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WAC tournament preview: Utah Valley, Sam Houston surprisingly lead the pack into Vegas

Wolverines and Bearkats both outplayed low expectations in a league the media mainly got wrong

NCAA Basketball: Fort Myers Tip-Off Palm Division Championship Game Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The WAC tournament has undergone a ton of change over the last dozen years or so. Of course, it was a rival league with the Mountain West for years before losing almost all of its high profile members and struggling to survive.

Then for the next few years, it was basically the New Mexico State invitational, an era that is clearly coming to an end after NMSU rather, uh, unceremonious departure from the conference. The WAC snatched four teams from the Southland last year and UT Arlington from the Sun Belt this offseason. One of the four from last year, Sam Houston, is moving on to Conference USA in the fall, but not before putting up one of the higher NET outputs by the league in recent memory and positioning itself rather well for an autobid this year despite being picked eighth in the preseason. Utah Valley, its main competitor, was picked seventh and won the league outright! Southern Utah (formerly of the Big Sky), right behind them, was picked ninth! You see the theme here. And if nobody could get the standings right before the season, there may not be any use in trying to predict the outcome of the tournament, but here we go anyway.


Schedule (all times ET)

First Round: Tuesday, March 7 (ESPN+)

Game 1: (9) Abilene Christian vs. (8) Cal Baptist, 3 pm

Game 2: (12) UT Arlington vs. (5) Grand Canyon, 5 pm

Game 3: (10) UT Rio Grande Valley vs. (7) Tarleton State, 9 pm

Game 4: (11) Utah Tech vs. (6) Stephen F. Austin, 11 pm

Quarterfinals: Thursday, March 9 (ESPN+)

Game 5: (1) Sam Houston vs. Game 1 winner, 3 pm

Game 6: (4) Seattle vs. Game 2 winner, 5 pm

Game 7: (2) Utah Valley vs. Game 3 winner, 9 pm

Game 8: (3) Southern Utah vs. Game 4 winner, 11 pm

Semifinals: Friday, March 10 (ESPN+)

Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 9 pm

Game 10: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 11 pm

Finals: Saturday, March 11 (ESPN2)

Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 11:30 pm


Most thought that when Utah Valley (24-7 overall, 15-3 WAC, No. 2 seed) lost walking double-double Fardaws Aimaq to the transfer portal in the offseason, they would have a mediocre go of it this year. Instead, WAC Coach of the Year Mark Madsen and the Wolverines have battled back stronger this year and appear poised to snag an NCAA bid that has eluded some of its decent teams in recent years. Aziz Bandaogo has assumed the big-man role and has wreaked defensive havoc on his way to winning defensive player of the year for a strong defensive team overall; he averages a double double and is complemented by experienced guards in Trey Woodbury, Le’Tre Darthard and Justin Harmon. If two overtime losses to Wake Forest and Morgan State had gone its way in the non-conference, we might be talking about a Utah Valley at-large bid, but either way they have a real good shot at getting the autobid for their first ever big dance.

Sam Houston (24-6, 14-4, No. 1 seed) lost the regular season title by a game, but was awarded the top seed by the WAC’s futuristic multifaceted seeding system due to tremendous non-conference play and adjusted metrics. They took down Oklahoma and Utah on the road and only lost to potential tourney teams Oklahoma State and Nevada. They rank in the top 15 in KenPom’s adjusted defense and have only given up 70 or more points 6 times all season, and haven’t given up more than 60 in their past six games. The Bearkats have won their last seven and 12 of their last 13, in no small part to Qua Grant, conference Player of the Year and stat-sheet stuffer. If the Bearkats get teams to play at their slow pace and play with their usual defensive intensity, they could easily be cutting down the nets this weekend.


Southern Utah (20-11, 12-6, 3-seed) is probably a notch ahead of the other three in this category, and perhaps played the single best game of any team in this league: a six-point loss to Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. They’ve cooled off a bit, but this is an above-average team on both ends of the floor that plays at one of the highest tempos of any team in the country. The Thunderbirds are going to play competitive almost every time they touch the floor; they only lost by double digits twice all year in a schedule that included road games at Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado (all of which were only single digit losses). Tevian Jones, averaging north of 17 points per game, is an elite talent with elite athleticism, and he and his teammates could give the top two seeds problems.

Stephen F. Austin (19-12, 11-7, 6-seed) should never be taken lightly in March, although they’ve been humbled a few times over the course of the season. Sadaidriene “Day Day” Hall led a tough defensive squad through the year, but the All-WAC second-teamer went out last week with a shoulder injury, and it will be interesting to see how they respond without their best player. Something to note: When they allowed 72 points or less during league play, they went 10-2, but went just 1-5 when giving up more than that.

Grand Canyon (20-11, 11-7, 5-seed) was the preseason media favorite and had a disappointing season overall, but it has one thing that the others don’t, and that is a coach and players that know what it takes to win the WAC tournament and go dancing. Of course, that was two years ago, before all of the new additions, but it counts for something. This team has an experienced coach in Bryce Drew and metrics like this team’s offensive efficiency, but it is a team that followed up some impressive wins with some puzzling losses.

Seattle (20-11, 11-7, 4-seed) put together another surprising year under coach Chris Victor. Another of the WAC’s top-75 defensive efficiency teams, the Redhawks won their first seven conference games before falling on harder times. This isn’t a great offensive team, but sports the conference’s second-leading scorer in guard Cameron Tyson, in his second year at his third collegiate stop. First up for the Redhawks would likely be 5th-seed Grand Canyon, whom they’ve already beaten twice.

Everyone Else

Cal Baptist was eligible for the first time this year, and had some expectations to potentially push the leaders for the league crown. Despite NBA prospect Taran Armstrong running the show, Cal Baptist has won just three of theri last ten games, but they have the talent to win a game or two.

Tarleton, on the other hand, has defied expectations in Billy Gillispie’s third year. Their record could have been even better if leading scorer Freddy Hicks hadn’t gone down for more than a month during the regular season; so this feels like a bit of a wild card heading into Vegas.

Utah Tech is ineligible this year and seeded 11th, but they’re actually the 7th-best team in the league according to Kenpom. They have a true scorer in 5’ 11” Cameron Gooden, but lack on the defensive end.

Three Texas schools bring up the rear. UT Arlington’s first season in the WAC after moving from the Sun Belt could’ve gone quite a bit better on both ends of the floor. Abilene Christian is just two years removed from taking down Texas in the big dance, but this program is still rebuilding from Joe Golding’s departure to UTEP. UT Rio Grande Valley has improved significantly from last year in Matt Figger’s second campaign and has the league’s leading scorer in Justin Johnson, but still has yet to figure out how to win consistently.

Players to Watch

Ray Harrison, Grand Canyon: 17.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.3 APG

Qua Grant, Sam Houston: 13.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 2.0 Stls/Gm, POTY

Cameron Tyson, Seattle U: 18.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG

Tevian Jones, Southern Utah: 17.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG

Aziz Bandaogo, Utah Valley: 11.4 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.9 Blk/Gm, 60.7 FG%

Le’Tre Darthard, Utah Valley: 14.4 PPG, 3.5 RPG

Trey Woodbury, Utah Valley: 12.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 4.4 APG

Justin Johnson, UTRGV: 20.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.1 APG

Taran Armstrong, California Baptist: 11.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.9 APG

Gabe McGlothan, Grand Canyon: 11.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 50.4 FG%

Donte Powers, Sam Houston: 11.1 PPG, 3.0 RPG

Riley Grigsby, Seattle U: 13.4 PPG, 5.4 RPG

Maizen Fausett, Southern Utah: 12.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 50.7 FG%

Freddy Hicks, Tarleton: 15.7 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.5 APG

Cameron Gooden, Utah Tech: 16.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 40.7 3P%

Airion Simmons, Abilene Christian: 9.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 2.7 APG

Shemar Wilson, UT Arlington: 10.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.0 Blk/Gm, 54.9 FG%


My chalky picks haven’t been going so well lately, so I’ll say Southern Utah rises up and knocks out each of the top two seeds on the way to its first tourney bid since 2001.