Implications
Blaze Nield and Utah Valley have a big opportunity for an in-state win and a Quad I win on opening night. Courtesy UVU Athletics.

Mid-Major Game for Each WAC Team with Big Implications

Non-conference games can have some big implications. In the case of the Western Athletic Conference, those implications are significant. With a new seeding system in place for the WAC Tournament in March, non-conference games are now even more important.

That’s why games against mid-major opponents become worth even more. Most of the games are 50/50 games. There are some where the WAC school will be the underdog. GCU heading to Laramie to take on Wyoming is one. Utah Valley at Utah State, BYU and Boise State are a few others.

But, games against Big West foes or even Big Sky foes are games the WAC should be favored in. On Nov. 7, GCU hosts Montana State and CBU hosts Long Beach State. Both should be favored to win at home in their season openers.

In order for the WAC to move up in the KenPom conference rankings, teams have to win those 50/50 games more often than not. And while doing that, pull off some upsets along the way. Pulling off an upset could mean the difference between the 2-seed and the 8-seed in WAC Vegas. That is probably a little drastic. But, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, either.

So, as you can see, huge implications in the non-conference games.

So, let’s look at a mid-major game on each school’s schedule that has some big implications.

Disclaimer – this list will not include any Power 6 games because it’s a 99% fact that WAC schools will be the underdog in those contests.

Abilene Christian at CSU Bakersfield, Dec. 17, 2022

ACU has 12 non-conference games. Three of those are against non-DI opponents. Two of them are against Power 6 opponents. People might look at the game against Weber State as a little bigger than this game against a Big West foe. I get it. The Big Sky ranks ahead of the Big West. So, it would make sense.

But, this is a true road game against a team that plays a similar style of basketball. The Rod Barnes-coached Roadrunners are physical, like to force turnovers, and get after you defensively. Remind you of anyone?

Sure, CSU Bakersfield hasn’t really been the same team since it left the WAC. The Roadrunners went 15-11 in 2020-21 and 8-19 in 2021-22.  This is the same CSU Bakersfield team that won a WAC regular season title and shocked New Mexico State in the WAC title game in 2016.

But, like it was mentioned above, this is a true road game for ACU. And road wins weigh a little more into the WAC seeding system than home games.

Implications
Damien Daniels and the defensive-minded Wildcats head to California to take on defensive-minded CSU Bakersfield in December. Courtesy Breanna Biorato/Visually Breanna.

Long Beach State at California Baptist, Nov. 7, 2022

Big West regular season champs vs. a team that loaded up for its first season of eligibility for the NCAA Tournament. Two teams separated by less than 50 miles. And it’s the season opener for both squads. You have to love this game.

The Lancers brought in five Division I transfers to go along with WAC Freshman of the Year Taran Armstrong among others. This might be the deepest team that head coach Rick Croy has had since CBU joined the Division I ranks. 7-footer Timothy Ighoefe came over from Georgetown. Riley Battin came over from Utah. Joe Quintana is a sharpshooter from LMU. Hunter Goodrick is a 6-7 forward with range out of South Dakota. And Blondeau Tchoukuiegno is another guard who came over from New Hampshire.

Add these guys with Armstrong, brother Tre Armstrong, Reed Nottage, Juhlawnei Stone, and Scotty Washington and you have a really deep Lancer squad. Starting off the season on the right foot, at home, against a regular season champ is a big opportunity.

Grand Canyon at Wyoming, Dec. 3, 2022

The high plains in December. What more could you ask for? Arena-Auditorium is one of the toughest places to play in America. And GCU gets to make the return trip to Laramie to face a Wyoming squad that some believe could win the Mountain West.

This game features two preseason Players of the Year in Wyoming forward Graham Ike and GCU point guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. It features a pair of teams who some believe can both win their respective leagues. Two KenPom top-100 squads going head-to-head.

And in rare fashion, it is a true road game for the Lopes. GCU has four games away from Phoenix. Two of which are true road games at Nevada and at Wyoming. The other two are on a neutral floor. The reason this game is bigger than at Nevada is because this is an opportunity for a Quad I win for the Lopes. And that could come in handy heading into WAC play where seeding for WAC Vegas is a more dependent than ever on the non-conference slate.

New Mexico State at Saint Mary’s, Dec. 14, 2022

This is arguably the biggest game on the non-conference slate for New Mexico State. Yes, the rivalry games against UTEP and New Mexico are huge. Not disputing that.

