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WAC Tournament Championship Preview: Finally, New Mexico State and Grand Canyon meet on the big stage

Can the Lopes continue batting 1.000 in the league tourney?

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at St. Mary's Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Grand Canyon ended the 2016-17 season on a seven-game winning streak.

It didn’t mean a thing.

With the Lopes still ineligible for postseason play, they sat on their streak and watched the WAC Tournament from afar. It was nothing more than a lead-in to the heavily-hyped 2017-18 season, which now has them riding a six-game winning streak. And it’s as meaningful as it comes, since it’s carried GCU to the WAC Tournament final in its first appearance in the event.

In the Lopes’ way? A team that has a bit of history in the WAC Tournament. New Mexico State will make its seventh-straight appearance in the final, and passed long-gone UTEP for the most wins in WAC Tournament history when it came back against Seattle late Friday night.

The Aggies won both games this year, but both were close. In Phoenix, GCU trailed by just three late in the second half before NMSU pulled away. And in Las Cruces, the Lopes played the Aggies as well as anyone in the Pan Am Center during WAC play in a four-point loss. That apparently isn’t lost on Chris Jans.

Here are several keys as the WAC giant takes on a program that sees itself as the WAC’s future giant.

  • What happens with Alessandro Lever. The Italian freshman has emerged as the Lopes best player — by far — and at times has looked like the WAC Player of the Year (an award that deservedly went to NMSU’s Jemerrio Jones). He led the team in scoring in league play (15.8 PPG), challenging opponents with a versatile offensive arsenal and capable high post passing. But against NMSU, he combined for just 21 points over the two games. He’ll likely need to play a starring role for GCU’s vulnerable offense, but will tangle with Jones, Eli Chuha, Johnathon Wilkins and the emerging Johnny McCants. Easier said than done.
  • Strength on strength. For all the offensive threats in this game — Zach Lofton, Jones, Lever, Josh Braun — it pits two of the country’s best defenses against one another. The Aggies have been slightly better this season, and rarely cracked in league play aside from a loss to Utah Valley in Orem. Their man-to-man system and superior athletes forced opponents into shooting poorly both from inside (42.6 2FG%) and outside (28.9 3FG%) the arc in league play. They are, however, coming off a game in which Seattle got loose from three, and giving Braun any confidence from deep early could make for a long night.
  • Rivalry time, for real. If the admittedly small Twitter sample size is any indication, there are tons of fans of both programs that do not care for the other. GCU has brought plenty of purple to the Pan Am Center over the years, but if a rivalry is going to truly develop, these kind of stakes could be gas on the fire. In the big picture, this would be great for the WAC. CSU Bakersfield has one foot out the door and the league’s viability is a constant question. Any kind of intrigue is more than welcome.