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WAC Wednesday: Reassessing the league favorite, tricky UTRGV and more

Plus the most obvious Game of the Week.

NCAA Basketball: WAC Basketball Championship-Grand Canyon vs New Mexico State Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports

The gauntlet has officially been thrown down.

Dan Majerle talked about where he sees his 7-1 team, staking claim to the top of the WAC in a release following Grand Canyon’s win over CSU Bakersfield.

“If I was being honest with everybody, I think this is the first year that I thought we were the best team in the league. Now, we still have to go out and prove it. There’s a long way to go. But our guys believe it. I believe it. And they’re not settling.”

Joking aside, that is a perfectly reasonable and qualified statement. The first part may also very well be true.

The Lopes stamping out CSUB’s offense in the second half earned them arguably their best win of the season, and put their skyrocketing defense on display. Since league play began, they’ve been much better running teams off the three-point line, which has been a hallmark of the Majerle era.

That was at work against CSUB, where GCU’s length held the ‘Runners in check from distance (6-24 3FG). That also came as Oscar Frayer — arguably GCU’s best wing defender — continued to work himself back from an ankle injury. With him at full strength, there’s no reason to can’t maintain the league-best defensive efficiency metrics it has posted so far. And with contributions across the board, the Lopes have been more effective on the glass than it would’ve seemed after losing Keonta Vernon.

The X-factor? It’s pretty simple: Carlos Johnson.

The sophomore guard was dynamic against the ‘Runners, bullying his way to the basket and free throw line for 20 points (5-9 FG, 10-11 FT). This was the third consecutive game he’d hit 20 points or more, and was an absolute microwave on Jan. 26 against Cal Baptist, at one point scoring 18 consecutive points.

Good as Alessandro Lever was in the second half of last season, GCU hasn’t had an offensive force like Johnson in his current form since Dewayne Russell was waltzing through defenses.

So yes, the Lopes may well be the best team in the conference with their inventory of size, effective defense and surging sophomore shooting guard. But if that’s the case, New Mexico State — which has handed GCU its lone conference loss — isn’t far behind, and has its own compelling argument to remain the league favorite.

Lucky for us, the teams meet on Saturday.

Don’t forget about the Vaqueros

All this gushing about GCU, with a side of NMSU hedging, isn’t to say a game between those two teams is set in stone on the final day of WAC Vegas.

While that may seen the most likely scenario, there are teams that appear certainly capable of disrupting that. Once upon a time that included Seattle before injuries struck. In the present, it certainly seems to include Utah Valley and CSUB. And while really, any team can pull a three-day stunner, let’s consider UT Rio Grande Valley.

The Vaqueros have seemingly mastered Lew Hill’s pressing, disruptive defense as they’re turning teams over at the second-best rate in the country. That up-tempo, uncomfortable style could cause teams with tired legs trouble in a tournament setting.

They’ve also proven it, to some degree, against the league’s best. It took a full-court scramble for NMSU to sneak past UTRGV in the final seconds. The Vaqueros also burst out of the gates in the second half on Jan. 12 against GCU to challenge the Lopes in an eventual four-point loss in Edinburg.

Their offense, which hasn’t been at the same level as the defense, is also improving. Javon Levi, the reigning WAC Player of the Week, has the highest assist rate in the league and is coming off back-to-back 12-assist nights. The sophomore has set up a team that is suddenly heating up from three — something that plagued them in the non-conference. Over the past two wins against Chicago State and UMKC, the Vaqueros hit 22 three’s at a 53.5 percent clip.

The torrid shooting and pressure defense crushed UMKC midway through the second half last Saturday in Edinburg. It put a close game out of reach in the blink of an eye and was the type of sequence that had to make Hill grin.

At the end of the day, UTRGV is not a gimmick. They’re executing a unique style at a high level, and it’s produced the league’s second-most efficient defense. While it may take a lot to go right to cut down the nets, they aren’t a team many will want to face in Las Vegas.

It’s not a one-man show in Riverside

A moment of appreciation is due for a CBU guard, and it’s not Milan Acquaah.

Good as Acquaah has been, he stepped into a team with a lead guard that had proven it at the Division II level. Senior Jordan Heading — an All-PacWest honoree — was a regular starter for CBU in the two years leading up to the Division I transition, and averaged 14.3 points per game last year.

Even with the jump in competition, he’s kept it up.

His stat line is good on its own (13.7 PPG, 2.9 APG, 3.8 RPG), but he’s also spearheaded some of CBU’s best moments this year. That included a 22-point effort last Saturday to pace CBU in a valuable road win at Seattle. He was also the driver behind the Lancers’ first Division I win at Oral Roberts (20 points, 4 rebounds), and first conference road win at Chicago State (24 points, 5 rebounds).

This all from a player that once redshirted at the Division II level.

His calm presence on the ball has sort of typified the Lancers confident transition to this point. Last season, he talked with the Press-Enterprise about his approach to the Lancers farewell season in the PacWest.

“We’re not thinking about next year,” said Jordan Heading, a 6-2 guard and redshirt junior from Adelaide, Australia.

“I’m just savoring every single moment that I have with this senior class … Every year that I’ve been here, the focus of every season is that that’s who you’re playing for. You’re playing for their seniors, because that’s their last go-around, so you want to make that year as special as possible and that playoff run as long as possible.”

A year later, with a different conference patch on his chest, he’s the senior. And as the lone senior receiving regular minutes for CBU, he occupies a slightly special place in program history. The Australian native — one of three on the roster — could represent a recruiting focus for Croy, who spent three seasons under the master of the Aussie pipeline, Randy Bennett.

On the court, his contributions have helped get CBU off to a quality start, and lay a foundation for the future.

Game of the Week

New Mexico State @ Grand Canyon | Saturday, Feb. 9 | 9 PM ET

Could it be anything else? The tilt in Phoenix could well decide the WAC regular season title.

Chris Jans is 4-0 against the Lopes, but may have his hands full with Ivan Aurrecoechea out indefinitely with a knee injury. The big man bruised GCU in the game in the Pan Am Center (20 points, 10-14 FG) and is the type of strong, back-to-the-basket player for which the Lopes don’t really have an answer.

This feels like a potentially (minor) coronation moment for GCU, which all the more feels like NMSU will reassert its league dominance with the phalanx of players Jans can roll out. Fascinating a dynamic as it is, the juice in this game somewhat depends on what happens Thursday.

The Aggies make a tricky trip to Bakersfield, despite having blown out the ‘Runners in the second half of their meeting in Las Cruces. The Lopes, meanwhile, host a UTRGV team that gave them trouble earlier this year.