At the beginning of the season, I'm sure this is the title game many ultimately envisioned. The road for both teams was not nearly as smooth as expected, but here they are. New Mexico State, the well-balanced monster who can dominate in either the frontcourt or backcourt depending on matchups and adjust well accordingly, and Idaho, a team carried here by its seemingly unstoppable star forward Stephen Madison. Who will earn the right to call themselves conference champions and earn an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament?
Western Athletic Conference final:
Match: No. 5 Idaho vs. No. 1 New Mexico State
When: 10 p.m. ET/ 7 p.m. PT
Where to watch: ESPNU
How Idaho got here:
Very high expectations were set for the Vandals at the beginning of the season, who were supposed to be one of the better teams in a watered-down conference which lost many schools to conference realignment. However, it didn't work out as originally planned as the Vandals quickly fell into the basement of the conference standings within the first few weeks of WAC play.
However, the Vandals started playing their best basketball at the right time by winning four of their last five games and continuing that streak into the conference tournament.
Idaho is led by Stephen Madison, the 6-5 senior forward from Portland, Oregon. Madison is extremely versatile with his ability to score (20.2 ppg), rebound (7.8 rpg), come through in the clutch (76 percent on FT), take over games (season-high is 42 points), and shoot the three (33 percent). He's Idaho's go-to guy and his success or failure often mirrors his team. Fortunately for them, he's done very well in the first two tournament games with 26 points against UMKC and 25 points against Utah Valley.
Beyond that, Idaho also has a good group of guards who balance out Madison's inside game. These guards will make New Mexico State pay if they focus all their defensive efforts on Madison.
How New Mexico State got here:
New Mexico State was the hands-down favorite to win the conference regular-season title. Unfortunately for them, Utah Valley had other plans and stole the conference title for itself. I'm sure the Aggies would have loved to take sweet revenge on the Wolverines in the title game, but now they're stuck facing the team that took down Utah Valley yesterday.
New Mexico State stumbled during the conference season by dropping games to Chicago State, UMKC, Idaho, and Utah Valley, all schools that the Aggies expected to beat. However, all of that is over now and all doubts can be erased with a victory here.
New Mexico State is the home of the WAC player of the year in senior guard Daniel Mullings. However, the Aggies are not nearly as reliant on their star as the Vandals are on theirs. Mullings struggled to get anything going against Seattle but NMSU won anyway thanks to the fantastic play of its forwards.
Idaho will have to face the towering 7-5 center Sim Bhullar and two other dominant inside scorers, Tshilidzi Nephawe and Renaldo Dixon. With all of the weapons at New Mexico State's disposal, Idaho is going to have its hands full.
The X-factor for Idaho will be three-point sharpshooter Connor Hill. I'm sure New Mexico State is going to focus a lot its defense on Madison, which will likely leave a defender sagging off of one or two perimeter shooters like Hill. Tonight is a night where the Vandals will really need Hill to get his shot going in order to give Madison some room to do his thing. Hill is very capable of doing this as he has put up 25 or more points on multiple occasions this season already.
The X-factor for New Mexico State will certainly be whoever guards Stephen Madison. I'm guessing this task will go to either Nephawe or Dixon. Whoever it is, they'll need to make sure they're able to contain Madison without fouling, as he'll make you pay otherwise. Bottle him up, and Idaho will likely be toast.
New Mexico State has had a pair of close encounters in the tournament and are far from invincible in this game. However, I just think the Aggies have too many weapons at their disposal to be taken down now. In the end, I see Madison going off for 30 or more points in this game but it just won't be enough and the Aggies will win 78-75.
It's been a good run for both teams, but I think the Vandals may have to wait another year or two before they're able to end their tournament drought.