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36 days ‘til opening day: Joe Golding has now-eligible Abilene Christian on the right road

NCAA Basketball: Abilene Christian at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 10 couldn’t come soon enough.

As we slide through the final weeks before college basketball returns, we’ll look at one storyline about the upcoming season that lines up with the number of days until opening day. Keep coming back to see if we have the creativity and dedication to pull this off. No promises.

It’s Oct. 5 and we’re just 36 days from opening day.

Depending on how you look at it, Texas State Highway 36 begins in Abilene before running 400 plus miles southwest. No matter how you look at, Abilene Christian is about to set out on the most important season of its young Div. I life.

The program, which began the Div. I transition in 2013, is finally eligible for the NCAA Tournament as its four years in college basketball purgatory come to an end. With that, comes its debut in the Southland Tournament and the Wildcats’ first-ever seed may be higher than many would think considering their brief Div. I existence.

ACU has been on a steady ascent under seventh-year coach Joe Golding, who played for the Wildcats in the mid-90s. After finishing 12th or worse in the Southland its first two seasons, ACU has finished in the top-8 the past two.

The conference win total dipped by one game last season but the bigger picture returns were positive. The Wildcats posted their best defensive Div. I season per KenPom, improving from 307th in the country in defensive efficiency in 2015-16 to 252nd a year ago. They also notched arguably the biggest non-conference win in program history by knocking off New Hampshire on the road on Nov. 22.

The biggest reason for optimism? Continuity. The group that made up that, all things considered, solid season is still largely intact. Golding will have seven players that averaged at least 14.3 minutes per game last year at his disposal. This includes the past two Southland Freshman of the Year in guard Jaylen Franklin (10.8 PPG, 4.4 APG) and center Jalone Friday (13.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG).

Friday is an especially intriguing piece of the puzzle. After a year of development, the big redshirt freshman exploded into one of the league’s most skilled players. The 6’9’’ center is in vogue as a dangerous three-pointing shooting big (46.1% on 76 3PA), all while flashing big-time rim protecting potential (1.3 BPG).

That Golding and his staff signed Friday despite Bowling Green being involved, and then ensured his redshirt year was put to good use is as good an endorsement as any that the program is on the right track. The ACU administration seems to have agreed, giving Golding a two-year extension following last season.

There’s some sentimental progress too for the young program. Games at Moody Coliseum against Div. I competition have been rare since ACU jumped into the pool. This year the Wildcats host Lipscomb and Texas State, who should both be solid in their respective leagues, giving ACU a crack at two quality wins. Golding talked about the importance of that in a release.

"We have been trying to secure home games with universities that will help us draw big crowds into Moody Coliseum early in the season," Golding said. "I think we have done that with Lipscomb and Texas State. Both of these teams had very successful seasons last year, are very well coached and return a bunch of good players. I'm excited to bring a high level of Division I basketball to the city of Abilene in the months of November and December."

We have the Wildcats pegged at fourth in our preseason power rankings. While teams like Lamar, Texas A&M Corpus Christi and ever-present Stephen F. Austin make the league tough, ACU appears to have the talent and experience to make things very interesting in the biggest year (yet) of their Div. I life.