Consistency. It’s such a simple word. Yet, for teams in the Western Athletic Conference, it just hasn’t happened. That inconsistency is why there is only one team with a winning record. It is why one team nearly knocks off a top-10 team on the road and loses to a sub-200 KenPom team three nights later. Consistency just hasn’t been there in the first month of the season for WAC hoops. And winning the so-called winnable games has been a big part of that inconsistency.
The good news is that a new month starts tonight. Technically, it started Sunday when Utah Valley didn’t play well at Colorado State. But, we will let that one slide for the time being.
On Tuesday night, WAC teams have a chance to start December off on the right foot. There are five games on the schedule and all five games are at home. One WAC team has a shot at winning its first Division I game of the season. Another is looking to overcome a bad home loss on Saturday night. And another team is looking for its third straight win against a Division I opponent.
Here are the games on tap for Tuesday night.
Sam Houston State at UTRGV – 6 p.m. MT
Like a fan of WAC Hoops Digest stated in response to a tweet today, the way the WAC is playing, nothing in this league is a “very winnable” game this year. That fan is correct. And for UTRGV, that statement rings true. The Vaqueros struggled in November to the tune of a 2-5 record, worst in the WAC. UTRGV lost twice to Texas A&M Corpus Christi, who is a sub-300 KenPom ranking. And the Vaqueros two wins came against non-Division I opponents. It’s not for lack of talent or ability as the Vaqueros feature Javon Levi, Jordan Jackson, and Leslie Varner II. It’s just that the Vaqueros haven’t put a full game together, yet.
Perhaps that happens on Tuesday against a good Sam Houston State team that beat CSU Bakersfield at the Icardo Center one week ago. The Bearkats three losses were by a combined 27 points. Sam Houston State also averages 79.9 points per game so if UTRGV is to pick up its first Division I win, the Vaqueros are going to have to rise above their 66.3 points per game or really play shut down defense. Keep an eye on the matchup between Bearkats guard Chad Bowie and Vaqueros guard Javon Levi. The two have combined for 30 steals on the season so it may come down to who gets the most defensive stops between the two.
UTEP at New Mexico State – 7 p.m. MT
It is the Battle of I-10 once again. And the Aggies are looking for a bit of revenge on Tuesday night. UTEP knocked off the Aggies back on Nov. 12 in El Paso. It was the first win for Miners in the rivalry since 2015, a string of nine straight wins for the Aggies. Poor shooting from the field along with a really bad night at the free throw line sealed the Aggies’ fate. On Tuesday night, New Mexico State may seem like a whole new team, thanks in part to its trip to the Cayman Islands. The Aggies went 2-1 at the Cayman Islands Classic with wins over Colorado State and South Florida. New Mexico State wasn’t able to hold off George Mason in the championship game and fell to the A-10 foe, 68-64.
Injuries are no excuse but they have played a part so far. However, it’s why no game on the New Mexico State has been necessarily winnable. Look at the losses. At UTEP and at Arizona were likely not winnable, especially if KenPom predicts that. Perhaps New Mexico at home and George Mason on a neutral site were winnable. But, that’s just how the ball bounces sometimes.
But, in the Cayman Islands, the Aggies showed they are much more than Trevelin Queen. Terrell Brown, Jabari Rice and Shawn Williams all had solid weekends as did Johnny McCants who provided good minutes off the bench. Watch the matchup down low in this contest. Bryson Williams vs. Ivan Aurrecoechea. Williams had 19 points in just 17 minutes in the first game while Aurrecoechea was battling an ankle injury. According to Las Cruces Sun-News beat writer Justin Martinez, the real matchup to watch is UTEP guard Jordan Lathon vs. New Mexico State guard Terrell Brown. Now that Brown is fully healthy, this will be an even better matchup than it was on Nov. 12.
Mt. St. Marys at Grand Canyon – 7 p.m. MT
If you want to know how big this game is for Grand Canyon, let’s just put it this way. Chicago State, yes, that Chicago State has as many wins thus far as the Lopes do.
Probably not a stat that Grand Canyon thought it would have at this point in the season. But, it is true. November was not friendly to the Lopes and there are a lot of question marks. Is the guard-heavy lineup working? Are there too many mouths to feed? Is the passion there?
According to head coach Dan Majerle following the loss to Purdue Fort Wayne on Saturday, “I don’t see a whole lot of fire and passion in that team. I don’t see a lot of just getting it done, however it takes to get it done.” In the AZ Central, Majerle had even more to say about his team. “We don’t move the basketball. I don’t know if they trust each other or what the deal is. I haven’t figured it out yet. But we will. We just have to keep working at it.”
So, with a pair of guards who know each other well in Carlos Johnson and Jovan Blacksher Jr., chemistry shouldn’t be an issue. Maybe the hype was too much for a team that returned just three players from 2018-19. And one of those returners is currently ineligible.
The problem with the Lopes is they aren’t winning the winnable games. See the season opener. So, can GCU right the ship? Yes, Mt. St. Mary’s is a winnable game but if the Lopes aren’t ready, GCU Arena could be in for another ugly loss. Just ask Utah Valley about its game against the Mountaineers.
UC Santa Barbara at CSU Bakersfield – 8 p.m. MT
Rod Barnes put together a rather brutal non-conference schedule for his 2019-20 team. The Roadrunners have played games against South Dakota State, Northern Iowa, San Francisco and Gonzaga already. Mississippi and Texas Tech are still looming. But first CSU Bakersfield faces UC Santa Barbara in a preview game of the 2020-21 season and beyond considering the Roadrunners join the Big West Conference following the 2019-20 season.
CSU Bakersfield is 4-2 at the Icardo Center. The bad news is that three of those wins are against non-Division I opponents. Perhaps picking up back-to-back wins on Friday and Saturday gives the Roadrunners some confidence on Tuesday night. But the Gauchos are on their own little winning streak, having won three straight since a 78-67 loss at Oregon State on Nov. 20.
Is Tuesday night a winnable game for the Roadrunners? Yes, it is. But Taze Moore, Shawn Stith, and De’Monte Buckingham are all going to have to have a big game if the Roadrunners are to win this in-state battle. And perhaps a Justin McCall highlight-reel dunk can spark the Runners to a big win.
— The Western Athletic Conference (@WACsports) December 2, 2019
Incarnate Word at Seattle – 8 p.m. MT
Back-to-back wins over Division I opponents has reignited Redhawk Nation. Okay, that might be a little much considering that Western Michigan and Idaho aren’t very good. But, those wins might be what an experienced team that was struggling needed to jump start its season. Add in the fact that guard Riley Grigsby is back in the lineup after missing most of November due to a wrist injury and Seattle might have something brewing.
KenPom has Seattle winning four of its final six non-conference games. And perhaps the Redhawks can pull off an up at either Washington on Dec. 17 or Saint Mary’s on Dec. 28. Terrell Brown continues to put up big numbers and Myles Carter always has the potential to go off. Morgan Means reached the 1,000-point plateau for his career this past week. Perhaps, beginning a new month with a healthy roster is just what the doctor ordered for Seattle who struggled through an injury-plagued season in 2018-19.
Following the 74-55 win over Idaho, head coach Jim Hayford had this to say in his postgame comments.
“That second half, the 42-23 second half, that’s the team I see us becoming. We’ve got to get our chemistry to figure out. We’ve got some things we need to do better. But we will definitely take a 19-point home win over any Division I team.”
This is another winnable game for Seattle and one they should win big.
Both the Grand Canyon and CSU Bakersfield games can be seen on ESPN 3. The UTRGV and Seattle games can be seen on the WAC Digital Network.