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WAC Wednesday: 23 reasons to get excited in the season’s final weeks

From New Mexico State to Chicago State, there’s plenty to watch.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Feb. 20, and we sit 23 days out from the WAC Tournament.

If we’re being realistic, that’s 23 days without drama in the regular season title race. For all intents and purposes, the crown belongs to New Mexico State which, at 11-1, has as three-game lead plus the tiebreaker against Grand Canyon. The Aggies also swept 6-4 Utah Valley, which theoretically could make things interesting at 6-4.

So, as the Aggies barrel toward their fifth WAC regular season championship, we can focus on 23 other things to watch — and get excited for — in the next three weeks. That number may not be quite as high as Chris Jans’ rotation, but fits.

Some are big, some are small, but here we go.

23. How high UT Rio Grande Valley’s win total rises. With its win over Wayland Baptist on a unicorn of a February WAC Tuesday, the Vaqueros sit at 16-13, their highest win total under Lew Hill.

22. Utah Valley’s finish. The Wolverines have won four of their last five, with favorable home games this week against Chicago State and UMKC. Aside from two blips against NMSU, their defense has been humming over the past month.

21. Milan Acquaah’s return home as a player, as the Bakersfield native plays at the Icardo Center on Saturday. He scored 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting when the ‘Runners visited Riverside last month.

20. Travon Bell. The Chicago State sophomore has scored in double figures in two of his last three games, while cashing in on his three-point marksman potential. He’s gone 11-for-22 from deep over that stretch.

19. Jake Toolson’s run at the record book. The junior is within earshot of finishing in the top-10 in UVU’s single-season record book in field goal percentage (56.6%), free-throw percentage (87.2%) and three-point percentage (47.1%).

NCAA Basketball: Utah Valley at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

18. Is there anyone else on NMSU’s bench that will magically join the rotation? You never know.

17. Grand Canyon’s response. Dan Majerle challenged several players — notably Damari Milstead and Alessandro Lever — following a loss at UMKC last week. They responded with a resounding win at CSU. Will that continue for a team that has floundered over the past few weeks?

16. UMKC’s resilience. The Roos have fought back from droughts to register quality wins first in the non-con, and then in WAC play with home victories last week over GCU and CSUB. With a run of four-straight games against top-200 KenPom competition, Kareem Richarson has time to build more momentum before Las Vegas.

15. Danny Dixon. The George Mason transfer averaged 10.5 points over the Roos’ two wins last week. That may seem mundane, but Dixon gives UMKC a true back-to-the-basket threat on a perimeter-oriented offense.

14. Cal Baptist’s remaining road debuts. The Lancers finish with four of their last six on the road, including inaugural league trips to the Pan Am Center and GCU Arena.

13. A healthy Seattle! At long last, Jim Hayford tweeted that the Redhawks aren’t having to use coaches in practice. With the return of Matej Kavas, Delante Jones and others, Seattle should resemble the team that stormed through the non-con at 12-3.

12. Damiyne Durham’s final three-point tally. The WAC record-holder currently sits at 311 made three’s. How far can he pad that number?

11. UVU’s ball handling. Turnover issues that have plagued the Wolverines at times have dropped over the past three games, including against swipe-happy UTRGV. If that trend continues, UVU becomes that much harder to deal with in Las Vegas.

10. Royalty in Las Cruces. Set aside the CSUB buzzer beater, Trevelin Queen has averaged 24.7 minutes over the Aggies’ last four league games (while hitting double figure scoring in three of them). The super athlete and late addition is becoming one of Chris Jans most trusted players.

9. Terrell Brown. Both of them, but specifically for this slot the one in Seattle. Given a giant workload due to the Redhawks’ injuries, Brown has flourished recently with 22 or more points in three of the past four games. As the reinforcements arrive and the shots recede, can he keep up that effectiveness?

8. Chicago State’s run at a win. Only once since joining the WAC have the Cougars gone winless in league play (back in 2015-16). So, history suggests they’ll pull out a well-deserved victory along the way.

NCAA Basketball: Chicago State at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

7. The Roos offense. UMKC can give teams trouble in Las Vegas, particularly if the backcourt triumvirate of Xavier Bishop, Brandon McKissic and Rob Whitfield continues to develop over the next three weeks. After a tremendous non-con but inconsistent start to league play, Whitfield has exploded from deep in the Roos past three games, going 12-for-22 from three.

6. UTRGV’s visit to NMSU this coming Saturday. The Aggies won the first game in Edinburg on a last minute scramble, but Eli Chuha (4-8 2FG) and Ivan Aurrecoeachea (5-6 2FG) gave a smaller Vaqueros team fits on the interior throughout. UTRGV was able to hang around in part by forcing 16 turnovers. The outcome of this game may be largely inconsequential, but another strong showing by UTRGV against the league heavyweight could bring confidence if a third meeting pops up.

5. The Lopes final home record. GCU has dropped three WAC home games just once — its inaugural season in 2013-14. The past three seasons, the Lopes have lost three league home games combined. They’ve already dropped a pair this season, with games against CSUB and CBU over the next week and a half. Can they regain that home dominance?

4. Let’s get selfish for a second. Family obligations have kept this blogger from Swinney Rec the past two games, but that will change with the final homestand of the year that includes visits from NMSU (Feb. 28) and UTRGV (Mar. 2).

3. Senior night for Eli Chuha, presumably when CBU visits the Pan Am Center on Mar. 9. The NMSU forward has played for Marvin Menzies, Paul Weir and Jans, and with multiple WAC POYs. He’s enjoying a tremendous season and is a common link to a bushel of Aggie history.

2. The push for league COY. Chris Jans will and should get it, but let’s not engrave anything for a couple weeks. Sitting at 5-5, a strong finish from CBU could provide an intriguing argument for Rick Croy. He said earlier in the year his goal was to recruit and construct his roster so that it would finish well in Division II, while also getting off to a strong start in Division. Part one was accomplished with an Elite Eight appearance a year ago, and the cherry could yet be put on top of part two.

1. The push for league POY. Milan Acquaah has longed seemed like the frontrunner, but cases can be made for a litany of players with “j’s” prominently in their initials: Jake Toolson, Jarkel Joiner, Javon Levi, Carlos Johnson, etc. And of course, a strong finish from Chuha, A.J. Harris or Terrell Brown could throw an Aggie into the mix.