proved that it could compete with the red-hot Aggies, so what’s the formula for a win on Feb. 11 in Phoenix?

For one, the Lopes cannot shoot 14-of-28 from the free throw line again, even though they’ve struggled with this all season. Keonta Vernon and Kerwin Smith both had nice moments last week, but it’s not likely GCU will make up much ground in the paint.

It’s not a revolutionary thought, but the Lopes may just need to out-shoot the Aggies.

Dewayne Russell and Josh Braun are certainly capable of this, and a wide open offense could develop around them. Sophomore Gerard Martin (25.9 3P%) hasn’t shot well, but has Majerle’s trust. Freshman wing Oscar Frayer also hasn’t shot well (27.3 3P%) but has been getting looks at the four spot in a guard-heavy lineup. Small improvements from either young player would give NMSU a potent attack.

New Mexico State wins a game in CSB’s wheelhouse

If the Aggies felt a little heat from GCU’s second half run, they got the full furnace against CSB.

The Roadrunners did what they do: play swarming defense and force NMSU into 16 turnovers and its third-worst shooting night of the season. CSB held a six-point lead with under eight minutes left, mainly due to Jaylin Airington’s ability to get into the paint and Dedrick Basile, who is playing well in league play (18.0 PPG, 8-10 3FG).

The Aggies weathered CSB’s frantic defense because that’s what they’re built to do. Huggins was contained for a second-straight game (8 points, 3-6 FG), but NMSU dominated the offensive glass (+12 offensive rebounds) and generated a ton of free throws, which included clutch makes by Ian Baker down the stretch.

Still, Paul Weir can’t be entirely happy. This is the exact type of ugly game that he’s trying to avoid in Las Vegas so that NMSU doesn’t fall victim to end-of-game magic again.

Rod Barnes, on the other, sounded hopeful after the game.

“I liked what I saw from our team tonight. This is part of the process and I’m proud of the steps that we made. They beat us on the boards and that really hurt us.”

The smart money is on these two teams meeting with a tournament bid on the line. Should that game go down this same, ugly path, Barnes would likely be thrilled while Weir would not.

Banner night for Chicago State

It would’ve been easy for the Cougars to give up.

Heading into last Thursday’s game at UVU, they’d lost 10 of their last 11 games, with four of the five most recent losses coming by at least 16 points. Yet there CSU was, putting up a 22-2 run second half run to erase a deficit, and holding off the Wolverines after they’d pulled within three points with over eight minutes left.

If Trayvon Palmer is flying under the radar, Fred Sims Jr. is his co-pilot. The sophomore has been one of the heaviest-relied on players in the league, and his first career double-double (25 points, 10 rebounds) paved the way for the slump-busting win.

CSU went on to lose to Seattle on Saturday, but that doesn’t erase the importance of the UVU win.

Career nights fuel Seattle, UMKC

Kareem Richardson challenged Kyle Steward before the NMSU game on Jan. 5.

“I challenged him at shoot around about rebounding, he’s more than capable of giving this team 12 rebounds each and every night. He’s got to be more active.”

The senior responded with a career night on the boards in the loss that night, and followed it up two games later with a career-high 21 points, as well as nine rebounds, at Seattle. The victory was the Roos second true road win of the year.

Seattle’s Matej Kavas had his own big night the following game.

Against Chicago State, the freshman forward scored a career-high 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds. His playing time has gone up with Aaron Menzies out, and he’s run with the opportunity. He’s now shooting 46.2 percent from deep on the season, and has posted impressive stats in league play (29.3 MPG, 17.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG).

Rivalry daydreaming

Regional rivalries are fun. The WAC is also fun, even though it lacks any real regional rivalries (h/t to the GCU fans that made the ~6 hour trip to Las Cruces).

Now that CSB has a dancing partner, and the potential for a budding rivalry, we can daydream about other possibilities. These are in no way realistic, but we’ve tried to keep them away from being unruly.

1. New Mexico State: UTEP. Already a rivalry, why not put some conference wins at stake too?

2. CSB: No need to play make believe, the Lancers are coming.

3. Grand Canyon: Lopes fans desperately want Arizona State, but we’re trying to color between the lines. Wouldn’t it have been fun to shove Dewayne Russell in Northern Arizona’s face?

4. Utah Valley: Weber State, which would be a strong addition to the league, Damian Lillard or not.

5. UMKC: Nebraska Omaha. The two cities once shared an NBA team. It turned out that wasn’t a good idea, but why not tap into that basketball history?

6. Seattle: Eastern Washington might be too easy, but how about Portland State? Adding the Vikings would give the WAC a share of that bitter Seattle-Portland, Battle of I-5 rivalry.

7. UTRGV: Texas A&M Corpus Christi. The Islanders have been overshadowed by Stephen F. Austin in recent years, but have been great in Southland play.

8. Chicago State: You could say UIC, but let’s look to baseball and ignite that St. Louis/Chicago rivalry (yes, I know the CSU is on the South side) by adding SIU Edwardsville.