For more than a hot minute, it seemed the story of the 2018 WAC Tournament would be whether New Mexico State would test the Committee with its very real at-large resume. Or, whether the Aggies would make that moot and win a second straight tournament championship.
But that came to an end in mid-February, when NMSU dropped back-to-back games, extinguishing the two-bid WAC fairy tale. That brings a familiar storyline back into play as the WAC takes over Orleans Arena in Las Vegas from March 8-10. Will a talented and proven Aggies team play their way into the tournament, planting a dangerous double digit seed in the bracket?
NMSU has the most upset potential and is the regular season champion, but we’re kidding ourselves if that’s the main attraction. Grand Canyon makes its first appearance in the WAC Tournament after watching from afar in transition limbo the past four years. The Lopes (20-10, 9-5) were underwhelming at times, but are coming in on a three-game winning streak with freshman big Alessandro Lever playing as well as anyone in the league. WAC organizers also must be thrilled about the onslaught of GCU fans that should flock to the event.
Elsewhere, Utah Valley will look to build on its second-place finish (21-9, 10-4) and make its first NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines may have the deepest roster in the league, and are the only team to own wins against both NMSU and GCU.
Seattle (19-12, 8-6), despite riding a three-game losing streak, has also proved its graduate transfer-heavy roster can rise to the occasion in Jim Hayford’s first year. The Redhawks have knocked off both NMSU and UVU, and get an opening date with UT Rio Grande Valley (15-16, 6-8) and the league’s leading scorer (Nick Dixon, 20.7 PPG).
Thursday, March 8 (Quarterfinals)
No. 6 UMKC vs. No. 3 Grand Canyon, 12 p.m. PT, ESPN3
No. 7 CSU Bakersfield vs. No. 2 Utah Valley, 2:30 p.m. PT, ESPN3
No. 8 Chicago State vs. No. 1 NM State, 6 p.m. PT, ESPN3
No. 5 UTRGV vs. No. 4 Seattle, 8:30 p.m. PT, ESPN3
Friday, March 9 (Semifinals)
Semifinal #1, 6 p.m. PT, ESPN3
Semifinal #2, 8:30 p.m. PT, ESPN3
Saturday, March 10 (Championship)
Championship, 6 p.m. PT, ESPNU
It’s hard to pick against the Aggies, a program that has won this event five out of the last six years. Despite not being as invincible as they once seemed, they still beat league opponents by an average of 10.3 points per game, and roll out WAC POY favorites Zach Lofton (19.2 PPG) and Jemerrio Jones (10.9 PPG, 12.7 RPG). NMSU also gets the No. 1 seed bump, avoiding UVU and GCU until the title game.
That said, it seems that three teams have a legitimate shot to cut down the nets — NMSU, UVU and GCU — and the WAC has not had that type of intrigue in its current form. Bring on the purple-clad masses, and let’s have some fun.