The Sam Houston Bearkats finished 13-5 in WAC play in their first season as member of the WAC in 2021-22.
That 13-5 record was good enough for a tie for fourth place. And it earned the Bearkats the 5-seed at WAC Vegas.
That 13-5 record was also one game out of joining the 3-way tie for first place and a share of the regular season crown.
And there is one game that will live in head coach Jason Hooten’s head for years to come.
In fact, not only will the game live in Hooten’s head. Utah Valley big man Fardaws Aimaq may haunt Hooten’s dreams for quite some time.
In the lone matchup between the Sam Houston and Utah Valley in 2021-22, it was Aimaq that took over down the stretch in Huntsville. And perhaps cost the Bearkats a share of the regular season crown. Sam Houston led 30-22 at halftime. And, with 11:26 to play, led 41-35 over the Wolverines.
That is when Aimaq and the Wolverines chipped away. Five straight Aimaq points cut the deficit to three with 8:26 to play. And Aimaq’s layup with 1:57 to play cut it to a 1-point game. And Justin Harmon gave Utah Valley its first lead of the game on a layup with 58 seconds to play. Harmon then iced the game with a pair of free throws in a 57-54 Utah Valley win in Huntsville.
Fast forward one year. Aimaq is gone. But, Utah Valley and Sam Houston are still set to play each other just once in WAC play. And that is in the WAC opener for both teams on Thursday night.
The Bearkats come in at 10-2 and sitting at 20 in the current NET rankings. Utah Valley comes in at 9-4 and sits at 90 in the NET.
Both teams are sitting atop the WAC resume seeding system. Sam Houston, courtesy of a pair of Quad 1 wins, is over a point higher than anyone else in the WAC. Utah Valley is coming off its best win of the season, 77-72, at Oregon to end its non-conference slate.
So, both the Bearkats and Wolverines have a win over Power 5 teams. Both the Bearkats and Wolverines have Quad 1 road wins. And both the Bearkats and Wolverines have dynamic guards that can shoot from the perimeter and attack the rim.
What will give on Thursday night at the UCCU Center?
Let’s take a look at some key matchups.
Cam Huefner/Kian Scroggins vs. Tim Fuller/Tim Ceaser
As I was taking the Voice of the Bearkats Carlos Zimmermann to his hotel on Wednesday afternoon, this was a matchup I mentioned.
Whoever wins the battle between the unknowns, will give their team the advantage on Thursday night.
Cam Huefner has been really good as a starter for the Bearkats. Huefner is averaging 11 points and has knocked down five 3-pointers in his three starts. In a win over Louisiana Monroe, Huefner was 7-11 from the field and 4-5 from distance. At 6-7, 210 pounds, Huefner is a matchup problem for regular post players. The Adelaide, Australia native can play with his back to the basket and, as mentioned above, can knock down the perimeter shot.
And when Huefner needs a break, Kian Scroggins gives the Bearkats a little bigger body in the paint. Scroggins has a knack for offensive rebounding. And his ability to finish around the rim is impressive. Scroggins is shooting nearly 55 percent from the field and leads the Bearkats with 28 offensive rebounds.
Utah Valley will counter with Tim Fuller and Tim Ceaser. Fuller emulates his head coach Mark Madsen in nearly every way. Rebounding, defending, physicality, and getting everyone in the right place. Fuller doesn’t score a lot. He really doesn’t have to. But it’s simply the little things along with the trust Madsen has in the 6-9 redshirt senior.
Tim Ceaser is a little more an offensive threat off the bench. The 6-9 junior can step out and knock down a shot from the perimeter. Or, he can play with his back to the basket. Ceaser also provides a bit of a defensive spark off the bench with his ability to block shots. In the win at Oregon, Ceaser had 13 points and five rebounds. A good sign for the Wolverines.
Javion May vs. Trey Woodbury/Justin Harmon
This is where the game is going to get interesting. A chess match, if you will.
Who will Javion May guard? At least, as the game gets underway? It is safe to say that Javion May will guard both Trey Woodbury and Justin Harmon at some point. May is Jason Hooten’s best perimeter defender and a physical presence that can cause some frustration for Woodbury and Harmon.
Here is the problem: May can only guard one of the two Utah Valley guards. So, it is a pick your poison-type of situation for Jason Hooten. Harmon averages a team-high 14.2 points per game. Woodbury is averaging 13.0 points and 5.2 rebounds.
Both players are shooting over 40 percent from the field. And both are shooting over 36 percent from 3-point range. Woodbury is the reigning WAC Player of the Week after a near-triple-double in the win at Oregon.
Pick your poison. And hope that Qua Grant, Donte Powers, Jaden Ray and your other guards can slow down the other member of the two-headed monster.
What’s On the Line on Thursday Night in Orem?
First and foremost, for Sam Houston, is the opportunity to prove the success in the non-conference slate was not a fluke. Two Quad 1 wins, blowing out non-Division I opponents and Division I opponents, and losing just two games to quality opponents on the road.
Now, the Bearkats get a chance at a conference foe, on the road, against a top-100 NET opponent. After travel delays, arriving extremely early on Wednesday morning, and another trip to the Beehive state, how will the Bearkats respond?
Road wins are huge in the resume seeding system. And adding another one, against a team you will see just once in league play, would be significant. Especially in the WAC opener for both teams.
For Utah Valley, it is another opportunity for a Quad 1 win. It is also an opportunity at redemption from the 2021-22 WAC opener. Utah Valley came in to its 2021-22 WAC opener inside the top-75 of the NET against ACU. And the Wildcats pulled off the upset win over the Wolverines.
So, redemption. Quad 1 win. Statement to the rest of the WAC that Utah Valley is for real. And winning at home is huge because you lose more value points for home losses.
There is quite a bit at stake in the WAC opener between the Bearkats and Wolverines. Tip off is at 6 p.m. MT on ESPN+.
It is sure to be a dog fight. Physical. And perhaps, whoever plays with more heart, may start off WAC play with a win.