The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) is the war-torn village of college basketball — shell-shocked, cratered and stripped of resources. One of the biggest losers in the recent spate of conference realignments aimed at maximizing football revenue, the WAC has had to stretch the concept of “western” to include Missouri, Texas and Chicago just to scrape up eight teams.
Notwithstanding this downgrade, Saint Mary’s includes three WAC teams in its out-of-conference schedule this season. The first opponent, Cal State Bakersfield, rolls into Moraga on Sunday afternoon, while Utah Valley is scheduled for Dec. 28, and Grand Canyon on March 1, 2016.
Bakersfield is a frequent Gael opponent in the pre-conference season, including time before the Roadrunners completed their transition to D1 status in 2010. The Gaels stand at 5-1 overall against Bakersfield, having won the last four contests. That single loss doesn’t look too bad compared with Cal Berkeley’s embarrassing 55-52 upset at the hands (or feet) of the Roadrunners last December.
They can beat people, and have won three of four so far in 2015, albeit with two of those wins coming over NAIA entrant San Diego Christian and DII competitor Fresno Pacific. Against DI teams, they are 1-1, beating Idaho (picked 8th in the Big Sky Conference) 68-45 and losing to Wyoming (also a predicted 8th-place finisher, but in the Mountain West Conference) by 68-64. The Roadrunners insist they were denied a chance to tie or beat Wyoming by a phantom charging call in the waning seconds.
Doing most of the damage for Bakersfield is a pair of seniors, each of whom was picked to the pre-season all-conference team. Aly Ahmed, a first-team choice, is a rugged 6-9, 250-lb. post player from Alexandria, Egypt. He was the Roadrunners’ top scorer and rebounder last year, with 14 PPG and 7 RPG.
His journey to Bakersfield was epic, and included stops at a Houston, TX prep school, Texas Southern University and Midland Community College. He ran afoul of NCAA regulations (surprise, surprise) and had to sit out a year before joining Bakersfield in 2013. If he looks older than most players on the floor, he is at 23. Some of the Gael rookies might be excused for seeking fatherly advice from Ahmed.
The other mainstay for Bakersfield is senior forward Kevin Mays, who may remind Gael fans of a junior Rob Jones as he throws his 6-4, 220-lb. body around the paint. A second-team all-conference selection, Mays pulled down 12.2 RPG last year. Although he can’t match Ahmed’s journey, Mays hails from Queens, NY, and attended two community colleges before landing in Bakersfield. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
Also doing some damage for the Roadrunners is 6-4 shooting guard Damiyne Durham, who made 5-10 three-point attempts against Idaho. Bakersfield coach Rod Barnes has been experimenting with several other guards and has bemoaned his team’s lack of depth. They can be considered a work in progress at this point in the season.
It doesn’t take a Bobby Knight to note that the Gaels’ biggest challenge will be to take Bakersfield seriously and continue their brilliant execution. Overconfidence has not usually been a problem for Randy Bennett teams, and Bennett will have a full week since dismantling Stanford last Sunday to drill into his players’ minds that “On any given day…”
Naar watch: Entering the Stanford game shooting 10-15 on three-point attempts, Gael guard Emmett Naar managed to lift that gaudy 67% by one point by sinking 3-4 of his threes against the Cardinal. There aren’t too many 68% three-point shooters in college hoops.