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WAC Wednesday: Senior big men emerge at New Mexico State, CSU Bakersfield and more

Plus the California rivalry heats up, at least for a minute.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Clemson vs New Mexico State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

New Mexico State wrapped up the 2016-17 regular season with a dominant home win over UT Rio Grande Valley.

It would, as it turned out, be the final game Paul Weir would coach on the home sideline in the Pan Am Center. But that wasn’t the only thing notable about that game. Eli Chuha’s 28-point, nine-rebound effort earned him the WAC Player of the Week award, the first of his career. Coming at the end of a breakout sophomore season, it seemed like it wouldn’t be long until that particular honor carried his name the following year.

It would be another 22 months, however, before that encore came.

Chuha’s trademark efficiency and rebounding prowess helped lead the Aggies to road wins at Seattle (13 points, 6-8 FG, 10 rebounds) and Utah Valley (20 points, 6-7 FG, 14 rebounds). For that he was named WAC Player of the Week for the second time in his career, and it’s been a winding road back to that spot.

The Aggie forward saw a down tick in playing last season under Chris Jans. Smarter basketball people could tell you why, but it seemed Johnny McCants’ versatility fit better into the quicker, transition-heavy game that version of the Aggies tended to favor. Nonetheless, Chuha remained an important part of a league champion, and posted top-10 offensive and defensive rebounding rates during WAC play.

But it wasn’t the next linear step from a sky high sophomore year, where Chuha was the WAC’s most efficient scorer and a top-five rebounder on both ends. That situation would seem ripe for a transfer, but this is not an article about a player sticking it out, or patience finally being rewarded. Players should be praised for transferring if it’s the right move for them, and likewise, they should be praised for not transferring if that makes the most sense.

Presumably, the latter was true for Chuha, and he’s yet again a key part of a quality Aggies’ team. Jans talked about his expectations for his senior forward before the season.

“I always tell our guys I don’t chose who starts and who plays the minutes,” Jans said. “You guys do. After all the practices that we have, if I did a secret poll, our guys would know who should start and, for the most part, who should be playing quality minutes. I tell them all the time that you guys are making these choices for me. Eli is doing well. I hope that he has a bigger role and I hope that he has a great senior season. That’s all of our hope for him.

While Chuha’s playing time (19.4 MPG) is still below the 2016-17 high (26.0 MPG), he’s in many ways playing the best basketball of his career. Offensively, he’s been more efficient than at any point over his four years (68.4% eFG) and, buoyed by a current three-game torrid stretch, he’s holding the fourth best defensive rebounding rate in the country (32.0%).

Whatever the role, the Aggie senior has been a vital cog of the NMSU machine.

An unheralded leader in Bakersfield

There’s a dark horse WAC Player of the Year candidate playing in the Icardo Center, who’s fresh off a trio of clutch free throws. There’s the most prolific three-point shooter in league history. There’s a salty senior point guard having a quality season.

Good as Jarkel Joiner, Damiyne Durham and Rickey Holden have been, none may be the most irreplaceable player for a CSU Bakersfield team that sits tied atop the league standings after six games.

That distinction may go to James Suber, who has quietly had a breakthrough senior season.

NCAA Basketball: Cal. State - Bakersfield at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports’s Jon Mettus did a great job outlining Suber’s journey to this point, after the big man was forced to sit out the 2017-18 due to a nagging knee injury he suffered while in Junior College. It included painful platelet-rich plasma injections and grueling physical therapy, but has led to a season that hasn’t surprised his teammates or coaches.

“Sube is getting better every day because his legs are getting under him,” CSUB assistant Benjy Taylor said [in December]. “He’s going to be a problem in the paint.”

The senior is posting career highs in minutes (23.6 MPG) and rebounds (7.5 RPG), and while he isn’t the ‘Runners primary offensive option, has made the most of his opportunities around the rim (6.6 PPG, 65.2% FG). Most importantly, he CSU Bakersfield’s most consistent — and at times, only — interior threat protecting the paint and cleaning up the glass.

Early on, the metrics have favored CSU Bakersfield’s offense in league play, with the second most efficient offense through six games. That’s been fueled, in part, by the best offensive rebounding rate in the conference, something that has been consistent throughout the year. Suber has been holding up that part of the ‘Runners equation, with the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the country.

He’s not in the mammoth rim protecting mold of Moataz Aly, but Suber has been the down-low anchor for CSU Bakersfield this year. The ‘Runners have plenty of talent, and plenty of players having good seasons, but no one quite like him.

Game(s) of the Week

CSU Bakersfield @ Cal Baptist | Thursday, Jan. 24 | 10:00 PM ET

Let the rivalry build, for two seasons at least.

The ‘Runners eventual departure for the Big West tempers it, but the WAC’s two California schools meet for the first time as Division I members in Riverside. The Lancers will look for their first ever win over CSUB, holding an 0-3 lifetime record against the ‘Runners.

CBU will have gone 12 days without playing, and gets back into it in a game where ball-handling will be at a premium. The ‘Runners had to rally late, to various degrees, to pick up home wins over UMKC and Chicago State last week, and sport a 1-1 record on the road in league play thus far.

It’ll be fascinating to see how Rod Barnes decides to deal with Milan Acquaah. Will he opt for a smaller, harassing player like Holden or Joiner, or try to bother Acquaah with size (Taze Moore, Justin Edler-Davis)?

Seattle @ Chicago State | Thursday, Jan. 24 | 8:05 PM ET

A game against the Cougars is just what 0-5 Seattle ordered, right?

Maybe not. Chicago State pushed CSUB to the brink last weekend, and save for a game at Grand Canyon, has been right there in each WAC contest thus far. The Redhawks have not caught a break — from the schedule, from injuries — in recent weeks, and will have another challenge on the South Side.

Myles Carter was tremendous in SU’s close loss to UTRGV (28 points, 15 rebounds). He didn’t leave the floor that game, and may need to do the same type of heavy lifting against a Cougars team that has proven it can score in the paint. Terrell Brown and Rob Shaw also present an interesting match up of point guards each enjoying surprising seasons.