Welcome officially to Western Athletic Conference Tournament action, folks. This time last year we were on the verge of a big shake up in all of sports. And, fans of college basketball felt especially affected one day after another. On March 12th, 2020 the Western Athletic Conference opted to cancel the tournament in Las Vegas.
That saw New Mexico State receive the conference’s auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament for the men. Regular season champ Kansas City received the auto-bid on the women’s side. But with little time to celebrate, less than 24 hours later, the NCAA made the tough call to cancel the big dance as well. It was the first cancellation in the competition’s 82-year history.
So now, nearly a year later, we are in a more understanding, yet, not entirely different place. Though fans will not be allowed in this year, we return to Orleans Arena on Thursday. No. 3 seed New Mexico State Aggies and No. 6 UTRGV Vaqueros finish off day one with a late night matchup.
The Aggies lead the all-time series 22-3, winning the last nineteen meetings. Last time out, New Mexico State launched maybe its best defensive performance of the season to beat UTRGV 69-51 in El Paso.
They’ll meet on Thursday with every bit of opportunity as anyone else in the field to cut down the nets on Saturday. This is March after all right?
NEW MEXICO STATE (10-7, 7-6 WAC)
The Aggies are looking at their quarterfinal draw as just the start to a planned tournament run. The hope is to become four-peat WAC tournament champions on Saturday. As mentioned last time around, the Aggies didn’t have a chance to cut down the nets after a stellar 2019-20 season. There might not be a team in the conference more motivated than the Aggies to play well this week. Considering the season this program had, a Tournament Championship feels like a must.
Chris Jans’ squad is catching steam at the right time. The Aggies are winnings in four of their last five, including a 67-60 “home” win against their possible next opponent 2-seed Utah Valley.
Second Team All-WAC selection Jabari Rice is averaging 13.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG & 2.3 APG on the year. He is supported in scoring by senior forwards, Johnny McCants (10.5 PPG) and Donnie Tillman (10.9 PPG). Both of whom are playing some of their best basketball of late, maybe all season. McCants is averaging 11.4 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.4 SPG and 1.4 BPG over his last five games. Tillman posted 17.5 PPG and 5.5 RPG in their series sweep of the Trailblazers on the road.
Also a player to keep an eye on is senior wing Clayton Henry, a WAC All-Defensive Team honoree. The Calgary, Alberta native helped secure the Aggie win last time these programs faced off, scoring his entire 15 points in the last 14 minutes of play.
Chris Jans’ squad looks to be at full strength after a couple of missed games from key starters like Evan Gilyard II, Tillman and others. All hands appear on deck for Vegas, along with Wilfried Likayi and Gerald Doakes who both returned to the floor against Dixie State.
KEYS TO AN AGGIE WIN
Aside from who is going to score the ball against the Vaqueros, a point of emphasis for Jans and his staff must be the Aggies’ defensive effort. It may be the difference maker in a run to the tournament finals or early exit.
Looking at the past five games where the Aggies are 4-1, it’s all about turnovers. The Aggies have managed to force 14.4 opponent turnovers per game, with that lone loss to Tarleton State being the exception. The Texans took that 27-point whooping in game one, adjusted and beat the Aggies the following night, 64-55. The difference? Well shooting 50% from the floor compared to the Aggies 32.7% is a good start but logging 14 assists to just 5 turnovers is another stat to look at.
Their offensive strategy has stayed the same (plenty of 3-pointers included). But, with the right effort on the other side of the ball, NMSU should have the advantage. Especially against the Vaqueros who have not exactly handled the ball well lately.
Though this has been an unorthodox and tough season on the New Mexico State program, it’s true what they say. Timing is everything. This team is getting healthy and figuring things out on the floor all at the right time of year.
UTRGV (9-9, 2-5 WAC)
UTRGV is looking to stop the New Mexico State consecutive title count at three early on in the tournament. Interim head coach Jai Steadman’s group has looked a bit different after their nearly month long pause this season. The Vaqueros came off pause with a 77-75 loss at Texas Southern in Houston on February 6. The Vaqueros are currently riding a five-game losing streak. In its most recent series against conference newbies Tarleton State, the Vaqueros were swept by the Texans.
KEYS TO A VAQUERO WIN
The Vaqueros have turned into a different team midway through the season. We will get to this in depth in the next section below. But, for starters, this squad has had trouble scoring the ball, especially in their last three games. UTRGV is averaging just 52.0 PPG and shooting 34.6% from the field. The Vaqueros have also shot 78 total threes in the process (netting 19, 24.2%).
