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WAC Wednesday: Cal Baptist has continued to write its first-year success story

Plus a possible new POY leader and more.

CBU Athletics

It’s becoming a broken record in this space.

And while no one particularly likes broken records, those in Riverside probably won’t get tired of hearing this one: California Baptist’s inaugural Division I season has been an unmitigated success.

Last Saturday, the Lancers burst out of the gates at CSU Bakersfield with a three-point barrage, and ended up leaving with a 14-point win. It put them at 6-6 in WAC play, and that already seems like a big step in the right direction, even if they come up empty the rest of the way against a schedule with no gimmes.

Teams entering conferences either just after making the Division I transition, or a few years removed from the transition, usually don’t fare that well. Every situation is different, but for some context, CSUB went 5-11 in its first year in the WAC after six seasons as a Division I independent.

Here are some others:

  • Abilene Christian: 2-12 in the Southland in 2013-14.
  • Bryant: 1-17 in the NEC in 2009-10.
  • North Florida: 3-17 in the ASun in 2005-06.
  • NJIT: 4-8 in the Great West in 2010-11 after three seasons as an independent.
  • Florida Gulf Coast: 5-10 in the ASun in 2007-08.
  • South Dakota: 5-13 in the Summit in 2010-11, after two seasons in the Great West conference.
  • SIU Edwardsville: 6-10 in the OVC in 2011-12 after three seasons as an independent.

One outlier in the positive direction, of course, is Utah Valley, which stormed into the WAC by winning the regular season in its first season. However, that 13-3 team in 2013-14 was not only dealing with a much weaker league overall, but also had spent nine seasons as a Division I program before that point.

Another is Grand Canyon, which went 10-6 in 2013-14, in not only its first season in the WAC, but also in Division I. The resources the Lopes had at their disposal weighed heavily, and that’s also something that’s working in CBU’s favor.

CSUB athletics director Ziggy Siegfried mentioned in 2017 that CBU’s athletics budget was over $14 million while touting addition to the conference. With a record budget on a university-wide level in 2018-19, it’s safe to assume the athletics portion has increased. There are a lot of variables, but based on 2016-17 budget figures, CBU is almost certainly spending more on its men’s basketball team than Chicago State, probably spending more than UTRGV and compares favorably with UMKC, Utah Valley and CSUB.

Along with the two-year old CBU Events Center, it’s easy to see why the WAC was excited about the addition. Yet that was in principle; CBU has spent the past three months validating that promise on the court.

Rick Croy talked about his philosophy in building his roster with the transition on the horizon.

“Both were equally important,” he said. “We wanted to finish strong in Division II, and we also wanted to start well in Division I. It wasn’t like we were willing to get a bunch of young guys and whatever happens at the end of the Division II journey, we’re okay with that. I’m thankful to the guys that we’ve had that locked in last year, and I think that’s really helped us this year.”

The plan has come to fruition.

Aside from that shocking win over New Mexico State, and a respectable run overall in the league to this point, the Lancers have also had a historic season for transitioning teams in terms of overall wins over Division I teams. And with seven true road wins, CBU has gotten the job done away from Riverside.

Milan Acquaah has been one of, if not the, WAC’s best players. His backcourt partner Jordan Heading hasn’t been far behind, and was electric against the ‘Runners (28 points, 6-8 3FG). De’jon Davis has looked right at home in Division I, and bullied GCU’s vaunted big men for a large portion of the teams’ match up last week. Jeremy Smith and Ty Rowell have been effective floor spacers for a good offense.

All but Heading could return next season, giving CBU the foundation to build on a season that, stop me if you’ve heard this before, has already been a success.

It should also be noted that North Alabama, also in its first season in Division I, is currently 7-8 in the ASun — a weaker league than the WAC top-to-bottom. The Lions are 10-20 overall and won no Division I games during the non-conference, though they played a tougher schedule than the Lancers.

A late shake up in the POY race?

Getting hung up on hardware can obscure other storylines that deserve attention. But it makes for good content, and this is the Internet.

Due to the NMSU consortium, Milan Acquaah has seemingly remained the odds-on favorite to win Player of the Year from the jump. He leads the league in scoring (19.8 PPG), is top ten in both assists and assist rate and has been a quality defender and rebounder. Arguably, no single player in the league is more important to his team than Acquaah is to CBU, and that makes for a strong case with the Lancers not buried in the standings.

But, there’s a very compelling argument for Jake Toolson.

As mentioned last week, he’s likely going to splash his name across the record books at UVU for his shooting. That marksmanship also has him standing alone in the country this season.

He’s been the driving force behind the WAC’s most efficient offense, and has four games with 23 or more points in league play. Anecdotally, he stepped up when the Wolverines needed it most, having big games in road wins over UMKC (23 points, 10 rebounds) and Chicago State (16 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists) when Conner Toolson was sidelined by an injury.

UVU will almost certainly finish either second or third in the regular season standings, and given the individual season he’s had, that might be enough to elevate Toolson to the award. That in and of itself would be historic, as it would give the Wolverines their first WAC POY, and be just the second time the award has landed with a team from the recent influx of programs (the first being when UMKC’s Martez Harrison won it in 2014-15).

The race is on.

Game(s) of the Week

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

New Mexico State @ UMKC | Thursday, Feb. 28 | 7PM ET

Let’s break from the CBU-UVU talk for just a second.

This is, obviously, a tough test for a Roos team coming off an empty road trip through the upper reaches of the league. But, UMKC is 5-1 in league play at home, and was able to junk up the Aggies in a low-scoring first half when the teams met in late January.

Ivan Aurrecoechea did not play in that game, and is coming off his best outing since returning from injury (20 points, 6-8 FG, 7 rebounds). He’ll be a challenge for UMKC for Aleer Leek, Danny Dixon and the rest of the Roos front court, and could alter how Kareem Richardson runs his rotation. But overall, this is arguably the Aggies toughest remaining game in the regular season, and should be a fun affair with a collection of exciting guards on both ends.

And while the drama has long been take out of it, a win would give the Aggies the outright WAC title for the fourth time in five seasons.

Utah Valley @ Cal Baptist | Saturday, March 2 | 9PM ET

Okay, let’s get right back at it.

After their #WACTuesday win over Seattle, the Wolverines are riding a four-game winning streak, two of which have come on the road against top-200 KenPom teams. They’ll get a third opportunity in Riverside, against a Lancers team that itself has won four out of its last five in the league.

CBU gets Seattle before this game, and that will be tricky in its own right given the Redhawks improving-yet-not-quite-all-systems-go injury situation. But either way for UVU, the game is their last road test of the year and a win, depending on what Grand Canyon does at CSUB on Saturday, could mean that second place will be on the line when the Lopes visit Orem on March 7.