If you’re only paying attention to the NCAA Tournament, then the WAC’s time in the March spotlight was brief. No. 14 New Mexico State played a strong first half against No. 3 Baylor before being overwhelmed by the (eventually) Sweet 16-bound Bears in the first round.
But the league has thrived just outside college basketball’s brightest lights.
Three teams, CSU Bakersfield, Utah Valley and UMKC, all won their first postseason games as Division I programs. And to build on those small but significant steps, the Roadrunners and Wolverines are still playing as the calendar leans toward April.
CSUB one step away from MSG
Shortly before the WAC Tournament, Rod Barnes talked about his team’s DNA.
“If you come here, you’ve got to play hard. It’s the top of everything we do - not individual work, skill set or shooting,” he said. “Like my father taught me, you can just outwork people. It’s non-negotiable. If you don’t play hard you don’t play here, that’s just what we do and it’s gotten us where we are.”
Where the Roadrunners are is a game away from a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.
In their tournament opener, that effort smacked a Cal team playing without its two leading scorers in the nose. CSUB ran out to a 44-19 half time lead in Berkeley, and weathered a Golden Bears’ second half comeback to grab its first Division I postseason win.
The ‘Runners didn’t wait long before their next postseason win, knocking off Colorado State on the road on Tuesday night in the second round. That featured another big CSUB half time lead, as the ‘Runners hit eight of their first 10 three pointers en route to a 52-32 advantage at the break.
This earned eighth-seeded CSUB a third consecutive road game, this time at Sun Belt regular season champion UT-Arlington.
The program has been hitting milestones at hyper-speed over the past 12 months. There was last season’s WAC Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament appearance. Then this season’s WAC regular season championship and two (to this point) postseason wins. Cutting down the nets at MSG, or even just getting there, would be another big addition to that list.
The ‘Runners should have every chance to do just that. Their defense is playing as well as it has all season, holding opponents to a 39.6 percent effective field goal percentage over the past six games. For context, Gonzaga has the nation’s best effective field goal percentage defense at 41.6 percent.
Dedrick Basile has also extended his career while playing some of his best basketball. The senior has averaged 17.5 points per game in the tournament, while dishing out eight assists and shooting six-for-13 from three.
But the future has been on display too.
Sophomore Damiyne Durham has gone eight-for-15 from three in the two games, while junior forward Shonn Briggs has been deadly in the pick-and-roll, scoring 16.0 points per game and getting to the line 18 times. Both players will be featured heavily next season with Basile, Jaylin Airington and Matt Smith all gone.
UVU washes out disappointing season
Ivory Young collapsed to the floor after the buzzer sounded on UVU’s four overtime WAC Tournament loss to CSUB. Part of it was probably because of exhaustion, but most of it was probably frustration as the Wolverines’ senior had missed the final shot in UVU’s 81-80 loss.
Move ahead two weeks and Young’s career is not over.
UVU got a bid to the CBI and blitzed Georgia Southern on the road in the first game. They then traveled to Rice for the quarterfinals, playing in Young’s hometown of Houston. The senior shined with a career-high 20 points, leading UVU to a six-point win.
“This is the highlight of my basketball career right now," said Young [in a release]. "We had a lot of resilience on the defensive end. We did a good job in the second half weathering a couple of their runs. We did a great job defensively in the second half. That home cooking at my aunt's house the other night inspired this win”
Like CSUB, the Wolverines will need to win a third-straight road game to get into the best of three CBI championship. They play at Wyoming Wednesday night, which just dispatched UMKC from the tournament.
If nothing else, the CBI run has added a final positive chapter to what had been a disappointing season.
Close losses to Washington State, Utah and Utah State haunted UVU in the non-conference. The Wolverines then limped to a 6-8 WAC record that didn’t seem right given the talent on the roster.
But things have changed over the past six weeks. Mark Pope’s team has gone 7-3, with three wins over teams in the KenPom top 200 (New Mexico State, Rice and Georgia Southern). They’ve also played their best defense of the season, holding opponents to under 0.74 points per possession (a minuscule number) in three out of the last four games.
UVU will have a challenge against a Cowboys team that looks very much like itself. Both teams play fast and rely on their defenses. The biggest obstacle may be matching up with Wyoming’s Justin James, an athletic wing that scored a game-high 21 points against UMKC.
Even if both respective postseason runs come to an end Wednesday night, what CSUB and UVU have done has been a success, both for their programs and for the WAC.