But, this is an opportunity for a Quad I win on the road against an NCAA Tournament team in the Gaels that could have a significant impact on seeding for WAC Vegas. UTEP and New Mexico have KenPom rankings of 177 and 138, respectively. Saint Mary’s comes in at 47. So, you can see the impact a win in Moraga could have.

Add in that this is the final leg of a wild 3-game road trip for the Aggies. And it makes this game more interesting. New Mexico State goes out to the West Coast and plays at Santa Clara on Dec.7. Then hops on a plane to head to Pittsburgh to take on Duquesne on Dec. 11 before heading back to the West Coast to take on Saint Mary’s. Winning two out of three of these games would be huge. Sweeping the road trip would be even bigger.

Implications
Mike Peake and New Mexico State face the Saint Mary’s Gaels in Moraga in December. Courtesy Breanna Biorato/VisualllyBreanna.

Sam Houston at Missouri State, Dec. 22, 2022

There are two games against mid-major opponents on the Sam Houston schedule that stand out. The Bearkats travel to Reno to take on Nevada on Nov. 28. And then there is this contest at Missouri State.

So, we are going with the game against the Missouri Valley Conference foe. The biggest reason is because the Bears boatraced the Bearkats, 77-55, at Johnson Coliseum last season. It was one of the few non-conference Division I home games for Sam Houston and it didn’t go over well. The Bears shot nearly 60 percent from the field in the second half while Sam Houston never got going offensively in the humbling loss.

Jason Hooten’s squad is deep at the guard line, added some size from the transfer portal, and have a freshman guard that’s going to be really good for the Bearkats. And this game is the final tuneup for the Bearkats before beginning WAC play on Dec. 29.

Seattle U at Portland, Nov. 19, 2022

Seattle U is coming off arguably its best season in a long time. The Redhawks won their first-ever WAC regular season title, had 23 wins and did it all under a first-year head coach. And after losing All-WAC point guard Darrion Trammell, there are some questions surrounding the Redhawks heading into 2022-23. Cameron Tyson and Riley Grigsby return. Two other starters return as does nearly the entire bench. The biggest question is at the point guard position.

With that being said, a true road game at a West Coast Conference foe is a big one. The WAC wants to move up the conference rankings ladder. Wins against other quality mid-major opponents will help accomplish that goal. Portland begins the 2022-23 season with a KenPom ranking of 121. Seattle is at 161. So you can see this has some implications. The Pilots are coming off a 19-win season with some big expectations. Seattle is in a similar boat. And, again, this is a true road game for the Redhawks. Wins on the road could be the difference between the 2-seed and the 6-seed at WAC Vegas.

Implications
Cam Tyson have a big game against a WCC foe for Pacific Northwest bragging rights. Courtesy Breanna Biorato/VisuallyBreanna.

Southern Utah at New Mexico, Nov. 7, 2022

I love that one of the newest members of the WAC will get a chance at a quality win right off the bat. The Pit is no easy place to play. And Richard Pitino has put together a talented Lobo squad in his second season in Albuquerque.

But, Southern Utah is no scrub. In the past two seasons, Southern Utah has won 43 games, a Big Sky regular season crown, and multiple postseason games against quality opponents. And the Thunderbirds return a bunch of veterans including WAC Player of the Year candidate Tevian Jones. Two other starters in Maizen Fausett and Jason Spurgin return. Sixth man Harrison Butler returns. And Simon brought in sharpshooter Cameron Healy along with Deng Dut out of Wyoming and JUCO transfer Drake Allen.

The T-Birds know how to win. And again, this is a true road game against another mid-major. SUU could put the WAC on notice with a win at The Pit to start off the 2022-23 season.

Stephen F. Austin vs. Furman, Dec. 17, 2022

The 2022-23 non-conference slate for the Lumberjacks is not what some might call spectacular. In fact, SFA should come out of non-conference play with 11-12 wins. There is also potential to finish the slate unblemished.

No Power 6 teams wanted to take on SFA in 2022-23. And it’s not like the non-conference slate is filled with eye-opening mid-majors, either. Middle Tennessee stands out a bit. As does a trip to South Dakota to take on South Dakota State in November. There is the road trip to Denton, Louisiana to take on La Tech where Kyle Keller started his coaching career.

But, this semi-neutral site game in Greenville, South Carolina is the best game on the non-conference slate for the Jacks. The Southern Conference is ranked higher than Conference USA and the WAC in the KenPom rankings. Furman is coming off a 22-win season and is in the KenPom top-100 to start the 2022-23 season. So, this is an opportunity for a Quad I win for the Jacks. SFA doesn’t have any other opportunities for those in the non-conference slate. So, the implications for the Jacks in mid-December matchup are big.

