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WAC Tournament – Here is What to Watch for from Every Team

Clark Clifford - UVU Athletics

#WACVegas is here. Everyone knew it was coming and now, it is game on. Thursday night kicks off the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. Of course, New Mexico State is the favorite. The Aggies are on a 15-game winning streak and cruised to their second straight WAC regular season title.

Utah Valley is the 2-seed after coming out of nowhere. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Mark Pope and the Wolverines. Instead, UVU is home to the WAC Player of the Year in Jake Toolson and WAC Freshman of the Year Wyatt Lowell. And UVU tied the school record for most wins in a season. The Wolverines are winners of seven straight coming into Thursday night. 

The list goes on so let’s take a look at what to watch for from every team in the WAC as tournament play begins.

1. New Mexico State

Last year, the Aggies had Zach Lofton and WAC Player of the Year Jemerrio Jones. And the Aggies cruised to the WAC tournament title and earned a 12-seed in the NCAA Tournament. 2018-19 has been a different season in regards to personnel. But, that hasn’t changed anything in Las Cruces. Here is what you have: five starters that are really, really good. And then you have at least five guys coming off the bench who could be starters at any other school. And then you have two more role players who are really, really good. People have said that it was political why an NM State player wasn’t chosen as WAC Player of the Year. The problem is, which Aggie do you choose? Because of the depth that Chris Jans has, no one Aggie player has had consistently big games throughout the season. One night it is A.J. Harris. Another night it is Eli Chuha or Terrell Brown. Heck, when Ivan Aurrecoechea plays, he has monster games. It is this depth that should allow NM State to cruise to another WAC tournament crown. Three games in three days is difficult to do. But, the Aggies are build this year to make that run a little easier.

2. Utah Valley

Despite being the two-seed, UVU might have the most difficult road to a WAC Championship. UMKC is no slouch. They can defend and have one of the best guards in the WAC in Xavier Bishop. UVU won both matchups against the ‘Roos this season but it was a battle. If UVU gets by UMKC, the Wolverines will face the winner of Grand Canyon and Seattle. The problem there is Seattle is red hot and Grand Canyon plays a physical brand of basketball. And if UVU gets through the semifinals, a showdown with NM State looms large. 

But, here is the thing, UVU has overachieved all season. Not many thought they would be the first team to beat Fresno State in Fresno. Not many people, including myself, thought they would win more than 15-16 games. But, there is something special about this UVU team. They won their first game at Seattle under head coach Mark Pope. They have their first-ever WAC Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year winners. A win on Thursday night sets the new single-season win mark. So, watch and see if a couple of other firsts happen – first-ever appearance in the WAC Tournament Championship Game and first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. 

3. Grand Canyon

So, GCU started WAC play off winning seven of their first eight game. And then the so-called “best team in the WAC” got a taste of humble pie. The ‘Lopes went 3-5 during the second half of WAC play. It hasn’t been pretty as there have been times when it looked like the ‘Lopes quit as did their coach. GCU is hobbling into the WAC tournament having lost two straight. And despite facing a familiar foe in Seattle on Thursday night, it remains to be seen which ‘Lopes team will show up. Will it be the dominant team that’s only loss early on in WAC play was on a Johnny McCants buzzer-beater at NM State? Or will it be the team that got blown out at UVU and lost in OT at UMKC? That will be the thing to watch for: which GCU team shows up in Las Vegas?

4. UTRGV

Terry Winn III and UTRGV are looking to make noise at the WAC Tournament this weekend in Las Vegas. Photo by Jesica Gonzalez.

Highest win total since joining the WAC – Check. Setting the program record for conference road wins – Check. Having the WAC Defensive Player of the Year – Check. Pretty good season thus far for Lew Hill and his Vaqueros. And here is the thing, UTRGV is good. Javon Levi is a quality guard and Terry Winn III can create havoc as he plays like a guard despite being an interior post player. Plus, the press is all about creating chaos and UTRGV does it really, really well. As long as UTRGV doesn’t have to face UVU in either of the first two rounds, the Vaqueros should be okay. While I don’t see them knocking off NM State in the semifinals, I believe that the Vaqueros will advance to the semifinals. But, watch for that press and the havoc it wreaks. Against NM State this season, the Vaqueros lost by just two at home and nine in Las Cruces. 

5. CSU Bakersfield

Similar to GCU, CSU Bakersfield started off WAC play red hot. But, oh how the cookie has crumbled. CSU Bakersfield has lost five straight, eight of its last 10 and it’s not getting any easier. Plus, the ‘Runners kicked troubled guard Damiyne Durham off the team during the Seattle loss a week ago. There are players in Jarkell Joiner and Rickey Holden who can make plays. Unfortunately, it has just been a struggle for Rod Barnes and his team to keep up the magic. CSU Bakersfield is the only team in the last four years not named NM State to win the WAC Tournament. Not sure what to watch for from CSU Bakersfield. Too many question marks. How many times do the ‘Runners send UTRGV to the FT line on Thursday? That will be something to watch for as CSU Bakersfield fouls A LOT. It has been the difference in some games. 

6. Seattle University

At some point, WAC teams knew Seattle would awake. Getting healthy has been a key. Seattle has won three straight and five of its last six games. Not bad for at team that was 1-9 in WAC play at one point. The defensive intensity has picked up and guard Morgan Means has seemed to find his stroke again. Here is the problem – Seattle has five players scoring in double figures. After that, the drop is significant. Matej Kavas averages 10.7 points but has only played in 22 games. So, lets go with Delante Jones at 12.0 points. After him, the next highest is Riley Grigsby, who averages 3.9 points per game. So, something to watch for is who will step up if one of the four leading scorers for the Redhawks has an off night. 

7. UMKC

Talking to UVU coaches, and they will tell you Thursday night is going to be a battle. It is crazy to think that Kareem Richardson has a lot of good pieces, yet the ‘Roos are the 7-seed. Brandon McKissic, Jordan Giles, Xavier Bishop and others are good basketball players. Do you remember the line in Glory Road when the coach was describing Willie Worsley to Don Haskins? “The little guard plays like a giant.” That is a phrase that many should think of when it comes to Xavier Bishop. His bio says he is 5’8″ but I am sure that is an exaggeration. It doesn’t matter though. Bishop is a floor leader and can score the basketball. In a win or season over situation, put the ball in his hands and let him do work. Keep an eye on Bishop and how well the ‘Roos shoot the ball on Thursday night. It could prove to make the quarterfinal matchup against UVU a lot more interesting.

8. Chicago State

Not much to write home about here. About the only thing that we can say is that KenPom gives a higher luck rating to the Cougars than he does to GCU.

It should be a fun couple of days at the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas. Looks like all roads lead through New Mexico State once again. But, who knows what will happen? Sit back, relax, and enjoy some fun basketball. 

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