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WAC Wednesday: Improving guards are everywhere, UMKC and Chicago State bounce back

Looks like there’s a pattern.

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

Look at the WAC landscape. Take your time, it is pretty vast. One theme you’ll see popping up in multiple places thus far in 2018-19 are guards taking a step forward from previous seasons.

It’s happening in Seattle, where junior Morgan Means has burst into this year with an all-league caliber first three weeks. The quick-twitch combo guard has scored in double figures in all but one game, and is the Redhawks leading scorer (16.6 PPG) to this point, nearly doubling his scoring average (8.6 PPG) from last season. He’s been on fire from deep (50% on 42 3PA), and appears to be the latest player blossoming offensively under Jim Hayford.

The junior talked about his approach after scoring a career-high 26 points against Denver during Feast Week.

“One of the biggest thing I’m trying to fix this year is inconsistency,” said Means. “I really focused in from warm-ups on being the best I could be and giving my team what I could give them, whether it be points, rebounds, whatever I could.”

Consistency is something that Damari Milstead has also started to find for Grand Canyon. The sophomore has seemingly taken hold of the point guard position for the Lopes, which was the key question entering this season. While he dazzled during a close loss to Seton Hall, Milstead also played a big role in wins against Boise State and La Salle.

While Alessandro Lever’s late basket to cap GCU’s comeback against the Broncos will get the attention, it was Milstead that teed that sequence up by forcing a turnover with just over a minute left. He also scored 13 points in the relief-filled home win, and on the season has drastically cut down on turnovers.

The same can be said for Chicago State’s Rob Shaw, who has not only chopped his turnover rate by five percentage points from last year, but has also jumped into the top 13 in the country in assist rate. The senior point guard has given the Cougars a calm presence throughout the year, and his double double against Eastern Illinois (14 points, 11 assists) not onlyhelped the Cougars get a big win, but also landed him the WAC Player of the Week award. Lance Irvin tweeted about the impact Shaw has had on his team.

In three of the past four seasons, which coincides with the Cougars slip down the standings, CSU has posted team turnover rates among the worst in the country. While a brutal opening schedule has skewed numbers, it appears that area will see big improvement with Shaw’s development this season. As that continues, CSU should find itself in plenty of games come league play.

In Edinburg, Javon Levi has continued the playmaking prowess he showed as a freshman. But thus far he’s embraced taking more shots himself as the Vaqueros make up for the scoring gravity lost when Nick Dixon graduated. He scored 17 points in an important win at UT Arlington, and has more than doubled his scoring average (9.5 PPG), while attempting 3.4 more field goals per game.

It’s been the same for Xavier Bishop, as the UMKC junior guard has run with the lead role many expected before the season. While plugging through a difficult early season schedule (more on that below), Bishop has posted career highs in scoring (17.2 PPG), assists (4.0 APG), rebounds (3.4 RPG) and three-point percentage (38.2%).

All of these players have played well enough to stake early claims for All-WAC consideration. While that’s an exciting development personally, their improvement has also opened up new opportunities, to various degrees, for their respective teams.

Mastering the psychology of the schedule

Amid reading you, the listener, box scores on our most recent podcast, we touched on the challenge plenty of mid-major coaches face in managing morale during grueling non-conference schedules. Texas Southern and its annual buy-game romp through some of the country’s top programs may be the most striking example, but UMKC and Chicago State both had their share of tough early season assignments.

Both also emerged on the positive this past week, which is a credit to their respective coaches, and the power of a well-placed non-Division I game.

The Roos had to deal with banner night at Loyola Chicago, and followed that up in short succession with trips to revitalized UConn and Big Ten title threat Iowa. With that over, UMKC traveled two time zones over to play a Feast Week tournament in Eastern Washington’s gym, where the Roos dropped a pair of games. Only then did they play their first home game, falling in the last minute to Drake.

At that point, the 0-6 Roos needed a shot in the arm and got it with a home date against NAIA Avila University. That got them into the win column, and a week later they traveled to Fort Wayne and blitzed the Mastodons with a 90-point outing.

Given that Fort Wayne is an experienced team with a bona fide senior star in Jon Konchar, UMKC was facing an uphill battle. That they were able to escape with a win allows a tough start to not snowball at the moment, and puts the Roos in a better spot as they face a back half of the non-conference slate loaded with more manageable games.

For CSU, the Cougars had an achingly-close loss to Illinois State in a game they appeared to control until the final few minutes. That followed a respectable effort at Notre Dame, and was a part of an eight-game road trip to start the year where all but one opponent was in the KenPom top 165.

The Cougars themselves used a non-Division I game against East-West University to give Irvin his first win as a Division I coach, and then followed that up with the home win over Eastern Illinois. CSU may well have beaten the Panthers without the East-West tune up, but like UMKC, the non-Division I opponent was perfectly placed on the schedule.

While that lends credence to strategic scheduling, the ability of both Kareem Richardson and Irvin to keep their teams focused as difficult results rolled in was on display this past week.