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New Mexico State, Grand Canyon meet in mammoth early season game

It might be a packed house in Phoenix.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Grand Canyon Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Jan. 11 and the WAC is on the line.

Sort of.

New Mexico State’s trip to GCU Arena on Thursday night (9:00 PM ET, ESPN3) may not decide the league’s regular season race, but it’ll be a major leg up for the winning team. And for the Lopes, it is yet another chance for a statement win in their first season of NCAA Tournament eligibility.

Up until now, they’ve come up flat when the lights have been brightest. GCU’s defense gave it chances to beat Boise State and Illinois (and to a lesser extent, St. John’s), but a sagging offense kept the Lopes out of the win column in each game. That has left GCU with just one win over the KenPom top 200 (Robert Morris on Nov. 13) to this point.

Is that to say that the Lopes aren’t a legitimate threat in the WAC? Not at all, as they’ve rolled out an excellent defense that causes turnovers and blankets teams from the three-point line. They also picked up a nice road win last Saturday in Seattle against the three-point heavy Redhawks to open league play.

But it does mean that the Lopes have gotten fat on empty calories. That would change with a home win over NMSU.

The Aggies come to Phoenix having won six of their last seven games, with the lone defeat coming in the Diamond Head Classic title game to USC — a game that they controlled late. There have also been three true road wins over that stretch, including a predictable 37-win point bludgeoning of Chicago State last Saturday on the South Side.

Here are three keys to Thursday’s important game:

Let’s talk about the three-point line. As much as their fans — or, vocal Twitter folk — like to dislike each other, the Lopes and Aggies do have at least one thing in common. They both lost at home to San Diego during the non-con. The Toreros have cobbled together a surprising season due in part to the best three-point defense in the country. The next best team? Grand Canyon, which has held opponents to just 25.9 from distance. The wrinkle in this game is that NMSU is not that dependent on the three to score with a trio of perimeter players — Zach Lofton, A.J. Harris, Sidy N’Dir — that like to slash to the basket. But if the Aggies do fall behind early, coming back in bunches may be difficult.

Will Josh Braun break out when it matters most? Mr. GCU, a well-deserved nickname, has scored 20 points or more just once since Nov. 26. In a season that has seen has Braun’s shooting numbers take a dip across the board, he’s been held under 13 points in each of the Lopes higher profile games (Illinois, St. John’s, Boise State, Louisville). It’s not a groundbreaking basketball thought, but the Lopes need their star to play that role against the Aggies. GCU is at a massive disadvantage in the frontcourt on both ends of the court because of Eli Chuha and Jemerrio Jones. Braun is option number one to pick up the slack.

Overreacting to the league race. Utah Valley has done nothing but prove that it will be a factor in the WAC (WACtor?) this season. The Wolverines blasted CSU Bakersfield at home by 33 points in their league opener with virtually no production from Akolda Manyang, which is not easy to do no matter the circumstances. Kent State transfer Jerrelle DeBerry (12.0 PPG) has been a factor after making his debut two games ago, meaning that a deep team got even deeper. Assuming Manyang’s ankle injury is not serious, the Wolverines have a nice path to a 4-0 league start. The team that loses in Phoenix will be at an early, albeit slight, disadvantage in the conference standings not only to the other team, but likely to UVU as well.