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WAC Wednesday: California Baptist’s start should have the league excited

Plus has the other California team made us rethink the league’s pecking order?

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

California Baptist has played four games this season and lost half of them — one of which came by 35 points. The Lancers own just a single win over another Division I team.

The WAC should be ecstatic.

There’s plenty to quibble with if you’re going to gush over CBU’s first two weeks of their Division I journey. A small sample size, more than anything else. But the Lancers’ two-game swing through Oklahoma suggested that, if nothing else, the league added a team not ready to roll over and pad opponent win totals come January.

CBU’s thrilling win over Oral Roberts admittedly came against a traditionally strong mid-major that has been stuck in the mud since 2016. Yet it was still a road win against a team from a comparable, if not higher stature, conference. That’s not anything to sneeze about, and neither is the Lancers near-win at Tulsa three days later. They weren’t able to hold onto a five-point second half lead, but did put a scare into a team that, while picked toward the bottom of the American, was a quality road test considering CBU’s Division I infancy.

Then, after 10 competitive minutes, the Lancers were broken by the Nevada buzzsaw on Monday night. That’s bound to happen in 2018-19 but even in Reno, Rick Croy seems to have CBU flashing a distinct identity.

The Lancers have been trigger-happy from three, averaging nearly thirty attempts from distance per game. The 42 attempts they threw up against Tulsa were a Golden Hurricane opponent record. That unashamed, modern willingness to launch from deep makes sense given the versatility of forwards Bul Kuol and Mike Henn — even if guards Milan Acquaah (5-24 3FG) and Jordan Heading (7-26 3FG) saw their percentages skewed by respective rough nights against Tulsa.

Personnel wise, players recruited at the Division II level like Heading (13.0 PPG, 3.5 APG), Kuol (10.0 PPG, 44.4 3P%) and De’Jon Davis (6.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG) have not looked out of place. And Acquaah — the Washington State transfer who is the reigning WAC Player of the Week — appears to be a recruiting coup for Croy. The sophomore hasn’t been afraid of big moments, and mixes a shrug-it-off scorer’s mentality with the ability to make plays for others when needed.

Sure, four games of .500 basketball isn’t world beating. But with CSU Bakersfield set to leave the WAC in 2020, the league needed to see signs of life from what is effectively the ‘Runners replacement. The league’s profile matters to coaches, with Seattle coach Jim Hayford pointing at the WAC’s recent RPI jump in an interview before the season in support of the conference’s strength. CSUB’s ascendance has been a part of that, and while it’s early, CBU has suggested it may not be a league-wide drag.

Speaking of CSUB...

The ‘Runners have quietly gotten off to an encouraging start in their own right.

After a Junkanoo Jam-opening loss to Central Michigan, CSUB turned in a pair of thrilling, one-point wins to leave the Bahamas on a productive note. Toss out that the games were played in Your Local High School Gym, the angle and editing on this video of Damiyne Durham’s game-winning three to beat Weber State is fantastic:

With that moment, the ‘Runners picked up a true quality non-conference win over a perpetual Big Sky contender. It was foreshadowed in an ugly, near-win at TCU last week, but the CSUB defense yet again appears to have them poised to be competitive. The ‘Runners forced Weber State — a team with a good, experienced backcourt — into 19 turnovers, and for the season are forcing turnovers at an elite clip.

What may be most exciting about this version of CSUB is the upward potential. Jarkel Joiner is the obvious “player waiting to break out” candidate, and will likely continue to develop as a dynamic scorer within the conference. But that was a known factor prior to the season; what wasn’t known was the impact sophomores Greg Lee (17 points against Weber State), Justin Edler-Davis (13.0 PPG over the final two tournament games) and Taze Moore (12 points against San Jose State) would have. Each has shone at various times this year, and as those young players develop, so does CSUB’s ability to break out of the league’s middle tier.

It seems premature to declare that CSUB could upend what many felt the league’s pecking would be.

New Mexico State did put out a clunker at home against Saint Mary’s but — notwithstanding that the Gaels may simply be very good — the Aggies stabilized with a thrilling win at the Pit. Grand Canyon, as always, has no wins of true substance to this point and gets its first real test Friday against Seton Hall. Seattle had a confusing week with a landmark against Washington State, only to turn around and drop a game to Southern Utah. Utah Valley has had some ugly losses against a brutal schedule.

The point? It’s too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but the data points will continue to roll in and teams will continue to develop. Two weeks in, the ‘Runners seem as primed as anyone to be markedly better in March than they were when the season began. We’ll see if that’ll be good enough to cut down the nets in Las Vegas again under Rod Barnes.