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WAC Wednesday: Early home dominance, Grand Canyon’s defense and more

Plus a big opportunity for UTRGV this weekend.

NCAA Basketball: Cal. State - Bakersfield at Gonzaga
Taze Moore’s late-game heroics led to a perfect WAC start for the ‘Runners.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It’d be wrong not to start with a note on some devastating news.

The WAC and Chicago State announced on Sunday that Corey Miggins, Chicago State’s Sports Information Director, had passed away. I was crushed.

I won’t claim to have known Corey that well; we had only emailed periodically and spoken on the phone a handful of times over the past three years. But in that time it was clear to me what a tremendous person he was. Always exuding positivity, always going the extra mile. The tributes rolling in on Twitter say the same.

I don’t write for the Chicago Tribune or Sports Illustrated. On a good day I can offer, at best, a smattering of clicks. Nonetheless, Corey was always ready with his time, and usually a phone call.

CSU took an offseason trip to the Bahamas last year and I emailed him asking how it went. Moments later my phone buzzed, and Corey and I spent the better part of the hour talking about the team, the trip and much more. A few months later, during a surely exhausting weekend day of media photo shoots, Corey squeezed in time for an interview with Cougars’ guard Fred Sims Jr. after I had made a last minute ask.

That was him; always accommodating, always willing to work his tail off for a school and athletic department he clearly loved.

There are haves and have-nots in college basketball. Good seasons and seasons filled with plenty of red on a team’s KenPom page. It’s naive to think you can exist in a media bubble where you don’t write, comment or tweet about the latter. But at the end of the day college basketball is — or should be — a platform for young people. To share their stories, to share their hard work. I don’t want to speak for him, but Corey seemed to live that every working day, and did his best to share those stories at as special a place as any in college athletics.

He’ll be greatly missed.

Home teams roll during week one

On the court, Chicago State fell one final rally short of an upset in Kansas City.

Behind another sturdy effort from Rob Shaw, and a clinic around the rim from Christian Jacob, the Cougars erased a 13-point deficit to take a lead early in the second half. But the Roos responded swiftly, as junior Jamel Allen drilled one of several momentum-swinging three’s on the next possession to put UMKC back ahead.

It was a welcome sight for Kareem Richardson.

“I thought even four or five games ago when they took the lead we probably would’ve dropped our heads and Lord knows what would’ve happened, but I think our guys are believing a little more and playing better,” he said.

The Roos would ultimately win by eight points, but the path there was unexpected.

Xavier Bishop — the WAC’s second-leading scorer — missed his first 11 shots, and was held without a field goal until deep into the second half. As he struggled, sophomore Brandon McKissic stepped up, continually rumbling to the rim in a 21-point outing.

“X wasn’t really himself, so I took it upon myself to get these guys energized,” McKissic said. “I started to pick up my aggressiveness and went with it.”

The McKissic-led home victory was part of a trend during the opening week of WAC play. Life was difficult on the road, with UTRGV’s comeback at Cal Baptist the lone win for a visitor.

Notably, this included Grand Canyon (more on the Lopes below) swiping wins from two teams — Utah Valley, Seattle — with markedly better non-conference resumes. The Lancers’ landmark home win over never-say-die New Mexico State reverberated around the conference as well. And, not to be outdone by GCU, CSU Bakersfield similarly knocked off the Redhawks and Wolverines, the latter in dramatic fashion courtesy of Taze Moore.

(Always exciting to embed GIFs made in timely fashion by this site’s social media wizards)

That’s left a murky early picture, the glaring oddity being NMSU not sitting at the top. The Aggies will be fine, and UVU and Seattle will rebound from 0-2 starts, but the early trend will likely continue. The league proved its overall saltiness in the non-conference, and that depth should make road trips hard to navigate until everyone meets in Las Vegas.

Grand Canyon’s split identity?

Throughout the past few years, multiple assistants and head coaches within the league have raved to me about Grand Canyon’s offensive potential. This has included the variety of NBA sets and action the Lopes run based on Dan Majerle’s background, as well as the high major talent that usually dots his rosters.

There’s no doubt GCU poses a challenge for opposing defenses. There have been highs, like strong scoring runs from Josh Braun, Dewayne Russell and Alessandro Lever over the past few seasons. The numbers, however, paint a clear picture as to where GCU’s bread has been buttered since the 2015-16 season.

GCU offensive/defensive breakdown (per KenPom)

Year AdjO Rank AdjD Rank 3PO Rank 3PD Rank
Year AdjO Rank AdjD Rank 3PO Rank 3PD Rank
2018-19 140 101 297 307
2017-18 226 50 326 1
2016-17 229 90 264 53
2015-16 166 111 129 35

The last time GCU finished with a more efficient offense than defense was 2014-15. While the returns are more balanced thus far this season, a long, disruptive defense has catapulted the Lopes atop the league after the first week.

After a competitive first half, GCU smothered a Seattle team that has been potent from three this year, ultimately holding the Redhawks to their least efficient offensive night of the season.

“GCU is a good team,” said [said Jim Hayford in a release]. “They had a good plan to take away our threes and said ‘we’ll let you challenge us one-on-one at the rim.’ They let us attack and we couldn’t convert in the paint.”

The Lopes routinely run out lineups with four players taller than 6’3,’’ and create problems on the wings with Oscar Frayer (6’7’’), Trey Drechsel (6’6’’). While their three-point defense sagged in the non-conference, they limited Utah Valley on Thursday (3-15 3FG), and frustrated Seattle on Saturday. In both games, that seemed break both opponents’ offensive flows, with less than ideal isolation drives into the Lopes’ big front court the most common result.

GCU’s schedule partner, CSUB, similarly dispatched the visiting Wolverines and Redhawks, and were impressive in its own right (mainly, depth). That deserves its own mention, but if the Lopes are going to rise above an inconsistent non-conference and truly contend, it seems that yet again it’ll be on the back of their defense.

The early returns are good, but the test gets even tougher this week with the always buzz-worthy trip to Las Cruces, followed by a tricky game in Edinburg.

Game(s) of the Week

  • CSU Bakersfield @ UTRGV | Thursday, Jan. 10 | 7PM CT
  • Grand Canyon @ UTRGV | Saturday, Jan. 12 | 7PM CT

We’ll cheat and go with the weekend action in South Texas. NMSU-GCU will rightfully get the most attention and Twitter vitriol cordial disagreement, and CBU’s inaugural conference road trip is noteworthy. But the Vaqueros have a challenging but manageable two-game opportunity that could establish them as the WAC’s in-house balloon popper..

Tyson Smith led a late second half rally to overcome a 16-point deficit to a Lancers’ team full of confidence. The Loyola Chicago transfer had a career night (21 points) against CBU, and has now scored in double figures in four of the last six games.

UTRGV already poses plenty of challenges for opponents: its havoc-creating defense, a steady point guard in Javon Levi and an all-conference level forward in Terry Winn. Adding another reliable offensive threat on the wing would be a boon, and make the Vaqueros a tougher out than they already appear to be.

The Lancers saw that firsthand coming off their flying start, and now the co-league leaders (CSUB, GCU) take their respective unblemished records to the UTRGV Fieldhouse.