Nope, New Mexico State didn’t spend its Christmas happily milling around half court at the Stan Sheriff Center, adorned with leis.
After a 77-72 loss to USC, it was the Trojans that got to cap off the Diamond Head Classic with the brightest smiles. The Aggies, on the other hand, hopped on plane back to the mainland, but still may have brought a slice of paradise back home.
With their rousing win over then-undefeated Miami on Dec. 23, they may have breathed life into an at-large bid.
There’s no getting around it, the WAC schedule is going to do no favors for NMSU’s RPI, and outside of trips to Grand Canyon (Jan. 11) and Utah Valley (Feb. 15), there are no chances for additional wins — this stretching it — that’ll catch the Selection Committee’s collective eye. Still, the neutral court win over a ‘Canes team that is currently in the KenPom top-20 gives their resume a boost of legitimacy.
The Aggies lacked such a marquee victory last season, when they steamrolled to 22-2 but couldn’t begin to entertain at-large thoughts. At that point, their best victory was a road win over an Arizona State team that would finish at 15-18, as well as a home win over CSU Bakersfield, which wouldn’t have gotten the respect it deserved outside of WAC circles.
But this year, the Miami win is a potential game changer.
NMSU’s RPI currently sits at 39th, in the heart of at-large territory. While the KenPom rating is a bit flimsier (80th) and in the neighborhood where the Aggies finished last year (84th), it’s not disqualifying. Both will likely drop as league play goes on, but the flip side is that (a) the WAC is stronger top-to-bottom than it’s ever been in its current form and (b) the Aggies could, theoretically, end up with a gaudy win total.
Would a 12-2 conference record and appearance in the WAC Tournament final be enough to lock down an at-large bid? Assuming a non-con finale win at UC Irvine, it would have NMSU sitting at 26-6, with wins over Miami, Davidson and Illinois already in hand. And the team would easily pass the eye test with Zach Lofton the WAC POY frontrunner, A.J. Harris looking like one of the best mid-major guards in the country and Jemerrio Jones owning the glass.
Is that enough, especially with the Pac-12 and Big Ten struggling?
Realistically, it probably isn’t given that the committee would be doing something unprecedented giving this version of the WAC an at-large bid. And a loss that is not well-placed, such as to anyone other than GCU, UVU or CSUB (especially at home), could sink the entire scenario. It also may very well be the case that any chance the Aggies had depended on them knocking off USC on Christmas Day.
Yet the Miami win, if nothing else, gives us something concrete to stake our dreams to.
The Grand Canyon riddle
What to make of the Lopes season so far?
They’ve beaten the teams they should, essentially a slew of 300ish KenPom teams in GCU Arena. They’ve lost the games you’d expect them to, though they gave Boise State a scare in Idaho. And they’ve lost one at-the-time mildly surprising game at home to a solid San Diego team.
Personnel-wise, Josh Braun is off to a by-his-standards tough start, and neither Casey Benson or Oscar Frayer have exploded. Freshmen bigs Alessando Lever and Roberts Blumbergs have both flashed potential, but neither has made an instant impact.
Does that equal disappointment?
Throwing that word on it would be a stretch, even if GCU hasn’t taken the college basketball world by storm like some people thought it might. Nonetheless, the Lopes will have every chance to make the NCAA Tournament in their first year of eligibility.
One reason is an elite three-point defense.
GCU is currently holding opponents to just 25.7 percent from distance, the second-best mark in the country according to KenPom. This helped them nearly topple Boise State on Dec. 13, holding a normally solid three-point shooting team to just 5-for-24. Since then, the Lopes have kept Longwood and Louisville, teams on decidedly opposite ends of the college basketball pecking order, to under 21.1 percent from distance.
Is the sterling number a fluke?
The past few years suggest Dan Majerle and his staff know how to engineer a defense that can effectively close out on three-point shooters. In the two seasons leading into this one, GCU has held opponents to just 32.1 from long range, on average the 42nd best mark in the country over that time.
So as long as Frayer, Gerard Martin and the rest of the Lopes’ lengthy defenders keep hounding opposing three-point shooters, GCU should continue to shut teams down from deep.
Has a building block emerged for UMKC?
The young Roos are having about the season that could be expected after turning so much of the roster over. But this year was always going to be building for the future, and it looks like a foundation player may have emerged.
Sophomore point guard Xavier Bishop is leading the team in scoring (13.1 PPG) and minutes (30.4 MPG) after being a rotation player a year ago. He has also seemingly begun to take control of the team over the past month.
It started against South Dakota, where UMKC battled a tough Coyote team in a competitive first half. The USD defense eventually overwhelmed UMKC, but throughout the game Bishop asserted himself more than any other Roo, scoring 16 points and continually attacking the paint.
He’s scored in double figures in the five games since then, including a a career-high 25 points against Incarnate Word, and 23 points against a solid Central Michigan team. He’s made drastic strides as a three-point shooter (40.3 percent), and has been better at finishing around the rim with his diminutive frame.
Before the season, he talked about how his role would change.
“This year I have to lead more,” Bishop said. “I have to be a lot more vocal, the ball will be in my hands a lot more. I’m adjusting to the leadership role, and being more vocal; I’m not really a talkative person.”
So far, his play on the court has spoken volumes.
Games of the Week
New Mexico State at UC Irvine | Dec. 28 | 10:00 P.M.
The 5-10 record doesn’t seem to suit what the Anteaters have been under Russell Turner. But their schedule has been brutal and save for when they fell at UTRGV, each loss can be excused. They’re also coming off a solid win over a good Idaho team. At-large pressure may be on NMSU, can the Aggies take care of business on the road?
Morgan State at Grand Canyon | Dec. 27 | 9:00 PM ET | ESPN3
I’ll let college basketball aficionado Jordan Majewski explain this one:
Underrated game tomorrow: Morgan St @ GCU. Casey Benson has struggled vs pressure and Bears have Tiwian Kendley back. Wouldnt be shocked to see MSU pull off upset— Jordan Majewski (@jorcubsdan) December 26, 2017