WAC Opener
Tevian Jones and SUU open WAC play at New Mexico State on Wednesday night. Courtesy SUU Athletics.

MBB: New Mexico State Hosts Southern Utah in WAC Opener

Lo and behold, it’s officially time for some conference basketball. A new season, with two new teams and the same dogfight style each week. And the 2022-23 WAC opener is a good gone.

What an exciting time for WAC fans this season, as who could have foreseen an encore to last season’s incredible progress.

But apparently, we haven’t seen anything yet. With 10 teams inside KenPom’s top-200 and three inside the NET rankings top-100, including Sam Houston at 20. The WAC’s evolution continues while creating one of the toughest pathways to the NCAA Tournament in the country.

These two programs, although regionally very close, have not seen much each other on the hardwood. A total of three meetings throughout the years, mostly in the 90’s, has resulted in a 3-0 series lead by New Mexico State. This may be Southern Utah’s best shot at their first win over the Aggies and a key win to their WAC logbook.

New Mexico State 7-5 (0-0 WAC)

Greg Heiar’s squad posted mixed results from their trip to neighboring El Paso last week. Their time at the WestStar Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational resulted in an opening round loss to the Kent State Golden Flashes. And then finished with a consolation game win over North Carolina A&T. The Aggies 7-5 record reflects an inconsistent squad that can play with anyone one minute and struggle the next.

But, that’s sometimes the nature of a program undergoing a coaching change.

To be fair, those losses have come against some of college basketball’s best at the moment. Santa Clara currently sits atop the WCC standings at 12-3, along with St. Mary’s who will likely be among the top-3 in that same conference come March. Kent State (MAC) and UC-Irvine (Big West) are favorites to win their respective conferences and are playing up to that hype.

If the Aggies have any chance of heading back to the Big Dance one more time as members of the WAC, their best shot now is as tournament champions come March.

Keys to an Aggie win:

Defend the paint, Efficient Ball Movement & Control the tempo

Southern Utah 8-5 (0-0, in the WAC)

The Thunderbirds are about to embark on their first conference slate as members of the WAC. And their WAC opener is against the defending champs.

Right out of the gate they have a road test at one of the conference’s most successful programs of the last decade. Todd Simon’s group has been battle tested during non-conference though. Three very close losses at now 22nd-ranked New Mexico and a near upset inside Allen Fieldhouse against Kansas.

The Thunderbirds also went on the road to Pac-12 foe Colorado and took things down to the wire. Southern Utah had four different players reach double-digits. The T-Birds as a whole shot 40.9 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from deep.

This team has all the components to make a deep run in their new home. An all-conference caliber scorer, depth and players who appear capable of playing their roles to perfection against top quality opponents.

Keys to a Thunderbird win:

Control the tempo, High level perimeter defense & Dominate the paint

Players to Watch

New Mexico State

Junior Guard-Deshawndre Washington

Washington has played his way into the Player of the Year conversation, with an impressive non-conference performance. Currently averaging team highs in points (12.8 PPG), rebounds (7.9 RPG), assists (4.8 APG) and steals (1.8 SPG). The 6-7 JUCO transfer helps creates one of the more potent backcourt duos in the WAC. Alongside fellow Chicago, IL native Xavier Pinson, Heiar has two guards who can score, defend & distribute the ball with anyone in the country.

Where Washington has been most useful for the Aggies this season is defensively at the top of the key, during fast break opportunities and creatively as a distributor all over the floor. During the teams last win over North Carolina A&T, he took a different approach to the win. Washington had just 5 points on 2-6 shooting from the floor, but grabbed nine boards and dished out six assists to just two turnovers. Washington knows there are other weapons on this squad, and drawing defensive focus while creating opportunities for others may be the most dangerous thing about him.

Junior Guard-DaJuan Gordon

Gordon is my second Aggie to look out in Wednesday’s WAC opener for a particular reason. It is anticipated that Heiar’s best defender will guard Southern Utah’s best scorer, Tevian Jones. The 6-5 SEC transfer can make his impact on both sides of the floor. And if Jones begins to feel his shot inside the Pan Am Center on Wednesday, Gordon is New Mexico State’s first chance at neutralizing the Thunderbirds most versatile scorer.

He can also contribute on the offensive end, like multiple players on this Aggie roster, boasting a versatile game. The Chicago, IL native is averaging 11.8 PPG, 6.4 RPG & 2.2 SPG over his last five games, with season averages not so different.

Southern Utah

Senior Guard/Forward-Tevian Jones

Jones has emerged as Southern Utah’s go-to, all-around scorer this season. The now-3rd year Thunderbird has fully embraced his role this season, averaging 19.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG & 1.7 SPG. He’s also taking a whopping 15.3 field goal attempts a game, while still posting a 40.4 percent field goal percentage.

The 6-7 former high major guard is a threat at multiple spots on the floor. He excels inside the arc (46.7%) and getting to the free throw line (79.9% on 6.2 attempts a game). Though his 3-point shooting numbers (33.7%) don’t necessarily reflect a multi-level threat. You could ask northern neighbors New Mexico, who Jones dropped six 3-pointers on in their season opener. He also poses a defensive threat atop the key. As a long and athletic guard averaging 1.7 SPG, add steals and impending fast breaks to his game opposing coaches.

Senior Guard-Harrison Butler

The 6-5 230 senior guard is on fire lately. With a recent double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) against Colorado over the weekend. It was the perfect cherry on top of a five game stretch, in which the Thunderbirds went 4-1 and Butler averaged 18.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.2 SPG & 1.0 BPG during that time.

The senior guard has spent his entire career in Cedar City with a primary role as first man off of the bench. This season he has once again elevated his game, this time as a starter. Averaging 13.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.5 APG & 1.2 SPG in just 30.0 MPG. The primary defensive focus may fall on his high scoring, high flying teammate, but that’s where Butler thrives. Scoring from anywhere on the floor, and he may hit double-figures before you really realize it.

What’s on the Line?

Wednesday’s mid-week WAC opener has plenty at stake. For the Thunderbirds, it is a chance to begin their new lives in their new conference undefeated. With momentum and a positive attitude for what looks like a grueling season ahead. Southern Utah has the foundation and players to become one of the WAC’s perpetual top-half contenders going forward. And a win against one of the conferences most successful programs just cements that idea even further.

For the host Aggies, a tremendous legacy in the WAC needs an equally tremendous send off. New Mexico State has a 196-64 record since joining the conference 17 seasons ago. Also creating a fortress in Las Cruces, posting a 117-13 record at home. Anything less than a regular season or tournament championship just won’t cut it as the send off this program deserves.

Prediction

The KenPom ($) line for this WAC opener is an Aggie win by six. But the Thunderbirds have a couple of favorable things on their side: winning momentum and multiple players who can score it and help them achieve that No. 3 scoring average (90.0 PPG) in the nation. I predict a dogfight and an up-tempo one at that. But this WAC opener may come down to who distributes it, scores and gets to the free throw line the most. And I give that edge to Southern Utah.

Southern Utah 80, New Mexico State 75

Tip-off for this WAC opener is scheduled for 7:00 PM MT and can be watched live on ESPN+.

Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.

About the author

Larry Muniz

Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast "Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry". He is also a USWBA Member.

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