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WAC Wednesday: At long last, New Mexico State is coming home and more

Plus a big-time suspension in Bakersfield and more.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Miami Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Think back to Dec. 12.

You weren’t in the Christmas shopping procrastination red zone yet. You were weeks ahead from justifying either going out or staying in for New Year’s Eve. The New Mexico State football team still hadn’t won a bowl game in forever.

It was a long time ago. In basketball terms, 41 Trae Young three pointers ago.

It was also the last time New Mexico State played a game in Las Cruces. For the past month, the Aggies have zig-zagged around the country, winning games in Chicago, Hawaii, Southern California, Chicago (again), Phoenix and California’s San Joaquin Valley.

And it was more than a sight-seeing tour, as NMSU ran up a 7-1 record, including four top-108 KenPom wins and a 3-0 start to WAC play. The road flurry is now over, and NMSU settles in to play six of its next seven games at the Pan-Am Center, starting with Seattle on Thursday night.

Weathering those first three road games — especially the tilt in GCU Arena — makes pole position in the league standings a given for NMSU. The Aggies defense has been great all season, and stiflingly great since WAC play began.

Zach Lofton has also been at his best the past two games, getting NMSU off to a fast start against GCU, and then helping the Aggies survive the mid-game run by the Lopes. He also willed NMSU to a win in a predictably-ugly game in Bakersfield with 28 points (8-8 FT).

The more interesting question is whether NMSU can feast on this stretch of the schedule and continue to bolster its dim, but not impossible, at-large profile. Some of that will depend on Miami regaining some of its shine and keeping that win as impressive as it looked at the time (the ‘Canes blowing a 13-point second half lead to No. 5 Duke on Monday didn’t help). But national voices are deservedly inserting NMSU into the conversation, and the path to stay relevant is compiling a gaudy record and avoiding a tiny margin for error.

The Aggies’ RPI (48) and KenPom rating (57) sit squarely in bubble range which — all things considered — is more positive than negative. But it’s a tall mountain to climb, since the WAC will do them zero favors, and St. Bonaventure’s 2015-16 season is a cautionary tale. Those Bonnies, who went 22-9 (14-4) and claimed a share of the A-10 regular season title, were one of the more deserving mid-majors to get snubbed in recent years.

That team did not do the damage that NMSU has done in the non-con, with no wins in the KePom top-138, and a “bad” loss at Sienna (No. 128). But they won 14 games in a considerably tougher league, including six of the top-100 variety. On Selection Sunday they sat at No. 30 in the RPI, but were ultimately left out.

NMSU can boast that Miami win (as well as the Davidson and Illinois wins, to a lesser degree), but it will not have the chances in-league that that ill-fated Bonnies team had. A late-season loss to La Salle (No. 267) may have doomed SBU that season, and there are plenty of potential potholes like that on NMSU’s schedule.

Fair or not every game is their Super Bowl when it comes to the at-large dream, and that continues Thursday night against a Seattle team that just barely escaped with home wins against Chicago State and UMKC last week.

Bakersfield hits a rough patch, hard

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

A little over a month ago, the ‘Runners arrow was pointing up. They’d picked up quality home wins over Georgia Southern and Idaho while playing their usual brand of suffocating defense.

But things have not gone well since. CSUB has lost five straight games, and lost something even more important: its most potent scorer. Rod Barnes told Bakersfield.com’s Jon Mettus that Damiyne Durham had been suspended indefinitely late last week.

“He’s got to do the things that we need done in our program for him to continue to obviously be in our program,” Barnes said. “We won’t sacrifice or compromise what we do in our program. He’s been, kind of been on the edges of that and that doesn’t bode well for him. That doesn’t bode well for us at this particular point.”

Durham wasn’t involved in a crime or violent incident, Barnes said, but has not followed through with what is expected of a leader on the team.

“It’s just small things and detail things that upperclassmen need to take care of, need to show leadership and he hasn’t done that,” Barnes said. “... He hasn’t done that lately at the level or the standard I would like him to do.”

Without Durham and Brent Wrapp (illness), CSUB’s first-year guards struggled with UT Rio Grande Valley’s pace and pressure in a 13-point home loss. The Vaqueros’ improvement is a story on its own, but that game at the Icardo Center felt like one that a full strength, or even sub-full strength, ‘Runners team should win.

The offensively combustible Durham waffled between frustrating outings (7 points, 3-10 FG, 19 minutes against Northern Arizona) and team-lifting outings (19 points, 7-15 FG, 37 minutes against Idaho) this season. The high volume shooter is what he is, and when his shots are dropping he’s a game-changer for the ‘Runners.

But he had been stuck in a four-for-21 slump for three prior to the suspension, and hadn’t ascended to the all-conference level of consistency many — or at least, this writer — thought he would before the season. Here’s hoping he resolves the issues, and the WAC gets back one of its most exciting talents.

Around the league

NCAA Basketball: Utah Valley at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
  • Nick Dixon has never had a problem getting to the line, but did he ever skew that number in last Saturday’s loss at Grand Canyon. The Vaqueros’ guard went 18-for-21 from the line, tying the program’s record for attempts in a game (set by Luke Jackson in 1963). He did have to settle for second in the made free throw department, falling one short of Jesus Guerra’s 19 in 1975. The loss in Phoenix aside, it was a memorable three-game road trip for UTRGV, which picked up its first non-Chicago State league wins under Lew Hill at UMKC and CSUB.
  • Speaking of CSU, the Cougars crept up on Seattle last Thursday, holding a halftime lead and pushing SU until the final few minutes. Freshman forward Cameron Bowles had an especially nice game with a career-high 12 points. Aaron Menzies ended up with 19 rebounds as the Redhawks came back late, but it just shows that like they did in Orem last season, the Cougars may yet have a surprise victory in them.
  • UMKC also pushed the Redhawks to the brink at home, which was a nice bounce back after the Roos got thumped by a red-hot shooting Utah Valley team the game before. Jordan Giles missed a crucial free throw late, but had a career-high (against a Div. I opponent) 21 points. Xavier Bishop has remained solid, and Giles has shown glimpses of being a versatile, match up problem in the frontcourt. There’s a core growing in Kansas City.
  • Breathe out, Wolverine fans. UVU is very much a threat to NMSU, and is able to remain that way since the ankle injury Akolda Manyang suffered against CSUB on Jan. 6 appears to have indeed been minor. He sat out against UMKC, but came back with 22 points in 25 minutes against CSU. He was the focal point offensively early in that game, and ended up going 10-for-13 from the free throw line. Over his brief career (104 attempts), the seven-footer has shot 64.4 percent from the charity stripe. That level of respectability removes one strategy usually used for exploiting hulking centers.

Games of the Week

Utah Valley at UTRGV | Thursday, Jan. 18 | 8:00 PM ET | WAC Digital Network

Don’t look ahead, Wolverines. With the game below looming, UVU must first take care of business against UTRGV. The Vaqueros will feel comfortable with the pace that Mark Pope will want to play, and have turned teams over at a good clip all season. UVU’s biggest issue? It hasn’t taken great care of the ball this year, which is intensified given that Brandon Randolph did not play the last time out.

Utah Valley at New Mexico State | Saturday, Jan. 20 | 6:00 PM ET | ESPN3

In Manyang, the Aggies WAC-dominant frontcourt will face its athletic equal. The game also pits the league’s best offense (UVU) against its best defense (NMSU) in a match up of two teams that will likely* (see above) be 4-0. The winner would get a huge leg up on the regular season race.