It was a narrative that poked its head out in November and December.
The WAC had a banner non-conference, winning its challenge against the Summit while picking up notable wins throughout the league. New Mexico State feasted on the Mountain West. Seattle pounced on vulnerable Pac-12 teams — plural — while Utah Valley snagged a good road win at Fresno State. Overall, the WAC was one of the few mid-major leagues that finished with a winning non-conference record (59-56).
The metrics backed up that improvement, as KenPom’s conference adjusted efficiency margin placed the WAC above leagues it had usually found itself looking up at, such as Conference USA, the Missouri Valley or the Horizon. Two more months worth of data points later, those numbers have held.
The WAC currently sits at 14th overall in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin, and 16th overall in the NET conference rankings per warrennolan.com. That’s a far cry from 2014-15, when it finished 31st in KenPom, but also doesn’t seem like a flash in a pan. The league has steadily climbed the conference ladder since then, finishing 17th and 18th, respectively, the two seasons leading into this one.
So what’s been most responsible for the continued ascent, besides Cal Baptist’s strong inaugural season?
For one, coaching within the league seems to be on very solid footing. Chris Jans has been nothing short of a rockstar since taking over at NMSU, while Rod Barnes and Jim Hayford are likely underrated program builders on the national scale.
Mark Pope, to his credit, has engineered back-to-back 20-win seasons, and drew rave reviews from Sam Houston State coach Jason Hooten, who tangled with him earlier this year. The Bearkats took a six-point loss in Orem on Dec. 22, but have lost just once since then en route to the Southland regular season title. Hooten said that that strong performance against a well-coached team helped catapult his Bearkats.
“[Pope] is a really good coach, he does a great job,” he said in an interview last month. “It seems like their system always fits their talent. In fact, we left that game, and we kind of both run the same system, but we took a few things from that game and tweaked our offense. It was one of those games that helped our confidence with the way we played on the road.”
That’s also not to mention the good work being done by the other coaches throughout the league, and Hayford talked about the WAC’s potential before the year.
“You’ve got a conference where basketball is the main sport for every one of those schools,” he said. “New Mexico State is the only other one with a football program and basketball is king at New Mexico State. So you’re going to get not just every program and athletic department’s best shot, but every university’s best shot.”
And the best may be yet to come.
The league, as a whole, is exceedingly young in the many impactful spots. The presumed POY frontrunners — Milan Acquaah and Jake Toolson — are not seniors, and neither are other players in that general conversation, such as Jarkel Joiner and Carlos Johnson.
NMSU loses some important seniors — such as Eli Chuha — but retains an impressive core with A.J. Harris, Terrell Brown, Ivan Aurrecoechea, Trevelin Queen and more. UMKC is a dark horse for a vault up the standings next year with an exciting backcourt led by Xavier Bishop, and UTRGV has its exciting of Javon Levi and Lesley Varner with eligibility left. And the team brimming with perhaps the most potential is Seattle, which does not have a senior.
Chicago State, of course, merits discussion here. Despite some positive flashes, the Cougars are wrapping up another difficult season with a lopsided number in the loss column. That the WAC has been able to post its strong metrics — and the winning non-conference record — in spite of the Cougars’ season shows the depth of the league.
But that should also be reason for optimism.
Lance Irvin got the job later than any other new Division I head coach, and had scant time not just to implement his system and philosophies, but to build his roster as well. With a full offseason, it’s almost a certainty CSU will improve drastically in 2019-2020. Irvin has already done some intriguing work on the recruiting trail — like getting a verbal commitment from Canadian JuCo standout Jace Colley — and has respect around the league.
“You could tell their guys, and I love Tracy Dildy so I’m not knocking him at all, but you could tell with a new coach those guys are buying into Lance Irvin,” Kareem Richardson said after his Roos beat CSU on Jan. 5. “Lance has been a part of college basketball for a long time and has a great mind. Their record isn’t indicative of what you see on film.”
An improved CSU lined up with a slew of young teams could keep the good times rolling.
Game of the Week
Grand Canyon @ Utah Valley | Thursday, March 7 | 9:00 PM ET
While the Thursday slate has quality games in both Edinburg and Seattle, this is an easy pick. There will be plenty at stake in Orem, as GCU and UVU battle for the No. 2 seed in the WAC Tournament. It’s not often the league can pit two top-100 KenPom and NET teams against one another without it involving NMSU, but that’s just what will happen.
The Lopes bottled up the UVU offense when the teams met way back on Jan. 3 in their respective league openers. Matt Jackson was brilliant for GCU that day (19 points, 8 rebounds) as the Lopes length frustrated the visiting offense.
One big difference this time around? The emerging big man for UVU.
Richard Harward did not see action for the Wolverines in Phoenix, but has since become one of the league’s dominant forces down low. What first seemed like a feel-good, pitch-in-when-needed narrative as Harward came in to lift short-handed UVU in a win over Seattle, has turned into a trend. The sophomore center is in the top-five in league play in offensive and defensive rebounding rate, as well block percentage. He’s also been a useful outlet offensively for the UVU backcourt.
WDN Update | HALFTIME @UVUmbb 32 Seattle U 27— WACsports (@WACsports) February 27, 2019
Richard Harward with 9 points and 5 rebounds and this dunk off the bench to help the Wolverines to a five point lead at the break. pic.twitter.com/1gfA4dQ26c
With Michael Finke enjoying a torrid stretch, a game with plenty of perimeter firepower seems just as intriguing in the paint.