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WAC Wednesday: An Italian ascension, depth in Las Cruces and more

Plus the Game of the Week.

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NCAA Basketball: St. John at Grand Canyon Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Not much has gone right for Grand Canyon this year. At least, as much as things can go not right for a team with 15 wins.

The Lopes have come up short in all seven of their games against opponents in the KenPom top 119. That’s far from a sin, particularly since all of but one of those games came away from GCU Arena. But it doesn’t suggest, to this point, that the Lopes are capable of making a run in the WAC Tournament.

Yet something has gone right in league play. So right that it’s keeping opposing coaches up at night.

“Those two freshmen 6’10 bigs, they are good,” Kareem Richardson said earlier this month. “I may have nightmares about those guys over the next three years.”

The UMKC coach was reflecting on the Lopes 17-point win in Kansas City that saw freshmen Alessandro Lever and Roberts Blumbergs trample an undersized Roos squad. They’ve been a part of, as Richardson termed it, Lopes’ “high major length” that has allowed them to stifle opponents throughout the year.

Lever, however, has exploded as GCU’s best offensive option over the past month.

Since league play began, the Italian big man and FIBA U-18 veteran is the team’s leading scorer (16.0 PPG). He’s been hyper-efficient around the basket, converting on 66.7 percent of his two-point attempts. And while a chunk of that was done against UMKC and Chicago State’s undersized frontcourts, he stamped it with legitimacy last Saturday.

Against Utah Valley, he racked up 22 points (8-13 2FG) against Akolda Manyang and the rest of the Wolverines’ size. He was the only player that generated consistent offense as the Lopes struggled yet again to score in a 68-56 loss.

The ink is far from dry on the Lopes’ shot at history in Las Vegas. But more and more it seems like a run through the league tournament will hinge on Lever buoying the GCU offense. That’s a scenario few envisioned before the season.

A deeper New Mexico State is more dangerous

Let’s get Weir-d and flash back to last season.

In the Aggies’ four losses after conference play began — Baylor, UVU, GCU, CSU Bakersfield — just two big men other than Eli Chuha or Jemerrio Jones saw real playing time. Johnathon Wilkins averaged 17.0 minutes per game, while Tanveer Bhullar saw a negligible 4.2 minutes per game.

Back in the present, Chris Jans is developing a deeper frontcourt as the flames continue to flicker on the Aggies’ at-large case.

Wilkins, who has started all but one game this season, is holding steady both in terms of playing time (16.9 MPG) and production (6.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG). As a third option in the frontcourt rotation, you could do far worse at the mid-major level than an experienced forward that can occasionally space the floor.

What NMSU has this year that it didn’t in 2016-17 is a legitimate fourth option down low. After taking a redshirt last season, local product Johnny McCants has been a steady part of Jans rotation, averaging over 14 minutes per game in WAC play. The athletic, rangy forward has had a season-full of highlights.

He’s also made the most of his limited minutes, serving as a quality defender in NMSU’s man-to-man system, while chipping in on the glass (15.8 DR%) and at the rim (5.5 Blk%).

Zach Lofton seemingly won the WAC POY award months ago and Jemerrio Jones has been a vacuum cleaner on the glass. But Wilkins’ consistency and McCants’ emergence have quietly been a part of the Aggies’ potent equation.

Around the league

  • Flying a bit under-the-radar, an old friend is doing a small favor for NMSU. New Mexico has been the surprise of the Mountain West after a disappointing non-con, sitting at 6-3 with solid wins over UNLV and Wyoming. It won’t do much RPI- or optics-wise, but as the Lobos continue to improve, that Aggies’ sweep looks a little better.
  • Aside from CSUB’s abrupt slide down the standings, the league has pretty much played out as expected. In fact, the only outcome that may have truly upset the apple cart to this point was Seattle making the long trek to Edinburg and beating UT Rio Grande Valley in overtime on Jan. 20. They’ll have a chance to pull a much bigger upset this weekend, but more on that below.
  • You have to tip your hat to Mark Pope’s ability to identify and sign useful players. It was the usual suspects — Manyang, Conner Toolson, Kenneth Ogbe — leading the way in the slugfest against GCU. Jerrelle DeBerry was also solid yet again (8 points), as he has been since becoming eligible a month ago. The Kent State transfer played a bit role in his brief stretch with the Golden Flashes (just 11 games), but has added scoring punch off the bench for the Wolverines right away. And junior guard Ben Nakwaasah (3 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds against GCU), who Pope plucked from the JuCo ranks, has quietly been a solid addition as well.

Game of the Week

Utah Valley at Seattle | Feb. 3 | 10:00 PM ET | WAC Digital Network

NCAA Basketball: Seattle at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s try and reconcile this. GCU, and its 15-7 record, was admonished for merely taking care of the winnable games on its schedule earlier in this piece. Yet here, in this very same space, Seattle — a team with a very similar 15-8 record — is going to be praised for doing the same thing.

But there is a real difference. Unlike the Lopes, the Redhawks have a first year coach who loaded up on graduate transfers to be marginally competitive right away. And it has worked, as Seattle has won more games overall than it did last year, and with four league wins already, will almost certainly surpass the five it had last season. Jordan Hill and Josh Hearlihy have especially fit well into Jim Hayford’s offense.

The question now is whether the Redhawks can pick up a signature win, and get a crack at it against the Wolverines on Saturday night. The teams resemble each other quite a bit, especially since UVU has played at a much slower pace this season. Aaron Menzies has been on a tear over the past two games (18.5 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 4.5 BPG), and if he can reasonably battle Manyang, the Redhawks may be able to shoot themselves to their best win yet under Hayford.