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WAC Tournament Primer: Are CSUB and NMSU on a collision course?

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NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

No. 2 New Mexico State (25-5, 11-3) had the dominant WAC story line for the majority of the season.

The Aggies ran out to an 8-0 league start as part of a 20-game winning streak in Paul Weir’s debut season. Senior guard Ian Baker - the recently-named WAC POY - led a balanced team anchored by athletic forwards Eli Chuha and Jemerrio Jones.

But No. 1 CSU Bakersfield (21-8, 12-2) snapped that massive streak on Feb. 9, and took over the spotlight.

The blowout of the Aggies was part of a 10-1 stretch that helped clinch the Roadrunners’ first regular season title at the Division I level. Their devastating defense has kept them in each game this season, and given up 80 or more points just twice. CSUB is led by seniors Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile and Matt Smith, all of whom made the all-league first or second team.

Tournament Format

Each NCAA-sanctioned postseason eligible team qualifies for the tournament. This very notably excludes Grand Canyon, which would’ve been the No. 3 seed (and riding plenty of momentum) if it were not in the final season of its Division I transition. That leaves regular reason champion CSUB with a bye into the semifinals. All games will be played at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

March 9

(5) Seattle vs. (4) Utah Valley, 5 PM ET, WAC Digital Network
(7) Chicago State vs. (2) New Mexico State, 7:30 PM ET, WAC Digital Network
(6) UTRGV vs. (3) UMKC, 10 PM ET, WAC Digital Network

March 10

Semifinals, 9 PM ET/11:30 PM ET, ESPN3

March 11

Championship, 11 PM ET, ESPNU

Tournament Bracket

Three Things To Watch

1. Is New Mexico State ready for this moment?

Paul Weir was upfront about how fatigued his team looked as it went through a 1-3 stretch from Feb. 9 to Feb. 23. The Aggies’ defense lagged and its offense had game-changing second half droughts in losses to GCU and UVU. Will we see a refreshed NMSU team in Las Vegas? The Aggies have only played two games since Feb. 25, and were able to rip off confidence-building wins against Seattle and UTRGV to close the regular season. Perhaps most importantly, Braxton Huggins seemed to get back in rhythm in those two wins (32 points, 7-13 FG). The junior can take the NMSU offense to another level, and ease the pressure on Baker. But the player to watch may be Chuha, who is arguably the WAC’s most dominant big man.

2. Can CSUB find enough offense to advance?

There’s no shortage of glowing things to write about the Roadrunners’ defense. Whether it’s the 21st-best defensive efficiency mark in the country or guys like Airington and Basile that ace the eye test, CSUB can bank on preventing points. But will the Roadrunners’ offense hold them back? They’ve had two ugly outings over their past four games, shooting well below their season average against Seattle and GCU. Damiyne Durham, a hyper-talented streaky scorer, and Brent Wrapp, a stat-stuffing point guard, could be the keys to a consistent offense.

3. Can another team cut down the nets?

There is a big drop-off between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds and the rest of the field, especially with GCU not in the building. That being said, heavy favorites can fall. CSUB struggled mightily against Seattle’s zone, and has played close games with both UVU and UMKC. And despite the Aggies’ two-game winning streak, they aren’t far removed from that difficult 1-3 stretch. So, if these teams spend three stunning days in Sin City, it’ll likely be because:

  • UMKC: LaVell Boyd and the league’s best three-point shooting team (37.3% team 3P% in WAC play) get hot - we’re talking very hot - from deep.
  • UVU: The Wolverines get a constant stream of high-percentage looks from Isaac Neilson and continue their defensive improvement of the past three weeks.
  • Seattle: The Redhawks’ zone frustrates CSUB again in a low-scoring win, while chaos ensues on the other side of the bracket.
  • UTRGV and Chicago State: The Vaqueros (Antonio Green, Nick Dixon) and Cougars (Fred Sims, Trayvon Palmer) have some excellent duos, but either team cutting down the nets would be an all-timer of a story.

Prediction

In a rematch of last year’s final, CSUB gets past NMSU (again) to earn its second consecutive NCAA bid. Smith and Moataz Aly are instrumental in containing the Aggie front line.