The chaotic 2020-21 regular season all comes down to two games this weekend in Phoenix. Simply put, the WAC regular season crown is on the line at GCU Arena when GCU hosts Utah Valley in the final series of the regular season. A sweep by either team means outright champion. If the two teams split the series, they are co-champions.
For GCU, the Lopes are looking for their first-ever WAC regular season championship. Utah Valley is looking for its second title as the Wolverines won the regular season crown in 2013-14.
Not only is the WAC regular season title on the line, WAC Player of the Year honors may be on the line as well. GCU big man Asbjørn Midtgaard leads the nation in field goal percentage at 74.5 percent. And Utah Valley counters with big man Fardaws Aimaq who leads the nation in rebounding at 15.4 boards per game.
Dominant Big Men
Both Aimaq and Midtgaard have won WAC Player of the Week honors multiple times in 2020-21. And both average a double-double. Midtgaard averages 14.4 points and 10.6 boards per game. Aimaq averages 14.8 points and 15.4 rebounds per game.
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” GCU head coach Bryce Drew said. “You know, two really good bigs. They are similar in some ways and different in other ways. I’m sure they’re both looking forward to playing someone that’s the same size as them. They don’t get to do that very often against any college games, conference or non-conference. We’re excited for them to play against each other because they’re two really, really good players.”
Aimaq has already set the UVU single-game record for rebounds twice in 2020-21. The latest was a 25-rebound night against Dixie State on Feb. 13. Both Aimaq and Midtgaard had 16 points and 16 rebounds in the last game against UTRGV and Seattle, respectively.
“It’s two really, really great players,” UVU head coach Mark Madsen said. “You look at Midtgaard, he’s one of the top in the country, I think he is the top, in terms of field goal percentage. You look at Fardaws. He is at the top in terms of rebounding. The toughness for both of them … So, this is what you want as a player. You want to play against the best players. This is what you want as a team. You want to play against top teams. And Grand Canyon is a top team.”
So, you can see why WAC Player of the Year honors may be on the line. Two historical seasons from two players who didn’t even compete in the WAC in 2019-20. Aimaq sat out the 2019-20 season due to transfer rules while Midtgaard transferred over from Wichita State this past offseason.
GCU Has More to Lose
GCU was picked to finish second in the WAC standings, Utah Valley seventh. The Lopes have more invested in their men’s basketball program. Utah Valley lacks in some areas. It has been the expectation of the GCU program to become the Gonzaga of the WAC. That hasn’t happened. Yes, GCU, since becoming eligible for the WAC Tournament prior to the 2017-18 season, has played in two WAC Tournament title games. And yes, the Lopes lost both to New Mexico State.
GCU has yet to win the WAC regular season. And now, with the Lopes hosting Utah Valley in the final regular season series with the regular season crown on the line, there is even more pressure in Phoenix. Not only that, but GCU loses four seniors in Asbjørn Midtgaard, Alessandro Lever, Mikey Dixon and Oscar Frayer. If you are calculating, that is also four starters. Add in the atmosphere GCU has at GCU Arena, and the expectations are sky-high, which means GCU has more to lose this weekend.
Utah Valley’s Success Hinges on New Roster
Meanwhile, Utah Valley had nearly a whole new roster coming into the 2020-21 season. Eight players who see significant minutes for the Wolverines were not on the 2019-20 roster. And both Trey Woodbury and Jamison Overton were role players in 2019-20. So, there were very few expectations for the Wolverines to everyone outside the UVU program. Now, in his second season as a head coach Mark Madsen has the Wolverines on the verge of their second WAC title since joining the WAC in 2013-14.
“It’s very business-like, matter-of-fact,” Madsen said. “So, I think professionalism and focus is what I’ve seen from guys so far this week in the work we’ve done. And excitement to play for something important and to play a really good team.”
Eerily Similar Roster Make-Up for Both Teams
Two really good big men. Wing players with athleticism and the ability to score both inside and outside. Point guards that don’t turn the ball over and get teammates in the right spots on offense. Bench players who bring instant energy. Both GCU and Utah Valley have so many similarities in their rosters.
“The bigs on both teams are really good,” Drew said. “Ya know, the perimeter, like you said, there’s just a lot of comparisons between the two. You enjoy watching them on film. Offensively, they run really good action. They get the ball where they want to get it and they have a lot of really good pieces that fit together from the inside and the outside.”
Fardaws Aimaq vs. Asbjørn Midtgaard. Evan Cole vs. Alessandro Lever. Mikey Dixon vs. Trey Woodbury. Oscar Frayer vs. Jamison Overton. Jovan Blacksher Jr. vs. Blaze Nield. And those are just the starters.
Gabe McGlothan vs. Tim Fuller. Le’Tre Darthard vs. Sean Miller-Moore. Jaden McClanahan vs. Chance McMillian.
It’s like looking in the mirror. And perhaps, that is why Utah Valley and GCU are playing for the WAC regular season crown.
“Utah Valley, really good team, really well-coached,” Drew said. “A lot of similarities between the two teams with the two bigs and the lineups. How we defend is very similar. So, yeah, we’re really looking forward to playing this weekend.”
Friday Night is Must-Win for Both Teams
Remember, a split ensures the teams are co-champions. A sweep ensures the outright champion. So, Friday night is a must-win for both Utah Valley and GCU. And both coaches know it, too.
“Our whole approach has been one game at a time,” Drew said. “Right now, our whole focus is Friday. We want to play good on Friday and be as prepared as we can. As we’ve seen in these weekend games, back-to-backs, games vary night-to-night. So, we’re just planning on Friday and then after Friday, we’ll obviously start looking toward Saturday. But, one game at a time.”
GCU is coming off a Seattle series where the Lopes shot poorly in a 63-57 loss to the Redhawks. It was the first Friday loss of the season for the Lopes.
Utah Valley hasn’t lost a Friday game in WAC play. The Wolverines are 6-0 in the first game of the back-to-back games. And think it’s a one-game series is what Madsen sees as a strength for his Wolverines.
“I think one of the great things about this team is taking every single game as a one-game series,” Madsen said. “Right now we have one game to worry about which is Friday night. You know, when that game is finished, then we’ll have another game Saturday night.
Friday night’s game can be seen on either ESPN 3 or GCU TV. Tip time is set for 7 p.m. MT.