NEW MEXICO STATE (5-5, 2-4 WAC)
As mentioned before, this season looks nothing like Chris Jans’ previous three seasons in Las Cruces, in every aspect possible. Still, the Aggies are looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season. Despite their regular season title hopes currently look a bit rocky, there is still hope. A quick run of good form to close out the remaining six games on the schedule is just what this program needs. The problem for the Aggies this season has come in the form of a mild case of Jekyll and Hide performances. Yes, their lineups have varied due to injuries and transfer eligibility timelines. But a level of consistency is needed to finish the season on a strong note.
“Our issue now is figuring out how to play better all of the time,” Jans said. “We can’t sustain our level of play that we are accustom to and it’s showing up in the loss column. We got to fix it asap.”
New Mexico State needs to bring their best efforts and mentality on Friday night. They will be dealing with one of the best rebounders in the country. The Aggies also face three opposing players who average 15.5 PPG or higher. Where the Aggies may find defensive success against Utah Valley is by clogging the paint.
They’ll need to stop Wolverine big man Fardaws Aimaq and leading scorer Jamison Overton. Both players make their living around the basket. This could force Utah Valley to kick it out to the perimeter, where they don’t necessarily thrive. With only Trey Woodbury (.417 3P%) and Le’tre Darthard (.472 3P%) capable shooters from deep this season. Anything to make this squad uncomfortable down low will be key. Especially because the Aggies thrive when gathering offensive rebounds and converting them into second-chance points. Aimaq could make that difficult for them if not corralled properly.
UTAH VALLEY (7-8, 5-2 WAC)
Mark Madsen’s Wolverines are coming off of a series split against Old Hammer rivals Dixie State. A split series at home is a painful way to kick off the rivalry renewed at the Division-I level. Still, in that loss Utah Valley looked impressive. Fardaws Aimaq setting a program record for total rebounds in a single game with 25. Plus, junior guard Trey Woodbury had a career night with 27 points and a tremendous alley-oop.
— UVU Men’s Basketball (@UVUmbb) February 14, 2021
At 7-8 overall and 5-2 in WAC play, this Wolverine program has played very well in pursuit of a regular season title. Though something to keep an eye on is the lack of scoring depth coming off the bench for Madsen’s group. The starting lineup features four double-digit scorers who account for 78.1% of their total points per game. This does provide a varied scoring option for the Wolverines. UVU features three of the WAC’s top five scorers in Overton, Woodbury and Aimaq.
But the lack of depth also leaves them vulnerable when it comes to foul trouble, fatigue or just bad shooting nights. Or, even worse, poor defensive performances. Utah Valley’s margin between points per game (77.8) and allowed points per game (77.1) is just 0.7 PPG. But, if this becomes a simple scoring contest between the two programs, Utah Valley may edge out their hosts. Especially if someone like Woodbury can create space by knocking down mid-range and deep shots, just like Saturday. But if they fail to knock down shots early, Utah Valley may find themselves fighting from behind against a tough Aggie defense (66.9 PPG allowed this season).
MATCHUP TO KEEP AN EYE ON: FARDAWS AIMAQ VS. WHO EVER GOES FOR A REBOUND
Twenty-five. That is the number of rebounds redshirt sophomore center Fardaws Aimaq grabbed on Saturday night against in-state conference foe Dixie State.
The 6-11 big man and Vancouver, British Columbia native is having a stellar season, thus far. Aimaq is averaging 15.7 PPG, 15.5 RPG, 1.9 BPG & 1.5 APG and leads the nation in rebounds per game. Already having accumulated 12 double-doubles on the season, Aimaq is having an all-conference caliber season and surely in the running for Player of the Year, as well.
Anyone tasked with guarding him in the post will also have to deal with ACC grad transfer Evan Cole (6-10, 230, 5.8 RPG). The two make Utah Valley’s own twin towers in the starting lineup. Both not only rebound in tandem but also facilitate offensive opportunities in the post for themselves and others. The Aggies have maybe two or three front court options who could defend the Wolverine’s size as well as score if need be.
If Utah Valley has a clear advantage anywhere, it’s down low. Much of it is due to point guard Blaze Nield and his outstanding turnover ratio of 4.92, good enough for 3rd in the nation. In combination, converted second chances could be the difference maker.
WHAT’S ON THE LINE?
KenPom currently has New Mexico state pegged as 8-point favorites in both contests, but given current form it feels like anyone’s game. I predict a split as the Aggies can be dangerous at times but if history tells us anything, they’ve needed a Friday night awakening to pick things up on Saturday.
The Wolverines have yielded similar results. But still have a sweep against California Baptist under their belts. So, Chris Jans and company need to come prepared for a possible sweep at “home” as both programs could really use two wins.
Game 1: Utah Valley 75, New Mexico State 68
Game 2: New Mexico State 80, Utah Valley 71
Tip off for both WAC matchups this weekend is at 7:00 PM MT Friday and Saturday and can be seen on the WAC Digital Network.