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WAC Wednesday: Nine good things to wrap up non-conference play

It’s all familiar from now on.

NCAA Basketball: Seattle at St. Mary’s John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

After a heartburn-fueled holiday hiatus, WAC Wednesday is back, just in time for the real fun to start.

Conference play kicks off on Thursday night, with all but two of the league’s teams in action. To set the stage for the two-month run up to Las Vegas, here are nine good things we’ve learned since November.

9. The Jones Convocation Center awaits Chicago State

The Cougars haven’t played much at home this year, but when they have, it’s gone well. Chicago State is 3-0 on the South Side, including a win over Eastern Illinois — which just wrapped up a winning non-conference run — in early December. From here on, half the Cougars’ games will come on their home floor, which must be a welcome feeling.

Lance Irvin’s inaugural season has seen seniors Rob Shaw (11.2 PPG, 5.5 APG) and Anthony Harris (14.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG) play well in greatly expanded roles, and late JuCo signee Christian Jacob (10.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG) make a difference in the paint against a demanding schedule.

8. Cal Baptist can put points on the board

The Lancers’ WAC debut shouldn’t lack for excitement. CBU flashed a healthy amount of offense against a manageable non-conference slate, ranking in the top-100 in the country in effective field goal, three-point and free throw percentage while averaging 82.4 points per game. Their three-point happy attack should cause opponents issues, even with a number of good defenses living within the WAC.

Washington State transfer guard Milan Acquaah has been one of the surprises of the year. He announced himself with a buzzer-beating three against Oral Roberts, and then racked up a WAC-leading 22.2 points per game, including a 25-point effort against an elite UC Irvine defense.

7. Xavier Bishop is in fact a star

The junior point guard has made good on a preseason all-second team selection from both the coaches and media. And then some. His traditional numbers are up across the board (16.3 PPG, 4.5 APG), as are his efficiency numbers (53.7% eFG) with Kareem Richardson praising him for taking better shots (and for his leadership).

With the emergence of JuCo addition Rob Whitfield, the Roos offense can fly at times, as it did in a 95-point outing against Elon on Dec. 22. With some improvement from an at-times leaky defense — particularly from three — UMKC’s final product could end up belying its 5-10 start.

6. The Vaqueros are leaning into their identity

For the second season in a row, UTRGV put together a nice non-conference run using the style Lew Hill has imprinted on the program. This year, their up-tempo, disruptive play earned them seven Division I wins (including two on the road), and a near upset of Houston. The most encouraging sign? The Vaqueros are turning teams over at a higher rate (24.5%) than they have at any point during Hill’s three-year tenure.

Stingy perimeter defenders like Javon Levi and Lesley Varner have led the way, with the latter enjoying a breakout season all around. The offense very much still misses Nick Dixon, but the Vaqueros should continue to be a tough out, especially in Edinburg.

5. The ‘Runners are an upset waiting to happen

NCAA Basketball: Cal. State - Bakersfield at Gonzaga
Jarkel Joiner has been surging for CSUB.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

CSU Bakersfield has yet again retained its points-at-a-premium ways, thus far rolling out a top-150 KenPom defense. It nearly earned them an immediate jolt, as the ‘Runners held a dangerous TCU team to its second-lowest points per possession output of the season in a close game on opening night.

Despite some holes — notably, a rim-swatting big man like in year’s past — this CSUB team is not one opposing coaches will likely want to see. Rod Barnes has a number of players that can get points in bunches. Damiyne Durham — who set the program three-point record earlier this year — is the obvious candidate, but sophomore guard Jarkel Joiner has been just as dangerous. He notched back-to-back 24-point outings to close non-conference play, one in a close road win (Portland State) and the other against an elite team (Gonzaga) in a game that was not as close.

4. It’s all still on the table for Grand Canyon

A six-loss non-conference may seem like a disappointment to some Lopes fans. Yet aside from a blowout at Texas, there isn’t a defeat for which GCU should be ashamed. Failing to get over the hump against quality mid-majors like South Dakota State and San Diego may be discouraging in terms of the Lopes ultimate ability to sneak past New Mexico State and others, but it, bears remembering, has no effect on the WAC standings.

Alessandro Lever is on a good mini-streak heading into conference play (26.5 PPG over the past two games). If he and Carlos Johnson can avoid foul trouble in GCU’s bigger games (something that has been an issue), the Lopes should always have a chance. Nothing to this point suggests they’re the favorite, but at the same time nothing suggests they can be dismissed.

3. Don’t forget about Utah Valley now

NMSU is what it is, GCU’s potential has (to this point) bought it credibility and Seattle is essentially in the middle of the Pac-12 standings. But don’t forget about the Wolverines when thinking about the WAC title race. Mark Pope’s balanced team closed non-conference play with the league’s best win to-date — by a lengthy margin — at Fresno State.

UVU is big and physical, even with Akolda Manyang gone, and has as good a perimeter duo as the league offers in the Toolson cousins. There’s also the matter of the Wolverines’ 20-game home winning streak which, if it reaches 23, will include statement wins against Seattle and NMSU. It’d be foolish to put that past UVU, as would the Wolverines challenging for the top of the WAC.

2. Matej Kavas has not been Seattle’s best player and that’s a scary thing

The Slovenian junior has continued to do his thing, drilling over 40 percent of his three-point attempts with his deadly-efficient form. He’s no longer, however, the only show on the Puget Sound. Sophomore guard Morgan Means has exploded, putting together a WAC POY-type season (16.9 PPG, 3.6 APG) and may well be the league’s most efficient perimeter scorer.

Meanwhile, Myles Carter — the reigning WAC Player of the Week — has cashed in on his potential (15.2 PPG, 8.5 RPG), as the Seton Hall transfer is one of the WAC’s top big men. With Kavas and Delante Jones alongside, the Redhawks have the top-end talent to end an NCAA Tournament drought that stretches back to 1969.

1. The WAC still goes through Las Cruces

It appeared that way before the season, and nothing in the past two months has suggested anything differently. The Aggies are winning games much differently this season, with a ton of depth that has, at various times, seen shoulder-carrying performances from Ivan Aurrecoechea, JoJo Zamora, A.J. Harris, Terrell Brown, C.J. Bobbitt (most recently) and even rotation player Keyon Jones.

NMSU — which has been one of the top rebounding teams in the country — may simply overwhelm the WAC with its size, particularly with Johnny McCants working his way back to full health. Regardless how the games are won, NMSU remains the league favorite heading into conference play.