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WAC Tournament Preview: Oh my goodness this thing is wide open

Plenty of teams are surely believing this is their moment, but a heavyweight is lurking in the wings.

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NCAA Basketball: Utah Valley at St. John Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

In most years, the narrative for WAC Vegas is clear.

All eyes are fixed on New Mexico State, as the Aggies seek to cap off a season arguably deserving of an at-large bid with the league’s automatic bid which, fair or not, is their only realistic path to the Big Dance. There’s no such argument this year. A stop-and-start, adversity-filled season for NMSU didn’t contain the type of gaudy numbers to which WAC followers have become accustomed.

Instead, there’s a more exciting narrative swirling in Sin City this year. Put simply, the thing is wide open, and someone may grab a historic bid.

Could it be either of the league’s co-champions — Grand Canyon and Utah Valley — sealing the first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history? Could Seattle break a long drought? Could ineligible California Baptist inject chaos by storming to a title? Could UT Rio Grande Valley pull off a fairy tale weekend in Vegas? So many question marks with one more — at least — on the table: could this all be about NMSU after all?

Here’s all you need to know as the country’s most geographically-exciting league comes together in America’s playground.

The Bracket

The Schedule

March 11–13: Las Vegas, Nev. (PDF Bracket)
2019 Champion: New Mexico State Aggies

Not participating:

  • Chicago State (ended season early)
  • Dixie State (Division I transitional season no. 1)
  • Tarleton State (Division I transitional season no. 1)

Participating, but ineligible for NCAAs

  • Cal Baptist (Division I transitional season no. 3)

Quarterfinals (Thurs., March 11)

ESPN+ ($) will stream both games.

Game 1: No. 5 Seattle (11-10, 4-5) vs. No. 4 Cal Baptist (13-9, 6-6), 8 p.m.

Game 2: No. 6 UT Rio Grande Valley (9-9, 2-5) vs. No. 3 New Mexico State (10-7, 7-6), 11 p.m.

Semifinals (Fri., March 12)

ESPN+ ($) will stream both games.

Game 3: Game 1 Winner vs. No. 1 Grand Canyon (15-6, 9-3), 8 p.m.

Game 4: Game 2 Winner vs. No. 2 Utah Valley (11-10, 9-4), 11 p.m.

Championship (Sat., March 13)

Game 5: Semifinal winners, 10 p.m. (ESPNU)

The Favorite

That’s the quite the point, there is none.

The Contenders

Utah Valley (11-10, 9-4): The Wolverines wrapped up a share of the regular season title by beating GCU last Friday, and could’ve taken it outright with a win the following day. Mark Madsen has done a great job taking a team pegged sixth by the media in the preseason poll with plenty of new faces and turning it into a contender. League POY Fardaws Aimaq (14.5 PPG, 15.1 RPG) has been the headliner as the nation’s leading rebounder but he represents part of what makes UVU so challenging: size.

Georgia Tech transfer forward Evan Cole is capable of big scoring nights, and big wings Jamison Overton (15.9 PPG) and Trey Woodbury (14.7 PPG) can grind the opposition with forays into the paint. The Wolverines may not be as offensively explosive as they were in the Mark Pope years, but they’re a consistent team that should have the advantage on the boards every night. That sounds like a recipe for success in a win-or-go-home setting, especially with the Wolverines only needing to win two games to get the title.

Grand Canyon (15-6, 9-3): Life under Bryce Drew couldn’t have started much better for the Lopes. The first-year coach has the program’s first WAC title and injected life into a defense that had sagged last season under Dan Majerle. Forward Alessandro Lever (14.0 PPG) and point guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. (11.4 PPG, 5.5 APG) were tremendous pieces to inherit, but what’s helped take GCU to the next level has been the emergence of Wichita State transfer Asbjorn Midtgaard (14.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 71.5 FG%). The center’s record-breaking efficiency has been a story all year long in Phoenix, and he’s been a perfect complement to Lever’s outside prowess.

The Lopes faltered a tad down the stretch, finishing 2-3 after a 7-0 league start. As always, they are plenty talented, with transfers Gabe McGlothan and Mikey Dixon in supporting roles, and Oscar Frayer returning after a redshirt year to provide perimeter punch. Like UVU the pieces are there, it’s now about showing up for two days in Vegas.

New Mexico State (10-7, 7-6): Long COVID pauses, spending months marooned at a Phoenix resort due to New Mexico state restrictions, eventual home games in an El Paso high school gym. The list could go on for the curveballs this season has thrown at Chris Jans and the Aggies. The odd circumstances added up to NMSU not picking up its first Division I win until Feb. 6, and also dealing with inconsistency in the early parts of its league schedule.

The Aggies, however, used a favorable schedule at the end of the season to build a head of steam as they had to Vegas. Their 3-0 finish to the year included an offense that started to click and, as of their last game against Dixie State, a healthy roster. Johnny McCants and Donnie Tillman can wreak havoc on the glass, and NMSU has playmaking guards on the perimeter, in addition to a scorer in Jabari Rice that’s always a threat to get hot. It won’t be easy winning three games in three days, but the Orleans Arena has been a happy hunting ground for NMSU before.

The Rest: It’s probably unfair to not include fourth-seeded California Baptist (13-9, 6-6) and fifth-seeded Seattle (11-10, 4-5) as standalone contenders because both are more than capable of winning the tournament. But, the bracket dictates one will fall on opening night, and they are too even to separate. That was seen just last weekend, where the teams split a pair of one possession games in Riverside.

The Lancers have a dominant rebounding force down low in Gorjok Gak (13.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG), as well as the league’s second-most efficient offense led by Ty Rowell (15.7 PPG, 6.0 APG) that, as has been their calling card in Division I, bombs away from deep. There’s enough talent to carry them through, but they’ll first need to contain Redhawks’ breakout sophomore guard Darrion Trammell, who torched them to the tune of 27 points per game in last weekend’s series.

Trammell was a legitimate POY candidate in his right (20.6 PPG), and is surrounded by plenty of athletic size led by senior Riley Grigsby (18.3 PPG). After a lengthy COVID pause, SU split each of its final four series of the season. That may well sum it up: the potential is there to beat anyone in the league, but Jim Hayford’s group will need to find consistency to grab the program’s first NCAA appearance since 1969.

UT Rio Grande Valley (9-9, 2-5) rounds out the field. They are, of course, without head coach Lew Hill, who tragically passed away in early February. He was unanimously named Coach of the Year, a nice gesture in an otherwise difficult time in Edinburg and throughout the conference. The basketball doesn’t so much matter in such a circumstances, but a team led by scrappy senior guard Javon Levi surely won’t quit in its trip to Vegas.

The Prediction

Every rational piece of information points to GCU or UVU turning a share of the regular season title into a historic bid to the NCAA Tournament. As much as anything, both teams have a massive advantage in having byes into the semifinals given the small number of teams participating this year.

But, the Aggies may well be inevitable. It just feels this is the program’s shining chance for a last laugh in a season that has thrown them so much adversity. This is a team that had something it lacked when it dropped consecutive games in Phoenix to begin its conference season: continuity. Tillman seems ready to break out after a 22-point performance the last time out. McCants may be in the last hurrah of a special career in his hometown. There’s a reason Rice was voted preseason POY.

That’s the argument, will it add up to history repeating itself in Vegas?