It’s finally come folks. The last week of the regular season is upon us. Filled with a clash at the top and the end of inaugural first seasons for a couple of teams.
All of this before programs take a deep breath, pack their bags and head to Las Vegas for some WAC Tournament action. After that, likely just one lucky team has the chance to represent the conference in Indianapolis this year. Next comes a very exciting and new look Western Athletic Conference this summer, so don’t blink.
This weekend’s first-ever matchup between conference newcomer Dixie State and New Mexico State inside Burns Arena should be a doozy. The Aggies have had just three days rest when tip-off commences on Friday night in St. George. Meanwhile, the Trailblazers will be well rested from a just-as-rare bye week since their last conference matchup.
The Aggies may have a bit more at stake this time around. New Mexico State is looking to begin a run straight to the conference tournament finals next week. Dixie State is ineligible for postseason play due to the 4-year transition period to the DI level.
NEW MEXICO STATE (8-7, 5-6 WAC)
The Aggies are coming off of a make-up game win over UTRGV on Tuesday afternoon. And with that 69-51 win, Chris Jans’ program is finally over .500 on the season, now at 8-7 overall.
The Aggies are 2-1 over their last three games and seem to have had a fire lit beneath them as we are now officially in March. Jans and the Aggies don’t lose often in March. Tuesday’s rare mid-week treat of WAC hoops showed real progress in the New Mexico State program. Yes, the Aggies still struggled to knock down shots (26-68, 38.2%). But, the Aggies played with such defensive intensity and dominated the glass that it didn’t matter.
To say the Aggies will miraculously find their shooting stroke in the last two games of the regular season would be ludicrous. So the key to a win (or two) in Utah has to be second-chance opportunities and smart defense. As mentioned, this squad has struggled shooting the ball most of the season, but have shown efficiency in spurts. To offset a possible tough shooting night, the Aggies need to make it hard on Dixie State with tough defense throughout the game.
To lead the charge, expect redshirt junior guard Jabari Rice and senior wing Clayton Henry taking shots and grabbing boards. The duo was responsible for 31 of their teams 69 total points on Tuesday, shooting 12-25 from the field. Rice and Henry also pulled down 13 of their squads 36 total rebounds on the day. The Aggies definitely have options to help get the ball in the basket. But, as we saw from Henry’s second-half scoring outburst last time around, when hot Clayton can be a huge difference maker.
DIXIE STATE TRAILBLAZERS (8-11, 4-8 WAC)
Dixie State is coming off of a bye from WAC hoops this past week. And, the Trailblazers are hoping to take advantage of the fresh legs against the reigning conference champions. The last time the Trailblazers took the floor was February 20 against fellow WAC newcomers Tarleton State.
That series pretty much summed up the first year in Division I for the Trailblazers. Game one was a disappointing 18-point loss (77-59), while game two saw Dixie State take home at W with a 16-point win of their own (64-48). Since a couple of sweeps at the hands of UTRGV and Grand Canyon to open the conference season, Dixie State has split each of the ensuing three conference series.
This weekend’s series puts a stamp on the Trailblazers’ first season at the NCAA Division I level. Even though it was not your average season to elevate a level of competition, this group has fought hard. To go out with a pair of wins against the reigning three time WAC champions before packing it up for the season would be the perfect way to honor the programs seniors come Saturday night.
A Trailblazer win comes by way of forced the Aggies to take difficult shots. Also, if Dixie State can force New Mexico State to take an unreasonable amount of 3-point attempts (not impossible), and clean up the glass better than UTRGV did things should be closer. Dixie State averages just 70.5 PPG, the lowest among active playing teams in the conference.
To beat an Aggie squad that takes a lot of shots, but doesn’t make a lot of shots, the Trailblazers will have to slow things down. It will start with Cameron Gooden, a junior college transfer from Kilgore College, who posts team-highs in points (12.9 PPG), steals( 1.7 SPG) and assists (3.2 APG). Head coach Jon Judkins brought many talented players with them from the Division II level. But the biggest impact player Dixie State this season is the newcomer. Gooden will certainly be high on the defensive assignments for the Aggies. So, the teams second leading scorer, Hunter Schofield, needs to take advantage.
MATCHUP TO KEEP AN EYE ON: A True Backcourt Battle
Both squads can get production from a little bit of everywhere on the court. But, backtracking the last few outings for each program, will reveal an uptick in production from each squads starting big men. Each program plays some of the truest small ball lineups in college basketball. But, for a pair of programs that don’t normally get the ball in the paint for scoring opportunities, that may be just what’s needed in this series.
For the Aggies, it’s Johnny McCants (6-7, 235) who is averaging 13.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG & 1.3 APG over his last three games. Dixie State relies on its own lone wolf in the paint in redshirt senior Hunter Schofield. The 6-8, 225-pound senior forward has been on a tear since his squad’s four-game losing streak to begin the WAC era in January. Schofield is averaging 15.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.4 APG & 1.0 SPG over the last eight games. This includes a 31-point outburst against Utah Valley in their 93-89 win on February 13. Both bigs play in four-guard lineups. But, are both very mobile and have shown the ability to knock down the occasional three. The game may be won down low and the first team to realize just might be the victor on Friday.
The X-Factor: Off the bench scoring
C.J. Roberts has had an impressive five-game stretch for the Aggies. Averaging 10.6 PPG, 3.4 RPG & 1.4 APG in just 23.0 MPG. The 6-1 junior guard comes off of the bench to provide a much needed boost of scoring for New Mexico State. The former SEC commit and junior college star is finding his rhythm late in this season, and the timing is just fine. His production will be a must if the Aggie’s starters struggle out of the gate like they did on Tuesday morning.
WHAT’S ON THE LINE?
With Tuesday’s win over UTRGV, New Mexico State jumped up a few places in the conference standings, now in 4th. The goal for either program is obviously to complete the sweep. But, both have been a little “sweep intolerant” so far this season. If the Aggies can pull out two wins this weekend, they can better steer clear of the 3rd and 5th place teams surrounding them in the standings.
California Baptist plays host to Seattle this weekend. The only way for either program to finish the season ahead of the Aggies, is to pull off a sweep of their own. If they split, the Aggies jump to 3rd. But all of this means nothing if Grand Canyon and Utah Valley sweep. For a truly genius breakdown of seeding possibilities after this weekend, click here.
KenPom has New Mexico State as the 10-point favorite in both games this weekend. With the fight I have seen from the Aggies over the last couple of games, I think that line holds true for at least one game. But Dixie State hasn’t been swept in their last three conference series. So, with that, and the the Aggies past hot and cold performances, it feels like this series is destined for a split.
Game 1: Dixie State 72, New Mexico State 65
Game 2: New Mexico State 76, Dixie State 65
Tip off for this series in St. George will be at 7:00 PM MT on both Friday and Saturday. And as of course can be seen on the WAC Digital Network.