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WAC Wednesday: UMKC turns its season around, basketball benefits in the Beehive State

NCAA Basketball: UMKC at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Eye-popping non-conference wins haven’t been a great white whale for Kareem Richardson at UMKC.

The Roos have knocked off two SEC teams in his six-year tenure, raining on Kim Anderson’s debut at Missouri in 2014, and then toppling Mississippi State the following year in a road game Ben Howland didn’t schedule, and probably didn’t want. There have also been wins over perennial mid-major powers South Dakota State and Murray State sprinkled in over the years.

But a one-week stretch this December may have been UMKC’s finest non-league work to date under Richardson.

The season did not get off to a flying start for the Roos. The day before Thanksgiving, UMKC was staring at an 0-6 record after letting wins slip away late in consecutive games against Eastern Washington and Drake. A well-placed game against non-Division I Avila got the Roos into the win column, but the record became more lopsided at 1-7 after closing out November with a 28-point loss at South Dakota State.

“That’s where leadership comes through,” Richardson said. “Xavier Bishop did a great job when going through that stretch of keeping guys afloat. He and Brandon McKissic, our two captains, they sensed the talent on the team and helped those guys stay with it. They’ve done a good job of keeping guys believing and focusing in the right way.”

From there, UMKC stopped the bleeding on a frustrating season, and did so in some unlikely places.

The Roos broke into the Division I win column by thrashing an offensively-dangerous Fort Wayne team on the road on Dec. 1. Bishop was as effective on the court as he as off the court that day, scoring 20 points and dishing out seven assists. A week later, the junior point guard was just as impressive (15 points, 7 assists) as the Roos inched past a South Dakota team that figures to be a contender in the Summit League.

“Both of those were huge, huge wins going on the road,” Richardson said.

The turnaround has continued, as UMKC now has a 3-1 record since the calendar flipped to December. Bishop’s ascension (16.8 PPG, 4.6 APG, 47.3 FG%) has been a big factor as he enjoys his most efficient season scoring the ball. His coach says he’s taking better shots than ever, but has also benefited from the emergence JuCo addition Rob Whitfield.

Coming out of Hutchinson Community College, Richardson said he knew Whitfield would score, but the junior guard’s immediate impact from deep (13.1 PPG, 46.4 3P%) has been a pleasant surprise. With conference play around the corner, Whitfield leads the WAC in three-point field goals attempted and made, as well as three-point percentage. That threat, along with a steady season from McKissic (9.9 PPG) has helped ease the pressure on Bishop.

And unlike last season, the Roos have size.

“We don’t seem like a six foot and under team this year,” Richardson said. “From an offensive rebounding standpoint we can compete with just about anyone we play.”

Injuries and roster limitations at times had the Roos fielding lineups without a true forward toward the end of last season. Transfers Danny Dixon (5.1 RPG) and Brandon Suggs (2.1 RPG), along with JuCo signee Jamal Allen (4.5 RPG) have added a different front court element to UMKC’s roster.

And while it may have seemed far-fetched in November, the Roos suddenly find themselves rowing an oar in the WAC’s quietly impressive non-conference showing. The league may just have a lone power conference win (Seattle beating Washington State — yes, that counts), but have feasted on the middle of the mid-major conference pack. The WAC/Summit League Challenge domination was a part of that, and the Roos ended up smack dab in the middle of that with their two road wins.

Opportunities abound in the Beehive State

One of the neat, underappreciated aspects of college basketball in Utah is the willingness of Division I programs within the state to play one another. That may sound like a no brainer, but teams that share states can’t always get on the same page (come on Kansas, just play Wichita State).

Last summer, with his typical enthusiasm, Mark Pope talked about how helpful offseason open gyms can be with so many Division I players in relatively close proximity.

“It’s really a great opportunity for all the players in the summer,” he said. “They’ve got six Division I programs here and they can get together and go at it, and they do. It’s a huge advantage. I think we have a great state for basketball and programs that are really growing. It’s really exciting.”

Being a program in Utah also offers plenty of quality non-conference opportunities. In another state, a nascent Division I program like Utah Valley may not get as many chances against a high major like Utah, or established mid-majors like Utah State, BYU or Weber State. But the Wolverines do, and took advantage by nabbing their best win of the season at Weber State last Saturday.

It was their first win in five tries in Ogden, and first top-200 KenPom win of the season. It provided validation for a quietly solid season in Orem, as UVU is now 7-1 over its last eight games, including a competitive effort at Arizona and harder-than-it-seems win at high altitude Northern Arizona.

In similarly quiet fashion, Jake Toolson has been the WAC’s most efficient scorer and has been slapping together a POY-type season (15.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 65.9 eFG%). And down low, Baylee Steele is the league’s leading rebounder (8.3 RPG) while registering an absurd defensive rebounding rate (29.4%) that is good for 12th-best in the country.

Another year, another crop of impact transfers for Pope as the Wolverines silently make their case as a league contender.