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CSU Bakersfield’s incoming class is the most intriguing in the WAC

Will the ‘Runners run of success continue?

NCAA Basketball: NIT Semifinals-Georgia Tech vs Cal State Bakersfield Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s getting close to that time of year where we start looking for storylines.

Naturally, that goes hand-in-hand with hyperbole and in the WAC, no group of newcomers is more intriguing than the one signed by Rod Barnes. That makes for one fascinating storyline.

CSU Bakersfield won the WAC regular season title last season before running all the way to the NIT semifinals. This followed a season in which the ‘Runners notched the first NCAA Tournament appearance in their Div. I history. To get to that point, Barnes almost literally built the program from the ground up, adding, among other things, academic advisers, cheerleaders, a band and a marketing team.

Three departing seniors had a mammoth role in that rebuild. Dedrick Basile, Jaylin Airington and Matt Smith combined to average 37.0 points and 13.6 rebounds per game last season, and each was either first or second team All-WAC. Maybe most importantly, they were the bones of a suffocating defense that allowed the 20th fewest points per possession (0.93) in the country.

(And then there’s the matter of Basile hitting the biggest shot in program history).

Grand Canyon’s very real NCAA Tournament chances rest in part on Casey Benson (and to a lesser extent, Damari Milstead) gobbling up point guard minutes. UMKC has arguably its two best recruits under Kareem Richardson — Brandon McKissic and Tony Jackson -- entering the program with heavy minutes available. There’s no shortage of fascinating newcomers joining the league.

But no group may be more important to the WAC’s overall profile than the one taking the floor for the ‘Runners. CSUB has shown its potential on a national scale over the past two years. With that senior trio gone, the ‘Runners newcomers have the first crack at proving that a foundation has truly been laid in Bakersfield, as opposed to fleeting success with one great group.

Last March, Barnes talked about the carry over from the team’s run to the NCAA Tournament the year before.

“If you don’t play hard you don’t play here, that’s just what we do, it’s gotten us where we are. It’s demanded,” he said. “We’ve had enough guys that have been in our program that know that. There’s been an unbelievable buy-in because guys have seen the success.”

The point makes as much sense in 2017 coming off another great year. The team does still have veterans that can hand down that message, like Brent Wrapp, Shon Briggs and Damiyne Durham.

They’ll be bolstered by an incoming class that has three freshmen and one JuCo transfer immediately available. Of the group, freshman guard Jarkel Joiner may be the most exciting. The Oxford, Miss.-native was one of the best prep scorers in the country last season, averaging nearly 40 points per game. But he never got the local offer from Ole Miss.

“That’s really tough, sometimes frustrating, because I’m right here in their back yard,” he said. “I feel like I’ve proven myself time after time. It just makes me work harder and adds fuel to my fire.

That lack of interest from a program Barnes played and coached for paid off for CSUB. The Oxford connection may have been a factor, as Jarkel mentioned that his father used to cut Barnes’ hair. Whatever the ultimate selling point, Barnes signed Joiner away from schools like Middle Tennessee and TCU. The WAC has some explosive point guards lately, and — if all goes right — Joiner seems built in that mold.

He also seems ready to step into the shoes of a program icon.

Barnes won’t, however, need to rely on him right away. The ‘Runners have one the league’s best point guards in Wrapp, and bring in additional age at the position with JuCo transfer Rickey Holden. There isn’t much on him out there, but Barnes has proven he can find point guard talent at the JuCo level (Basile).

There’s also a pair of local prep players in Bakersfield guard Justin McCall, and forward Darrin Person Jr. from up the road in the Fresno area. Person is a late-blooming, undersized big that was the Fresno Bee’s 2017 Player of the Year. Here’s his high school coach talking about him:

“Darrin came in as a big strong kid who could jump a little bit, but couldn’t dribble and couldn’t shoot. Now you watch him play and he’s finishing with both hands, can hit a jumper and some 3’s. The growth he showed in his career was phenomenal. He figured out early he was not going to be 6-10, got in the gym, put the work in and is leaving as a basketball player.”

CSUB also gets two players coming off redshirts in Justin Davis and Greg Lee, and the return of sophomore Taze Moore, who was averaging 10.8 minutes per game before a season-ending injury in February. Another freshman, Cartrell Thompson, will reportedly take a redshirt year.