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WAC Championship Preview: CSUB, NMSU meet again with an NCAA bid at stake

Will there be more WAC magic this time around?

NCAA Basketball: Cal. State - Bakersfield at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Dedrick Basile hit a shot a year ago that you might hear about today.

The CSU Bakersfield guard’s buzzer-beating three in last year’s WAC Tournament title sent the Roadrunners to their first NCAA Tournament as a Division I program. It also dropped 2015-16 regular season champion New Mexico State into the NIT.

The teams meet again Saturday in the same setting with the same prize on the line.

CSUB outlasted Utah Valley in a four overtime semifinal marathon, the first WAC Tournament game to go that long. NMSU knocked off UMKC by 18 points after a competitive first 30 minutes.

Last year’s ending seemed to stick with Paul Weir, who was then an NMSU assistant before taking over when Marvin Menzies left for UNLV in the offseason.

“We have to find a way to get the possession count up and not get stuck in a 54-52 game, where a bad call, or a missed layup, or missed free throw, or made three-point prayer or whatever happens to go down can lose you a game,” he said earlier this season. “My job is to try and utilize our talent as best we can, and that’s playing our depth, playing up and down and getting the possession count as high as we can so our players can show who we are.”

NMSU did use its talent and a faster pace to run out to a 22-2 start, which included a 20-game winning streak. But unlike last year, they’ll enter the championship game as a slight underdog.

CSUB snapped that winning streak in Bakersfield on Feb. 9, amid a 10-1 finish to the regular season that clinched the program’s first WAC regular season title. That was a big step for Rod Barnes in his sixth season in charge.

And according to him, the team’s confidence this season was built on the largely competitive game it gave Oklahoma in last year’s second round game. The Roadrunners drew within four points of the Final Four-bound team late in the second half.

“We thought we could beat them, and the way we played, we can reflect back on it,” Barnes said earlier this season. “It’s given us a level of confidence that each night if we do what we do and do it well, we can compete. You want to compete before you win, and we’ve competed against everyone.”

Here’s a quick glance at each team ahead of Saturday’s final at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

CSUB at a glance

Quite simply, the Roadrunners have the best defense in the WAC. In league play, they’ve held opponents to just 0.89 points per possession and forced turnovers at a high rate. And on the season, they’ve posted the 20th best defensive efficiency number in the country.

This is largely because they rarely allow easy looks in the paint. Great perimeter defenders like Basile, Jaylin Airington and Brent Wrapp are backed up by shot-blockers like Moataz Aly and Fallou N’Doye.

“I think [Airington and Basile] are the two best defensive guards in the league,” Barnes said earler in the year. “Both of them can play both ends of floor. I thought they’d be good on defense and solid on offense. But I didn’t at the time recruiting them have in the mind they’d be lock down defenders.”

It was this stifling defense that allowed CSUB to grind out the four overtime semifinal win despite shooting just 29.5 percent from the floor. The Roadrunners’ offense in general has not matched their defense, as it finished in the middle of the pack in the WAC. They rely heavily on generating free throws, which they did at a WAC Tournament record clip against UVU with 45 attempts.

NMSU at a glance

The Aggies have “slumped” since that 20-game winning streak ended, but that term is relative. They’ve gone 5-2 since, and have seemed to have fixed some “fatigue” issues that Weir had mentioned when the team was struggling.

The Aggies are the most balanced team in the WAC, finishing with the most efficient offense and fourth-most efficient defense in league play. They can dominate the glass behind all-league second team forward Eli Chuha and Jemerrio Jones.

But the team revolves around recently-named WAC POY Ian Baker. The senior guard flirted with the NBA draft before the season, but returned to be a consistent force in Weir’s debut season. If the rest of the team can make three’s (especially Braxton Huggins), Baker becomes a lethal offensive threat. If not, the team can become too dependent on him to score.

Prediction

The teams split their regular season meetings, with CSUB blowing out NMSU in Bakersfield, and the Aggies holding on for a five-point win in Las Cruces.

Overreacting to CSUB’s offensive slog in the semifinals would be easy, and unwise. But it continued a trend, as the Roadrunners struggled to score against GCU in the regular season finale. Meanwhile, Weir has expanded his rotation, and the Aggies have seemed more in rhythm the past few weeks (though this is qualified by weaker competition and an underwhelming quarterfinal win over Chicago State).

Picking against a rock-solid CSUB team is tough, but it feels like a close NMSU victory is in store, avenging that last second defeat a year ago.