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UMKC and the search for the WAC team that can topple New Mexico State

Will somebody knock off the Aggies in Las Vegas?

NCAA Basketball: UMKC at West Virginia
LaVell Boyd and Broderick Newbill were huge against GCU.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Kareem Richardson was spent Thursday night.

But it was a good spent. UMKC had overcome a 12-point halftime deficit to beat Grand Canyon, in large part because its press frustrated the Lopes into 11 second half turnovers.

“I was so excited about the way we were freaking guarding, I was into it. That’s why I’m drenched I guess,” Richardson said after the game. “I told those guys in the locker room, that’s what our program is, that’s what our culture is supposed to look like and feel like.”

The former Louisville assistant came to Kansas City promising a fast-paced, havoc-inducing team. The Roos looked the part against GCU, which was playing as close to full strength as it had all year with Kenzo Nudo playing in his second game back from an Achilles injury.

UMKC’s defensive turnover rate (28.5%) was its highest in WAC play.

The Roos also got another star performance out of senior guard LaVell Boyd, who scored 20 second half points (24 overall) and kept the offense moving with five assists. It took that kind of effort to out-duel Dewayne Russell, who nearly quashed the comeback himself with a game-high 27 points.

But it all leads back to New Mexico State.

Reality dictates that every WAC conversation take place relative to the Aggies, who ran their winning streak to 17 games with a win at Seattle Thursday night.

We’ve talked about the Redhawks’ case as a WAC tournament dark horse, and they did cut a 14-point deficit to just four in the second half before ultimately falling to the Aggies. If UMKC is going to play that role in Las Vegas, it will likely be because of Boyd and the pressure defense.

NMSU has handled the Roos twice this year (by double digits), but as they well know, it only takes 40 minutes of good basketball and - perhaps - some magic to pull an upset.

Which brings the conversation to Bakersfield.

The Roadrunners, who picked up a convincing road win at Chicago State Thursday night, have established themselves as NMSU’s biggest challenger. They’re an elite defensive team that has shot well in WAC play, and played NMSU tough in Las Cruces on Jan. 14.

Richardson summed up the challenge his team will face against Bakersfield Saturday night.

“We as a staff need to do a good job over 48 hours of trying to get our guys back and rejuvenated,” he said. “Bakersfield is going to press you a little more, they’re going to by physical on the glass and they’re hard to score against.”

GCU, in its final year before becoming eligible for the NCAA tournament, won’t be a factor in Las Vegas. But whether it’s against Bakersfield, or a longer shot like UMKC, Seattle or Utah Valley, the Aggies will have to earn the league’s auto bid.

And fair or not, that’ll be the WAC story line the rest of the way.