If the first two weeks of the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball season are any indication, it’s going to be a wild ride from now until the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament winner is determined at the conference tournament in early March.
Here's just a few examples of the excitement that's been surrounding the league since the start of the new year.
What’s made it wild?
• A thriller in Las Cruces. In a matchup of two teams that met in last year’s WAC tournament final, New Mexico State and Grand Canyon played to a closely contested, wild finish last week in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
With the Lopes trailing by three, 74-71, with 30 seconds to play, the Aggies had back-to-back turnovers that Grand Canyon turned into a pair of field goals from Damari Milstead and a one-point lead with 13.2 seconds to play.
Two missed free throws by Terrell Brown with 6.6 seconds left kept New Mexico State from tying the game or taking the lead, and Grand Canyon’s Trey Dreschell was fouled with 3.3 seconds to play. He missed the front end of the one and one, giving New Mexico State one last chance.
That’s all the Aggies needed, as Johnny McCants grabbed the miss, raced up court and just before reaching the midcourt stripe, threw up a heave that hit nothing but net, delivering a crucial home win for the Aggies.
"We found our way into Aggie lore," NMSU coach Chris Jans told the Las Cruces Sun News. "People around here talk about the stories of this game and that game and I love hearing them. I hear about past big games and big shots and tonight will be one that anyone who was in the building will remember it for a long, long time, and I was just glad to be a part of it."
• UVU's up-and-down, exciting start to league play. Utah Valley trailed Seattle by as many as 20 points in the Wolverines’ WAC home opener last Saturday. Behind a career-high 12 points and 15 rebounds from sophomore big man Richard Harward, though, the Wolverines chipped away at the lead and eventually beat the Redhawks 88-78, outscoring Seattle 51-28 in the second half.
"There are very few young people who are willing to get nothing for a year and a half, but give everything they have. … Rich has never complained for a moment, he's just fought through this and came out and saved us, he saved us," UVU coach Mark Pope said in a team release.
Both UVU and Seattle were picked to finish in the upper half of the WAC this season. In the first week of league play, both teams lost a pair of road games at Grand Canyon and CSU Bakersfield.
That left Saturday’s game as a crucial one for both teams: whoever lost would fall to 0-3 in conference play and to the bottom of the WAC standings. With Jake Toolson scoring a season-high 26 points, UVU was able to rally and pick up a much-needed win.
"This was not easy," Pope said. "For these guys to be down 20 and staring 0-3 in the face and to come back and hang in there is remarkable. I'm really happy for our guys and am proud of them."
UVU’s win over the Redhawks came on the heels of a last-second thriller that ended in heartbreak for the Wolverines. The Saturday before, Cal-State Bakersfield edged the Wolverines 73-71 on a buzzer-beating put-back from Taze Moore.
UVU trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half before rallying to tie the game with 19 seconds left on a Ben Nakwaasah 3-pointer. The Roadrunners then failed to score on the ensuing possession, giving the Wolverines the ball with 4.3 seconds to play.
After calling a timeout, though, UVU's inbounds pass bounced off the back of the backboard, giving the ball back to CSU Bakersfield on its end of the court. A corner 3-pointer didn’t fall, but Moore grabbed the offensive rebound and hit the game-winner, squelching UVU’s chance to pick up the road win.
While there's been missed opportunities early in league play for UVU, the rally over Seattle keeps the door open for the Wolverines to fight back toward the top of the league standings.
• The emergence of Cal Baptist. The Lancers are in their first season in the WAC and already playing spoiler.
Cal Baptist, which is in the first year of a four-year reclassification process to earn full Division I membership status, faced league favorite New Mexico State in its conference opener. Behind a career-high 36 points from Milan Acquaah, Cal Baptist fended off the Aggies 82-76 in a game where the Lancers never trailed.
Acquaah, a former Washington State guard, leads the WAC in scoring, averaging 21.6 points per game. The Lancers are also off to a 2-2 start to league play, sitting squarely in the middle of the WAC standings, and lead the conference in several statistical categories, including scoring (80.7), rebounding (29.3) and 3-pointers per game (9.3).
The Lancers' play earned them time in the spotlight in an installment of the "Mid-Major Minute" with CBS Sports' Kevaney Martin.
"It's been quite a notable start at the Division I level for CBU. But you know what they say, it's not how you start, it's how you finish," Martin said.
Because of the reclassification process, Cal Baptist is ineligible for postseason play, including the league tournament. The Lancers are, however, eligible to win the regular-season title and could play a role in tournament seeding, even if they won't be in Vegas.
What’s up this week
What does all this mean going forward? There are a few games in particular this week that will help reshape the WAC standings after the league has already experienced its own share of madness well before March.
University of Missouri-Kansas City, picked to finish seventh in the WAC in the league’s preseason poll, is currently atop the standings with a 2-0 conference record. Behind them are expected contenders CSU Bakersfield and Grand Canyon at 3-1, as well as league favorite New Mexico State at 2-1.
UMKC will face a pair of difficult road games, as it plays at CSU Bakersfield and Grand Canyon. It addition, the Roadrunners and Lopes will both play 0-2 Chicago State this week.
UVU, Seattle and New Mexico State also have key games this week. The Wolverines host UT Rio Grande Valley on Thursday before the Aggies come to Orem for a critical matchup with UVU at the UCCU Center. Last year, the Wolverines knocked off New Mexico State in Orem.
The Aggies will play at Seattle on Thursday, and the Redhawks end the week by hosting UT Rio Grande Valley.Comment on this story
By this time next week, the WAC standings will have been shaken up a bit. Especially for UVU, New Mexico State and Seattle, there's a chance to gain ground in the standings or hand other contenders key losses.
Another Utah university is on its way
WAC storylines haven’t just been coming from the court, either.
Last Friday, the WAC and Dixie State announced the school will join the conference beginning with the 2020-21 season. The Trailblazers are the third Division II school to be invited to the WAC in the past six years, along with Grand Canyon and Cal Baptist.
Member institutions from around the league sent their congratulations to Dixie State on the impending move: