Opening night of the 2021-22 college basketball season is almost here. If you are following Jon Rothstein, you realize the countdown is creeping along ever so slowly. Or perhaps you follow the WAC team accounts that continue to countdown the days. It’s like the anticipation of Christmas morning and waking up at 1 a.m. to run down and open presents. What’s even better is that college basketball is set to have a normal, full season after COVID created chaotic moments in 2020-21.
How will the Texas 4 fare in their first season in the WAC? Who will be the King of the Mountain in March? Can a WAC team pull off a major upset in the non-conference slate? So many things to be anxious for as Nov. 9 draws closer. So, let’s take a look at some of the best opening night games around the WAC.
Utah Valley at Boise State, 7 p.m. MST on Mountain West Network
WAC vs. Mountain West. Regional battle. Defending co-champs against a 19-win team. Mid-Major against Mid-Major. Do I need to use anymore descriptions? According to KenPom the Mountain West Conference is No. 9 and the WAC is No. 18. Also, according to KenPom, Utah Valley is 222 and Boise State is 80. Utah Valley has the size to matchup with the Broncos. WAC Player of the Year Fardaws Aimaq is set to have a big year for the Wolverines. Aimaq will go up against 6-10 Mladen Armus who started all 28 games for the Broncos last season.
Bigger matchup will be on the perimeter though. Trey Woodbury, Connor Harding and the UVU guards against Abu Kigab, Marcus Shaver Jr., and Emmanuel Akot. This will be a fun battle. Winning games against other Mid-Majors is key for WAC schools. Right now, KenPom predicts an 81-66 win for the Broncos. But Mark Madsen has pulled rabbits out of his hat at times in big time road games. This is one of those games where it will be necessary.
UC Irvine at New Mexico State, 7 p.m. MST on ESPN+
This is an intriguing game to start the season for both teams. In 2018-19, both teams were NCAA Tournament teams. The Anteaters won a first round game against Kansas State while New Mexico State lost a heartbreaker to Auburn who made it to the Final Four. In 2019-20, both teams won their respective conference regular season crowns and had their sites set on another trip to the NCAA Tournament. And in 2020-21, amidst the COVID chaos, both teams underachieved. So what gives in the 2021-22 season opener?
Less than two weeks away. The Nov 9 opener for @NMStateMBB will be their first game at home in 614 days.
You can also argue that it’s their best season opener at home opponent since the 1990’s.
UC Irvine is legit … just like the Aggies, they win with defense/ rebounding. pic.twitter.com/kwfkrcHrhA
— Adam Young (@youngpbp) October 27, 2021
The atmosphere inside the Pan Am will be electric. New Mexico State has a chip on its shoulder. UC Irvine is no scrub. The Anteaters have the ability to knock anyone off at any given time. This should be one of the best mid-major non-conference games in the country.
Abilene Christian at Utah 6 p.m. MST on Pac-12 Network
In 2021, ACU knocked off Texas in the round of 64 at the NCAA Tournament. Yes, the Wildcats lose two of their leading scorers in Kolton Kohl and Joe Pleasant. Plus, ACU has a new head coach in Brette Tanner. Here is what people don’t realize: Tanner is the master planner of the pressure defense ACU uses to win games. So, with that in mind and some veteran guards leading the way, ACU gets a chance right out of the gate to show it is for real in 2021-22.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is how the Wildcats will deal with Utah’s size. 7-footer Branden Carlson is a preseason All-Pac-12 selection and an NBA prospect. ACU’s Yuot Gai will have his hands full. The guard battle will be fun to watch. USU transfer Rollie Worster should play a key role for the Utes. Reggie Miller, Coryon Mason and Mahki Morris will give the Utes fits.
And like it was mentioned before ACU has a new coach in Brette Tanner. And Utah is breaking in the Craig Smith era. Should be a fun one in Salt Lake City.
Tarleton at Stanford, 8 p.m. MST on Pac-12 Network
People will right this game off because they believe Stanford will run away with this one on opening night. I won’t say the Texans will win the game but this will be a lot closer than people think. Billy Gillispie has a veteran squad led by Montre Gipson. The Texan guards are phenomenal at pressuring the ball and making life miserable for other guards. These same guards make it difficult for entry passes to happen. The length and athleticism is what allows the Texans to play a little smaller.
Stanford forwards Jaiden Delaire and Spencer Jones could cause some problems for the Texans. Delaire averaged 12.5 points per game for the Cardinal in 2020-21. Jones averaged 8.2. This is really going to be an interesting game to keep an eye on because Stanford is not too experienced on the guard line. Ziaire Williams and Daejon Davis are both gone. Michael O’Connell returns after starting 18 of 25 games last season. But other than O’Connell, it is a very inexperienced group.
St. Thomas (Minn) at Chicago State, 6 p.m. MST on ESPN+
A new DI program against what some may argue has been the worst DI program for some time. This is an intriguing matchup. Chicago State welcomes in the Gerald Gillion era at home at the Jone Convocation Center. St. Thomas is a relative unknown as they make the leap to the DI ranks.
Chicago State is somewhat unknown because of the roster turnover. But the Cougars are going to surprise some people. Andrew Lewis and Coreyoun Rushin return for the Cougars. The athletic Anthony Hamilton Jr. will have some highlight-reel dunks. And freshman guard Bryce Johnson will play a big role for the Cougars.
Neither team has a lot of size so this will be won around the perimeter. Chicago State in nine games last season shot just 25 percent from deep. That has to change in order for the Cougars to get a win in the season opener.
TELL COLLEGE BASKETBALL IM BACK!! CHICAGO, LETS ROCK!!! 🏀💰💚
I am officially signed with full scholarship to play for the Chicago State University’s Men’s Basketball Program and to receive my Masters Degree! pic.twitter.com/Dv80eLKq1g
— Anthony Hamilton Jr (@hamilt0njr) July 17, 2021
Dixie State at No. 1 Gonzaga, 7 p.m. MST on Root Sports
I didn’t want to add this game to this list simply because it’s not one of the ‘best’ opening night games. The Trailblazers had this game set for last season before COVID forced the cancellation. So, Gonzaga honors the game to open the 2021 season. Gonzaga head coach Mark Few is expected to miss the game due to a suspension stemming from a DUI this summer. Perhaps that gives the Trailblazers a slight edge.
And who knows? Cameron Gooden is one of the best guards in the WAC. If Frank Staine and Hunter Schofield have big games, the Trailblazers could keep this game somewhat close. But it’s not necessarily one of those games circled on the opening night schedule as winnable which is what the other games on this list are. Perhaps Dixie State will prove myself and all the other doubters wrong on opening night.