If the premise to this post is cheesy, blame Jim Hayford.
The Seattle coach went there first, giving his Redhawks a B+ for their non-conference efforts after a lopsided win over UC Riverside last Saturday. With each team starting its league schedule today, let’s follow Hayford’s lead and hand out grades for what they did over the last two months.
New Mexico State: A-
Stomp on down-and-out rivals? Check. Pull off the league’s best non-con win by upsetting a then-top 10, then-undefeated team? Yep. It was almost a perfect opening stretch for Chris Jans, as the Aggies grabbed wins over Miami, Illinois, Davidson and two apiece over UTEP and New Mexico. Zach Lofton and A.J. Harris have been the real deal, helping NMSU look like the clear WAC favorite. The only blemishes were dropping the Diamond Head Classic title game — which they controlled late — against USC, and falling to a surprising San Diego team at home.
Utah Valley: B+
This grade is probably unfair, full disclosure. UVU, most visibly, acquitted itself well in the Wolverines brutal opening back-to-back at Kentucky and Duke, holding a half time lead over the Wildcats. They then rolled off a program-best 11-5 non-conference record, picking up decent wins against UTSA, Weber State, UC Davis and Cal St. Fullerton. Akolda Manyang emerged and Jake Toolson had some nice moments alongside a solid returning cast. That all screams “A.” But UVU gets docked a point for falling flat and getting blown out at home by BYU. The Cougars are very good, but it was still a letdown in front of a packed house, fair or not.
Grand Canyon: B
The Lopes are a hard team to grade. They didn’t drop any egregious games, especially since — like with NSMU — losing to USD and its throttling-three-point defense at home doesn’t look that bad right now. But they didn’t get the “WE’VE ARRIVED!” win that many loudly proclaimed they would. GCU had every chance to win ugly games at Boise State and Illinois, but poor shooting crippled the Lopes in both near upsets. And that’s been the biggest issue: the GCU defense has been incredible (36th per KenPom) but an offense that seemed destined to take off has sagged without Dewayne Russell. Still, you’d think Josh Braun, Oscar Frayer and the Lopes’ pair of talented freshmen bigs are too good offensively to not eventually complement the stifling defense.
I see you Jim Hayford, and I agree with you for the most part. The Redhawks took care of business over the past two months. Winning 11 games with three graduate transfer starters and a new coach is a lot of change that didn’t cause problems, and it seems like Hayford’s goal of becoming competitive right away is well within sight. Matej Kavas’ freshman year was no mirage (17.8 PPG), and Aaron Menzies has stayed healthy and been dominant at times. It’s been a nice non-con run, even if they missed a great opportunity to drop a bad Cal team in Key Arena. You don’t get many chances as good as that against Pac-12 teams.
CSU Bakersfield: B-
The ‘Runners have done a lot of good things as they replace some important players. Jarkel Joiner and Rickey Holden look like a solid guard combination, and all of their four Div. I wins are good (Idaho twice, Georgia Southern, Lamar). But they do just have four Div. I wins, and dropping a home contest to Northern Arizona is a shocker when you consider where it seems CSUB is going as a program. The same can be said, to a lesser degree, about a road loss to Delaware on Dec. 20. Damiyne Durham has also not emerged as an all-league player, scoring 20 points or more just once this season. But with yet another great defense (122nd per KenPom), the ‘Runners will be a team no one wants to face the rest of the season.
The Vaqueros needed three non-Div. I games to log eight non-con wins last season. This year, they needed just one to reach that same number. And some of those seven Div. I wins had added importance behind them. UTRGV knocked off Texas A&M Corpus Christi (twice), Rice and North Texas, making a mid-major pecking order statement in their home state. Maybe that’s getting carried away, but it does seem important as Lew Hill builds his program in Edinburg. He’ll now hope he can pull some league upsets with Nick Dixon (20.2 PPG) and his high-paced offense.
The Roos have had a quietly brutal schedule. Forget about teams like Wichita State, because they’ve faced a slew of high quality mid-majors (South Dakota State, Loyola, South Dakota). It hasn’t always gone well for an extremely young team, but they have competed at times — especially in losses to Central Michigan and Loyola. But still, an 0-4 home record against Div. I teams can’t be ignored, even if it’s understandable. There is, however, a clear path for upsets for this UMKC team. Xavier Bishop has emerged as a solid lead guard, and if Isaiah Ross and Broderick Robinson get hot from three (as they did in a comeback win over USC Upstate), the Roos will be able to score in a hurry.
Chicago State: D-
Look, the Cougars are simply not getting an F. Not here, anyway. Are there positives in their winless-again-Div.-I-teams non-con? CSU did generally compete better over the past three games, including exploding out of the gate in the second half at Wisconsin. Fred Sims is scoring again after a brief slump. Does it look like they’ll win again this season? Sadly, no, but CSU did shock UVU last season in Orem, so you never know.