It’s the grease that keeps the wheels of the college athletics internet going. It’s realignment, and it’s never that far from the WAC conversation.
If you’re reading this column, you surely know by now that Matt Brown broke news that the WAC is bearing down on a number of additions in the near future:
Hearing that the WAC's official additions of Southern Utah, Sam Houston State, Lamar, Abilene Christian and Stephen F Austin will be finalized in the next two-ish weeks.— Matt Brown (@MattBrownEP) December 7, 2020
The guys did a great job walking through this on the most recent Mid-Major Madness podcast, which is certainly worth a listen (the juicy part begins around 36 mins). There isn’t too much more to add, but since this is WAC Wednesday, it feels obligatory.
There seem to be football implications to these potential moves which still need to be hammered out, but if we’re talking about the long-term viability of basketball in the conference, this is nothing but a positive. The headlining addition is obviously Stephen F. Austin, which if it went through, would add a program that has performed at — or arguably above — even New Mexico State’s impressive level over the past decade.
Yet it goes beyond that.
Abilene Christian is enjoying a banner season, recently entering our Other Top 25, and has enjoyed a quiet churn upwards under eighth-year head coach Joe Golding. The Wildcats have finished in the KenPom top-184 each of the last two seasons, and appear ticketed for the same this year. Similarly, Sam Houston State has enjoyed nearly two decades of consistent mid-major success under first Bob Marlin, and now Jason Hooten. The Bearkats have at times been a victim of SFA’s golden era when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
Like ACU, Southern Utah is enjoying an uptick under Todd Simon, winning 17 games the two seasons leading into this one and is off to a good start to 2020-21.
This isn’t meant to simply put a rosy outlook on these programs. SFA, clearly, would be a slam dunk addition and provide a top-level and, most importantly, consistent mid-major to anchor the league. But the additions of programs that have shown the ability to finish in the KenPom top-200 is also important, even if they don’t hold the initial eye pop you get from the Lumberjacks.
That won’t manifest itself in the WAC holding two-bid potential, which surely isn’t something anyone expects. It could, however, help bolster the overall profile of the league and match the heights it reached between 2016-19 where it regularly finished near the top-half of conferences in terms of RPI, KenPom adjusted efficiency and other league-wide metrics.
What does that really mean, other than having strong basketball throughout the year (which is fun and good!)? Like the pod scheduling recently deployed by the Sun Belt and CUSA — where the best teams play each other during the final stages of the league schedule — a strong league could make an impact on the NCAA Tournament seed line. The difference between whomever wins the league tournament getting a 13, 12 or 11 seed is massive, and could make the small difference between the WAC having a brief cup of coffee in March Madness to getting a magical breakthrough.
It could trickle down to the NIT, which carries its own value. Should the WAC place a team there — which would be more likely with a strong conference overall — it may not be forced to take the long road like CSU Bakersfield did in 2019. That year, the regular season champion ‘Runners were given an eight seed and needed to win three road games to make their historic appearance at Madison Square Garden for the semifinals.
There will certainly be moving parts if this occurs, including the potential departure of existing members. Do Grand Canyon, Utah Valley or Seattle get looks from other leagues? Does Chicago State’s future lie elsewhere? These are questions we are admittedly not smart enough or plugged in enough to offer any real information right now. Let’s just be honest.
But in any event, the narrow margins matter, and adding consistently strong mid-major programs cannot be a bad thing for a league looking to regain its footing.
Whipping around the WAC
- As Jim Hayford noted on Twitter, when — though I suppose “if” is the right word in 2020 — Seattle takes the court on Wednesday night against Washington, it will become the first team in the country to play seven games. The Redhawks are a tale of what can be possible when all goes according to plan during the pandemic, having played games in Portland, Las Vegas and throughout the Southern California. From a basketball standpoint, it’s worth wondering whether this opportunity for cohesion in game settings will be a benefit come conference play, especially against teams that have seen games fall off the schedule.
- The man with the WAC’s best name is looking like one of its best big men. Grand Canyon senior forward Asbjorn Midtgaard battered Mississippi Valley State to the tune of 17 points and 13 rebounds in the Lopes win last Tuesday. The big man struggled to crack the rotation over three years at Wichita State, only really getting consistent minutes the back half of the 2018-19 season. He’s excelling in a final stop in the desert, acting as a quality low-post complement to Alessandro Lever’s more versatile front court game.
- One thing is becoming clear about newcomer Tarleton State: Texans games won’t be quick. TSU has shown aggressive streak across its first three games, in-line with how many of Billy Gillispie’s teams have played over his career. The Texans are currently more reliant than any team in the country on generating points from the free throw line, and have racked up 54 fouls themselves over the past two games. It worked in disrupting both Texas A&M and Abilene Christian’s respective offenses, though TSU couldn’t put enough points itself on the board, particularly in the loss to the Wildcats.
Game of the Week
Nevada at Grand Canyon | Friday, Dec. 11 | 9PM ET
The Lopes go through one their annual rites of Fall, trying to prove they can keep it rolling against stiff non-conference competition. GCU has impressed in three blowout wins against lesser competition, but now gets a game against a solid Nevada team that has beaten three KenPom top-176 teams (including, for whatever it’s worth, Nebraska).
The parts seem to be there for the Lopes. Lever and Midtgaard look like the WAC’s best interior duo, while Bryce Drew has a number of guard at his disposal led by Jovan Blacksher. Can Mikey Dixon return to the form he showed as a freshman at Quinnipiac? Can Oscar Frayer return to being a top-level defender? These are the types of question that’ll be put under a more intense microscope against the Wolf Pack.