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WAC Wednesday: A surprise at Utah Valley, New Mexico State flexes its depth and more

Plus big opportunities for Seattle and UMKC.

NCAA Basketball: Utah Valley at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Describe the 2018-19 WAC in one word. Quick, go.

Thrilling? That might fit, particularly when you think of buzzer-beating moments authored by Johnny McCants and Milan Acquaah. Ascending? There’s a case for that too, especially after the Summit League was flicked aside in the non-conference tussle.

Foul-y? Not a bad pick either, apparently.

How about surprising? At least in pockets, the league has seen several players have unexpected moments and seasons. McCants dramatic winner, just the second made three of his career, falls into that category. As does Acquaah’s larger breakout season, and the big-time contributions both Seattle and New Mexico State have gotten from their respective Terrell Browns.

But Utah Valley’s Richard Harward may take the cake. At least for a day.

Coming into last Saturday’s game against Seattle, the sophomore big man had played just 44 minutes the entire season. Opportunity then knocked, with Connor MacDougall sidelined by a hand injury and Wolverines in need of size down low. Harward responded with a career night, racking up career highs in points (12), rebounds (15) and minutes (24).

As is always the case, Mark Pope had colorful thoughts on Harward’s big night.

“There are those of us who just love sports because of ‘Hoosiers’ and ‘Rudy’ — and we got to witness that tonight in our own little venue,” Pope said. “There are very few young people now who are willing to go get nothing for a year and a half and at the same time give everything they have. Richard has never complained for a moment. Then the dude comes out and saved us.”

Magical as it was, it was far from an insignificant effort. The Wolverines needed each inch of Harward’s production to erase a 20-point deficit to the Redhawks and come away with an 88-78 win. The Orem native was particularly effective making sure Seattle couldn’t squash UVU’s second half rally by grabbing eight defensive rebounds after the break.

The starry night earned Harward the WAC Player of the Week award, and helped UVU emerge on the right end of a battle of teams scraping for their first league win. With the schedule easing up for the Wolverines over the next few weeks — save for a home game against New Mexico State — Harward may have an opportunity to gain more confidence.

It would be a significant development should he work himself into a consistent part of Pope’s rotation. Baylee Steele and MacDougall have had quality seasons, but UVU has felt the loss of Akolda Manyang, as well as Isaac Neilson and Zach Nelson. Although the latter duo saw inconsistent playing time last year, they were still experienced front court options on Pope’s bench. The 2017-18 Wolverines also had an effective floor spacing option at the four for small-ball lineups in Kenneth Ogbe.

If Harward can develop into that another reliable front court option, especially given MacDougall’s injury, UVU could have the ammunition to add another WAC surprise at the end of the year.

Next man up for New Mexico State

One team that most certainly doesn’t lack depth is NMSU. Yet again, that depth was on display as the Aggies avoided a Grand Canyon-sized letdown in a tricky game against surging CSU Bakersfield.

Starting point guard AJ Harris missed the game with the flu, and against an always-in-your-body defense that forces turnovers at a top-25 rate, that would seem to be a big problem. As has been the case for the Aggies all year, someone stepped up — this time Shunn Buchanan.

The junior point guard played 35 minutes (a career high), while scoring 12 points and dishing out eight assists against just three turnovers. There was — at the very least — one person in the Pan Am Center that wasn’t surprised by the performance.

“He (Buchanan) was the MVP,” Jans said. “AJ wasn’t in the building tonight. I knew he would step up. He has always been one of our best leaders. They were giving him shots and he stepped up and made them.”’

The Aggies back court is not without its limitation particularly, as Jans has pointed out, a lack of size and issues defending bigger guards. But even if you take out an all-league talent like Harris, it’s an intriguing group.

Buchanan has proven to be a quality distributor and playmaker, even when not getting big minutes like he did against CSUB. This crafty pass to McCants underlines the point.

Terrell Brown — who had 19 points against the ‘Runners — can create his own offense as well as anyone in the conference, and his slashing is a good antidote for dry scoring spells. Jojo Zamora may have the highest ceiling of any guard on the roster, while Keyon Jones has held his own when given the opportunity. That’s not mention Jabari Rice or Clayton Henry, who have both gotten significant minutes at various times this season.

NMSU’s front court has been responsible for plenty of wins this year, but it’s back court isn’t without championship-caliber depth either.

Game(s) of the Week

New Mexico State @ Seattle | Thursday, Jan. 15 | 10 PM ET

Good news, Redhawks.

Your brutal season-opening road swing is over and you’re back home. Now go deal with NMSU.

Seattle is at the end of arguably the most difficult four-game stretch any team will face in league play this season. Staring at an 0-3 start, the Redhawks came out blazing against UVU before falling victim to the Harward-led comeback. The tough start has been compounded by a hobbled Matej Kavas, who missed the UVU game and whose status seems to be uncertain.

Still, the Redhawks have enough firepower to take down the Aggies, as they did last season at home. NMSU’s glass-gobbling front court will get challenged by Myles Carter, and the Aggies may struggle to match up on the perimeter with Delante Jones.

It’ll be an uphill battle, but Seattle has a chance to break out if its empty start in a big way.

UMKC @ CSU Bakersfield | Thursday, Jan. 15 | 10PM ET

As expected, UMKC is the last team unbeaten in league play.

Okay, okay. Staying with the surprise theme, the Roos being the only unscathed team is a bit unexpected. Or is it? UMKC got a favorable opening stretch with home games spread out a week apart against Chicago State and Cal Baptist.

The Roos first 2-0 WAC start since 2013-14 — Kareem Richardson’s first year — is a bit schedule driven, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Roos playing well. They’re 6-3 since Dec. 1, with three top-221 KenPom wins, and their biggest opportunity to date against the ‘Runners on Thursday.

It should be a matchup of teams that look and play roughly alike. UMKC sophomore guard Brandon McKissic is in a torrid stretch, and should be able to bother whichever of CSUB’s quality guards he’s matched up. Junior wing Jamel Allen has also started to shoot better from deep, and could be important against the ‘Runners cadre of lengthy perimeter players.

Can UMKC pull the upset? If so, you can throw the “schedule driven” narrative out the window.