Tarleton at UCF, Dec. 11, 2022

Head coach Billy Gillispie seems to put together one of the hardest Division I schedules for the Texans every season. One could argue that the game at Wichita State on Nov. 26 is just as big. The Shockers have a KenPom rating of 83. So, it would make sense. But, this is an opportunity against an American Athletic Conference foe. One in which Tarleton has never played before. A team that is coming off an 18-win season and who was ousted from the AAC Tournament by Memphis.

For reference, the AAC is ranked 7th in the KenPom conference rankings to start 2022-23. The WAC sits at 13. And with Tarleton being eligible for the WAC Tournament, there are significant seeding implications on the line. To many, Tarleton is one of those teams in the WAC on the bubble outside the top-9. But, somehow, Billy Gillispie’s squad always seems to shock people. Just ask Gonzaga and Michigan and perhaps even Wichita State from last season. The Texans held their own. If Freddy Hicks can get healthy, the Texans will surprise people, perhaps even the UCF Knights.

Javontae Hopkins and Tarleton play another difficult non-conference slate. Courtesy Tarleton Athletics.

Utah Tech at Weber State, Dec. 3, 2022

In-state games are awesome. And when you feature the all-time winningest collegiate coach in the state, it makes the game even more important. Yes, Utah Tech plays at Utah State two nights before. And that is a big game for the Trailblazers. But, there is a revenge factor for the Trailblazers in their trip to Ogden. Weber State beat up the Trailblazers in 2021 at the Burns Arena in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The Wildcats show nearly 57 percent from the field and used a big second half in the 87-70 win over the Trailblazers.

Now, Utah Tech brings its new brand to Ogden to face first-year head coach Eric Duft who replaces longtime head coach Randy Rahe. And the Trailblazers bring their veteran guard line as well as some new size to the Dee Events Center. With Utah Tech being eligible for the WAC Tournament this season, a road win over an in-state foe could have some big implications.

Utah Valley at Utah State, Nov. 7, 2022

0-13 all-time vs. Utah State. Haven’t played the Aggies since 2018. People doubting you after losing arguably the best big man in the country in the offseason. Quad I opportunity. In-state game.

What isn’t there to like along with the implications the season opener holds for Utah Valley?

Trey Woodbury said his knee is 100 percent. Justin Harmon is healthy. Tahj Small makes an already deep guard line even deeper. Mark Madsen added a 7-footer in the offseason. And Madsen returns his two power forwards. Utah Valley is one of a handful of teams that returns the most. But, will that equate to wins? And could it equate to a season-opening win at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in front of a raucous Aggie crowd? This is a big opportunity to start the 2022-23 season for the Wolverines. And there is a lot on the line in Logan on Nov. 7.

North Texas at UT Arlington, Dec. 6, 2022

Bragging rights, a chance big win over a KenPom top-100 squad, and so much more. This is a fascinating game. And the best part is it’s at College Park Center in Arlington. 42 minutes separates the two schools. And there is a lot of history as the two teams have met 57 times. North Texas has won the last three meetings including  64-36 beatdown of the Mavericks last November. UTA scored just 12 first-half points. Rough go for Greg Young in his first season at UTA.

And while many outside the UTA locker room aren’t expecting much from the Mavericks in 2022-23, that may be a good thing. UTA has nothing to lose in this game and EVERYTHING to gain. Home game in what might be a really good atmosphere. Against a high-quality opponent and the defending Conference USA regular season champs.

What’s not to like? And the implications are there for UTA. The Mavericks are back in the WAC after a nine-year hiatus. 12 of 13 teams make the WAC Tournament in 2022-23. And non-conference games have implications on seeding. So, there is a ton to gain for the Mavericks in this crosstown game.

Pedro Castro and UTA take on North Texas again in a crosstown matchup. (Photo by/Sharon Ellman)

UTRGV at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Nov. 17, 2022

Since UTRGV plays Corpus Christi twice, I chose the road game to feature in this write-up. Road games are going to have more implications than home games when it comes to WAC Vegas seeding. Plus, this is turning into a rivalry game. So, it makes sense. Justin Johnson returns for the Vaqueros as the leader of an entirely new roster. But, Matt Figger added size and some Division I experience to the roster. So, perhaps that will help the Vaqueros get a win in this series.

Corpus Christi swept the South Texas Showdown in 2021. The Islanders won 83-77 in Edinburg and 75-69 at their beautiful campus in Corpus Christi. So there are some big implications in the 2022 South Texas Showdown.

 

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