This duty falls on their two leading scorers, redshirt sophomore guard Quinton Johnson II and senior floor general Javon Levi, both averaging 10.3 PPG. Both players have struggled since their return to conference action against Utah Valley. Johnson II is averaging just 5.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG & 2.4 APG while shooting 20.5% from the field and 15.0% from deep.
Levi’s situation is a bit more complex. The former two-time WAC DPOY is also looked to as the team’s main facilitator (5.3 APG) and defensive anchor on the perimeter (2.9 SPG). However =, his scoring performance during that aforementioned second stretch of conference action is well below his season averages (8.0 PPG, 30.8% from the field, 22.7% from three). Levi is coming off of his best performance on Saturday night against Tarleton. Levi had 19 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists on 6-10 shooting from the field, including going 3-4 from deep and 4-5 from the charity stripe. Any carried momentum by Levi from Edinburg, TX to Las Vegas will be needed to secure the quarterfinal win.
MATCHUP TO KEEP AN EYE ON:
For New Mexico State: It’s C.J. Roberts
Robert’s has been a great story to focus on as the Aggies continued to find the right stride in March. The 6-1, JUCO transfer has been a tremendous offensive spark for his squad off of the bench. Roberts was one of four New Mexico State players to reach double-digits when these two programs met last Tuesday.
Roberts is a true Sixth Man, averaging 7.2 PPG (6th best on the team) in 17 games. He comes in and provides just enough scoring output to keep the team’s offensive flow going when others like Rice or Clayton are struggling. Over his last five games Roberts has averaged 11.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG 1.8 APG. Shooting 42.2% from the field and 45% from deep. He does all of that in just around 22.0 minutes off the bench.
Roberts is also one of the better 3-point shooters on a trigger-happy Aggie squad. NMSU leads the league as a team with 27.8 attempts per game. Roberts averages the second highest 3-point percentage among players with at least forty attempts on the season. Roberts shoots 35.7%, just behind regular starter and big man Johnny McCants. To help close or widened any sort of gap on the scoreboard Thursday night, Roberts needs to be ready as soon as he is called to head to the scorer’s table.
For UTRGV: It’s playing like themselves
Both of these programs have had multiple games postponed or cancelled throughout the season. But, it seems as if the Vaqueros have had their game thrown off the most. Look, not only have they dealt with cancellations due to COVID-19 but also the passing of their head coach Lew Hill back in early February. If anyone is entitled to an off-night or two, it’s the Vaqueros. But, still in their current five-game losing streak, they’ve abandoned their style of play. That’s their high-energy, hustle-filled style. It’s crashing the glass for second-chance opportunities and getting to the foul stripe.
UTRGV’s style of play of late has turned to 3-point shooting. Not really their forte, as they average just 30% from deep (last in the WAC) but average the 4th-most attempts at 22.9 per game. This transition may be directly attributed to the loss of their leading scorer and starting center, Sean Rhea, who entered his name in transfer portal nearly two weeks ago.
UTRGV did a great job of adapting and playing without him in the series against Utah Valley. The Vaqueros lost both contests by a 4.5 PPG margin. The rest of the lineup continued to rebound, hanging around with the nations leading rebounder Fardaws Aimaq in game one. UTRGV switched things up but in game two with more 3-point field goals (8-17) but less free throw opportunities (4-8, 50%) than in the first outing (15-23, 65.2%).
They’ve also had polar opposite performances handling the ball in their last three games. UTRGV has an assist to turnover ratio of 0.64, or 32 assists to 50 turnovers. To survive and advance they really need to improve in every category listed above. UTRGV needs to return to the level and style of play they have demonstrated prior this season.
KenPom has the Aggies as 7-point favorites on Thursday night. Given the different levels of momentum each programs come into this one with I say that holds. But remember this is March. Anything can happen.
Score: New Mexico State 72, UTRGV 65
The winner of this game goes on to face 2-seed Utah Valley in the semifinals on Friday night. A tall task for either squad but the Aggies secured the split against the regular season co-champions. The Vaqueros fought hard in their return to Division I play back in late February, but were ultimately swept by the Wolverines on the road.
Tip off for this quarterfinals tournament action is at 8:00 PM PT/9:00 PM MT/10:00 PM CT on Friday and can be seen on ESPN+.