Milan Acquaah leads a conference in scoring, by a country mile. He’s a bona fide league Player of the Candidate that helped author a major January upset. It’s the breakout season he thought he’d have.
At least, kind of.
“To be honest, I envisioned this last year and it didn’t happen the way I wanted it to,” the sophomore guard said.
Acquaah is over 1,000 miles away from last year. He’s wearing navy and gold instead of crimson and gray, and he’s leading Division I’s freshest program into a new era instead of trying to help a struggling high major claw its way back to relevance.
But the Cal Baptist star is back on his schedule, even if it’s 365 days later than he hoped.
Acquaah signed with Washington State out of high school, and played heavy minutes right away. The then-freshman started the first seven games for a Cougars team that ran out to a 6-1 start last season. After that, Acquaah saw dry spells in playing time, and while he remained an important part of Ernie Kent’s rotation (17.1 MPG), he started just two of the season’s final 24 games.
He would leave Washington State after that single season, and found a home in a program finding its own home in a new Division.
“I was looking for a program that would trust me to make plays for myself and others,” he said. “Allow me to come and in and allow me to be who I am as a player, and I feel like Coach [Rick] Croy welcomed me with open arms.”
It’s no surprise Croy rolled out the red carpet.
The Lancers were making the jump from Division II to Division I not without some momentum. Their farewell season in Division II included a trip to the Elite Eight, and they had won at least 24 games in each of Croy’s five seasons in charge. They returned some important parts — like point guard Jordan Heading and forward De’Jon Davis — and had a roster that Croy said he’d been shaping for 24 months with the leap in division in mind.
But with Acquaah — and an NCAA transfer waiver — he’d added something else: a high major talent capable of carrying a team.
The sophomore did just that in scoring 36 points, and not leaving the floor, in CBU’s landmark, WAC-opening home win against New Mexico State on Jan. 3. That was the to-this-point exclamation mark on season that began with a dramatic game-winning heave at Oral Roberts, and has seen Acquaah average 21.6 points per game — a nearly six-point margin over the league’s next closest scorer.
He’s spent the first two-plus months of his Lancer career barreling through defenses with his big frame, while also keeping teams honest with efficient outside shooting. NMSU coach Chris Jans gushed about the CBU lead guard after the upset win on Jan. 3.
“(Acquaah) is just so big (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) that it’s a nightmare matchup for us because we’re not (big).”
And it’s not been all about points for the solidly-built combo guard. In a greatly expanded, central role, Acquaah has cut down turnovers from his freshman year, and been a big contributor on the glass (5.5 RPG). He’s also often been tasked with guarding the opposition’s top perimeter threat, as he was when he helped limit lightning-quick UMKC point guard Xavier Bishop to an uncharacteristic three-for-14 shooting night on Jan. 10.
The breakthrough hasn’t surprised his coach.
“He’s really a hungry player,” Croy said. “I think that’s what it takes to be special, you really have to keep hunting and able to grind through the tough times, and when you have success you have to have a great response as well. He’s had a lot of early success and he keeps coming back to work.”
And there is understandably work still be done for both Acquaah and CBU.
The Lancers followed up the win over NMSU by dropping games to UT Rio Grande Valley and UMKC, two teams decidedly lower in the current WAC pecking order than the heavyweight Aggies. Acquaah struggled in particular to get in an offensive rhythm against the Roos, making just two field goals as he was hounded by UMKC’s press, and a physical defender in Brandon McKissic.
He would, however, score 16 points the last time out as the Lancers notched their first league road win at Chicago State. Sitting at 2-2 in the league, and having won five Division I games in the non-conference, CBU can readily claim that the transition up a level has been smooth to this point.
Croy credits the culture within his program for making that possible. And to him the roots start when he was hired in 2013, when a move to Division I was just a twinkle in the university’s eyes.
“I was very fortunate that first year I took over, I had a great senior class and they embraced work ethic,” he said, “It’s been handed down and sharpened each year. Guys know how to go on the road, they know how to grind games out, they know how to take care of their home floor, they know how to practice, they know how to lift. Those are things that really matter.”
Those players that set the foundation for CBU’s leap obviously won’t be on the court if the Lancers cash in on the ultimate dream and get to the Division I NCAA Tournament. Their eligibility has long been exhausted. So too will Acquaah’s, as the four-year probationary period will keep the the Lancers’ first Division I star locked out of the sport’s biggest stage. But that doesn’t mean he, and the rest of the Lancers inaugural Division I squad, can’t still have a major impact on the program’s trajectory as they tick off milestones and build CBU’s cachet at its new level.
Just like Croy’s first senior class, the top-level season Acquaah envisioned — and has made happen — is as big a part of CBU’s positive momentum as anything else.