Shunn Buchanan made his feelings clear shortly after his team came achingly close to a historic upset last Saturday.
New Mexico State doesn’t do moral victories.
That’s the noble approach, and probably the right approach for a league-dominant program with big expectations under an ascending coach. But when you’re playing the No. 2 team in the country, in an arena that’s against you, it’s not the most realistic approach.
If Dec. 1 was the best day the WAC has had all year, then last weekend may have been the league’s most encouraging moment — even if that means latching on to three teams that lost and, by extension, a trio of moral victories. In addition to the Aggies’ three-point loss to Kansas in Kansas City, Grand Canyon put a scare into No. 5 Nevada, while Seattle rallied furiously before coming up short at Washington.
Despite not emerging from any of those three games with a win, the presumptive top of the WAC flashed its high-level talent and ultimate potential.
In Kansas City, Jojo Zamora continued the back half of a torrid streak (15 points, 4-7 3FG) against the sixth-best defense in the country per KenPom. And while Kansas was without Udoka Azubuike, the Aggies frontline ran wild, making 62.1 percent of their shots within the three-point arc and outrebounding the Jayhawks. Ivan Aurrecoechea was borderline unstoppable (14 points, 7-10 FG) and Johnny McCants did things like this against the Big 12’s heavyweight.
#WACtopPlay Nominee - "Jumpin' Johnny" @NMStateAggies Johnny McCants throws down a vicious ally oop to help the Aggies to a halftime lead over No. 2-ranked Kansas! Credit Shunn Buchanan with the nice assist! Vote using the poll! @NMStateMBB pic.twitter.com/f2oG5JN4QG— WACsports (@WACsports) December 10, 2018
In Phoenix, Grand Canyon held a dynamic Nevada offense well under its average efficiency numbers, and turned over an experienced team more than it had been all season. The Wolf Pack will spend this season overwhelming team’s with length, and the Lopes didn’t look out of place on the court from that lens.
Seattle didn’t find itself in a competitive game for the first 30 minutes against Washington, which seems to be fringe NCAA Tournament team. However, after trailing by as many as 20 points deep into the second half, the Redhawks began a hard charge, pulling to within two points with two minutes left. The furious rally was led by Morgan Means (21 points), whose star turn, along with the emergence of fellow guard Terrell Brown, wasn’t necessarily expected prior to the season.
“Morgan showed great leadership down the stretch and Myles [Carter] came through as well,” said [said Jim Hayford in a release]. “But UW’s zone really rattled us and that’s what built their big lead. And then we were able to start playing downhill and the game changed the last 10 minutes but it wasn’t enough.”
Contributions from Myles Carter, Matej Kavas and Delante Jones were predictable, but finding a scoring dynamo in Means — whose 16.0 scoring average is currently third in the WAC — elevates the team’s ceiling to another level.
The next realistic step for the WAC has to be a victory in the NCAA Tournament. It’s been quite the dry spell.
The last team wearing a WAC patch to win on the sport’s biggest stage was ninth-seeded Nevada knocking off Texas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. NMSU put a mild scare into Clemson last year, as did CSU Bakersfield to Final Four-bound Oklahoma in 2016, but the closest the league has come in its current configuration was when the Aggies brought a good San Diego State team to overtime as a 13-seed in 2014.
If being realistic is today’s theme, than it goes without saying that the WAC shouldn’t expect to win NCAA Tournament games ever year. But this is a league that should expect to get the occasional upset as it — or at least, NMSU — has proven capable of staying out of the dreaded 15/2 and 16/1 uphill battles. Over the past seven seasons, the WAC’s average seed line has been 13.5. While that’s good, the obvious problem is that six of those bids belong to NMSU as no other team has yet proven capable of consistently challenging the Aggies.
At least early on, GCU and Seattle seem like they may have the goods to do so this season. All three teams, however, have some caveats attached to them. NMSU had a great week, but its best wins remain against underwhelming-to-this-point New Mexico. Seattle has a ton of wins (9) but has fattened up on what was essentially a 10-game home stand against largely uninspiring competition. Similarly, GCU has “understandable” next to each of its losses, but no true standout win.
But as the admirable performances last weekend showed, each team has shown signs that it might not only be good enough to win the WAC, but also have a legitimate shot to pull an upset come March. If that happened, the term “moral victory” could be thrown out the window.