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The WAC is closing non-conference play on a high note

It’s been badly needed after a season that’s collectively fallen short of expectations, so far.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Collectively, the non-conference portion of the 2019-2020 season surely isn’t what the WAC expected.

With the meat of it in the rearview mirror, the league has struggled. Heading into December only one team had a winning record, and as the calendar nears January, the league has gone a combined 37-67 against Division I competition. That’s a massive step down from a winning non-conference mark a year ago (59-56 against Division I competition), in a season that saw the WAC finish in or near the upper half of the NET (16th) and KenPom (17th) conference rankings. At present those numbers have dropped to 24th and 22nd, respectively.

Last year’s momentum was at risk of — or had — seemingly fizzled out. That is, until some recent jolts of optimism.

As is the case with the country’s most geographically-diverse league, the story often begins and ends with New Mexico State. And unlike recent seasons, it had been an up-and-down start for a team dealing with an inconsistent offense and injuries, particularly in the backcourt. But a resurgent past month was punctuated last weekend when the Aggies went to Jackson and ground a good Mississippi State offense into dust in a 58-52 win.

“They really took it to us with their defense and their pressure bothered us,” said Bulldogs coach Ben Howland. “We had way too many turnovers to beat a good team like that.”

The game also saw a star turn offensively from Johnny McCants (18 points, 7-10 FG) and big minutes from guard Evan Gilyard (14 points, 3 assists), a UTEP transfer who recently became eligible. These were important signs for a team looking to take scoring pressure off Trevelin Queen and develop backcourt depth, which the Aggies suddenly have in abundance with Gilyard eligible and starting point guard A.J. Harris back from a hand injury.

With that, NMSU is starting to resemble a team that could push for the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, which has seemed like the next step in the program’s evolution. That’s not to say the Aggies won’t be challenged in league play even if their two most consistent threats in recent memory — Grand Canyon and Utah Valley — deal with down seasons.

Kansas City is coming off a banner end to December. After a disappointing loss at McNeese State sandwiched around understandable losses to Iowa State and Kansas, the Roos flipped momentum by grabbing two high quality non-conference wins against teams projected to contend in their respective conferences.

Last Sunday, Jahshire Hardnett drilled a game-winning three on the road to beat South Dakota, which followed a home win over Toledo that, per KenPom, was the program’s best non-conference win since beating Mississippi State in 2015. A balanced Roos team saw senior Jordan Giles (25 points, 5 rebounds) have arguably the best game of his career in the win over the Coyotes, and relied on a tremendous defensive effort in bottling up a potent Rockets’ offense.

“We’re not a finished product,” Kansas City coach Billy Donlon said in late November. “We’re not ready for 40 minutes playing excellent on both ends, but we’ll get there.”

After the past two wins, Kansas City may getting close to reaching that point, but they aren’t the only team ending the non-con with a wave of momentum.

Cal Baptist is currently riding a five-game winning streak, which was highlighted by a big-time win at UC Irvine — a team projected to contend in the Big West — on Dec. 7. That game saw the usual star outing form Milan Acquaah, who has arguably been the WAC’s premier player (19.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 6.5 APG), living up to the lofty expectations placed on him as the league’s preseason POY.

In all, having the Lancers sitting at 162nd in KenPom — far and away the league’s second best rating — in just their second Division I season is a tremendous accomplishment for Rick Croy. He’s struck gold on the transfer market with Acquaah (Washington State), Ferron Flavors (Fairfield) and Brandon Boyd (Idaho State), and yet again has the team playing efficient offense.

And while CBU isn’t yet eligible for the WAC Tournament, its development as a program is a big part of the equation for the WAC’s forward trajectory.

As the league undergoes more change over the next few seasons with Kansas City and Cal State Bakersfield out, it needs consistent programs to emerge to continue the momentum of last year’s conference-wide success. GCU and UVU have been in that camp, and Seattle has flashed that potential too. In the present, the Lopes and Redhawks got dominant home wins in their most recent respective games, both of which were badly needed.

The quietly high-quality mid-major basketball not only makes the league attractive to the bright-eyed teams it adds making the Division jump — like Dixie State and Tarleton State — but likely also puts the pressure on those schools to continue investing in their athletic departments. After a tough start to the season, the league must be hoping recent flashes from NMSU, Kansas City and CBU have it positioned to snatch back some of that momentum.