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The WAC’s Texas anchors have kept the league’s long-term potential alive

SFA and ACU’s credentials were on display Thursday and should help the conference absorb its upcoming New Mexico State-sized loss

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Points were hard to come by in the Teague Center Thursday night as Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian battled out a stereotypically stingy contest between the two rising Texas mid-major powers. Forty-one combined turnovers, 41 fouls between the two teams and, with WAC Commissioner Brian Thornton on hand, two reasons to believe the WAC’s resurgence is still on track.

The Wildcats and Lumberjacks suddenly sit as cornerstones of the league’s Texas-themed future, which isn’t entirely unlike where they were when they joined the league in July. The two programs, however, have taken on added importance since New Mexico State announced it would be leaving for Conference USA. The football-fueled move took away the considerable heft the Aggies brought to what seemed to be growing into one of the stronger mid-major leagues in the country.

The consistently contending Aggies have been a helium balloon propelling the WAC’s league-wide metrics in recent years and bring a long-term history no other program in the conference can claim. Rivalry or not, they’ve also been made up half of the league’s most intriguing matchup with Grand Canyon, removing the potential growth of a showcase game.

That future, however, doesn’t necessarily have to be bleak without them.

The tense, at-times ugly game in Abilene was the latest in what has been a positive WAC debut for both SFA and ACU. The Lumberjacks left with a six-point win, building on the scare they put into Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse when they last played on Dec. 18 as they dominated ACU on the glass. With a dynamic player in Gavin Kensmil and quality defense, they’ve looked the part of a contender as they adjust to life without the injured Roti Ware, getting big shots from a pair of players in Latrell Jossell and Jaylin Jackson-Posey who will likely be relied upon more.

ACU, on the other hand, was not able to fully overcome a tough offensive first half but still did its thing in forcing 26 turnovers as another feather in Brette Tanner’s cap. The first-year coach has kept the momentum Joe Golding built going, overseeing the country’s leader in turnover percentage (29.8%). The loss snapped an 11-game winning streak that proved this version of the Wildcats — who retained their backcourt core and have seen a breakout from sophomore big man Cameron Steele — could yet be dangerous in Tanner’s debut campaign.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Abilene Christian at UCLA
Coryon Mason and the Wildcats reeled off an 11-game winning streak before Thursday night.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The past handful of years has suggested buzz-filled games like the one on Thursday will keep happening between the strongest of the WAC’s latest entrants. Having combined for the past three Southland NCAA Tournament bids, and with long-term coaching continuity on both sides, the pair’s respective trajectories should keep provide the upper-level anchor the WAC will need when the Aggies leave for C-USA.

In total, the league’s Texas swing — which is set to include Incarnate Word and, potentially, UT Arlington — will seek to create its own competitive leg up.

“I think it’s a huge, huge advantage; a big plus for the WAC to finally have a large blueprint in the state of Texas,” UT Rio Grande Valley coach Matt Figger said during WAC media days. “I think that creates a lot of opportunities for a lot of good games and rivalries to be started. With more in-state teams playing one another I think that’ll help attendance across the board for all the programs.”

The question will become how the WAC holds up outside of Texas. Can the league hold on to Grand Canyon, California Baptist and Utah Valley long term?

Those three would seem vital given that they add the extra layer of frosting that would not have been there for the Texas schools in the Southland. GCU and UVU have each now been legitimate WAC contenders under multiple head coaches, and are both very much in the mix this season. The Wolverines own the league’s best win (BYU) and are 10-4 with players solely brought in by Mark Madsen. The Jovan Blacksher-led Lopes have themselves run out to a 12-2 record with their own impressive non-con win (San Francisco), all despite losing four starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.

In its own right, CBU finally shedding its transition period and becoming eligible for the NCAA Tournament will add another facet to the WAC picture. The team has done nothing but score in bunches since it joined Division I, and Rick Croy’s Australian pipeline — which produced a potential draft pick in Taran Armstrong — should have the Lancers at the top of list of mid-majors with intriguing long-term potential. Southern Utah, which will join next season, also can’t be dismissed, as the Thunderbirds are now in yet another season living in the KenPom top 160 under Todd Simon.

There may yet be breakouts, too.

Perhaps Dixie State finds its groove in D-I under its hugely successful pillar of a coach in Jon Judkins, or Seattle cashes in on what many have seen has vast program potential, or Tarleton State — quietly a respectable 7-8 over its brief WAC tenure — adds additional oomph throughout the league. But having to bank on a slew of breakouts isn’t something the league seems it needs to do to retain the tantalizing competitive depth with NMSU walking into the sunset.

SFA and ACU have already arrived, and any other big program-level jumps would be gravy. That’s a better position than many may have thought the league would be in as it is set to lose its most dominant program.