2021
COVID-19, WAC Expansion, and the possibility that New Mexico State might not win the WAC in 2021 are all top storylines heading into the new year. Courtesy NMSU Athletics.
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Top Storylines for the Western Athletic Conference as We Enter 2021

It goes without saying that 2020 was a mind boggling year. There was no shortage of pain and frustration for many. In fact, it gave the term “March Madness” a whole different meaning when everything shut down just one week before the NCAA tournament was scheduled to tip off. A lot happened in 2020, and unfortunately there’s likely more to come in 2021 until the pandemic is finally over. 

For programs such as New Mexico State, the end of 2020 was just flat out terrible. They have seen game after game canceled and are constantly on the move because they can’t even play in their home town of Las Cruces. In fact, every school except Seattle has had multiple contests canceled. Whether it be struggling with players staying healthy or opposing teams canceling due to health issues of their own, it has been messy for just about everybody. 

Off the court, there have been rumors of a potential expansion of the conference. That alone has sparked a lot of debate and questions on social media. Needless to say, it’s been a roller coaster of a season thus far. Here are some story lines to keep an eye as we finally enter 2021 and conference play.

WAC Expansion

As I mentioned above, expansion has been a hot topic as of late. It is rumored that the following schools have received an invitation to join the WAC: Lamar University, Stephen F. Austin State University, Sam Houston State University, Abilene Christian University, and Southern Utah University. 

Other than Southern Utah, these four schools are all located in Texas. In addition, all of these schools compete at the Division I level so they are all eligible to play in postseason tournaments immediately. 

The obvious goal with the expansion is to bring football back to the WAC. But, it would also tremendously impact basketball as a whole. As pointed out by Justin Martinez of the Las Cruces Sun-News, these schools would help improve the overall conference KenPom ranking. Southern Utah, Abilene Christian, and Stephen F. Austin ranked in the top 185 in the country a month ago. 

It is also rumored that Chicago State may be on their way out of the conference with the additions of these five schools. It might be the worst kept secret that the WAC wants Chicago State out. With Chicago State canceling their remaining basketball season and the supposed addition of these schools, the Cougars time in the WAC may be coming to an end.

There are some hurdles to overcome, but all signs point to these schools joining the WAC within the next few years. In fact, Yahoo Sports college football writer Pete Thamel confirmed to us on Wednesday morning that the WAC is expanding and bringing football back.

The five that are reported to be joining aren’t the only ones joining either. To be eligible for football, the WAC needs at least 10 schools with football programs. New Mexico State, Tarleton State and Dixie State already have football. That means that at least two more schools must join. 

Now that the WAC is expanding and bringing football back, it’s possible that we here at WAC Hoops Digest might be expanding as well…

COVID-19 and Its Effects

Covid-19 was the root of all evil in 2020. Sadly, in 2021, it’s not done yet either. Each school has been hit hard by COVID-19, but none arguably harder than New Mexico State. The cancellations of the WAC tournament and the NCAA tournament meant no postseason play for the Aggies. Head coach Chris Jans and his team were eager to start anew this season but have only managed to play three games so far. You read that right, three.

The Aggies can’t even play in their home gym due to New Mexico’s COVID-19 protocols. Because of this, the Aggies have constantly been on the move. New Mexico State will now play their home games in Phoenix on the campus of conference foe Grand Canyon. 

As I mentioned above,  all the programs except Seattle have all seen multiple games canceled. Of course we can’t forget that Chicago State has canceled the remainder of their season.

With COVID-19 still looming largely in 2021, it poses many questions that I’m sure most don’t have answers to. What happens when a program shuts down because of a positive test? How long will each program be shut down for? Will series matchups be postponed or canceled? What if other programs opt out like Chicago State? I hope none of these questions come to fruition, but they are real (and extremely somber) possibilities. 

COVID-19 has affected each of these programs in one way or another. Unfortunately, we can only hope that COVID-19 won’t have as big of an effect moving into 2021. 

WAC Vegas

It was a tough pill to swallow when the news came that the 2020 WAC tournament had been canceled. I was pretty bummed out; I can’t even imagine how the players and coaches felt. This year’s WAC tournament is scheduled for Thursday, March 11 through Saturday, March 13. 

However, it’s not a guarantee that the tournament will happen either. 

Last year, it felt like it was one domino falling after another with each conference canceling their tournament. It may not be like that this year, but if programs run into COVID-related issues leading right up to the tournament, we may not see WAC Vegas in 2021, either.

Keep in mind, too, that Dixie State, Tarleton State, and Chicago State won’t be competing. That leaves only six eligible teams that are able to compete. There’s not a lot of room for things to go wrong. I’m not trying to sound like a debbie-downer, either. I really hope the tournament happens and we all get to witness some conference tournament action. It would be a sweet treat to those who are able to go down and play, especially those who never got the chance in 2020. 

Can Anyone Upend the Kings of the WAC in New Mexico State?

If there were a year to over-throw the top dog, it’d be 2021. I’ve touched on it above; it’s been a crapshoot for the Aggies so far this season. It feels like nothing has gone right and everything has gone wrong.

As a result, the Aggies lack team chemistry. Lack of games and practices are why. Only three of their 11 scheduled games have been played. In addition, they’ve faced multiple program-wide pauses meaning that all team activities during that time were suspended. With the latest news that their conference opening series against Dixie State has been put on pause, the Aggies won’t play until January 22. It’s not an easy conference opener either as the Aggies play host to UTRGV. The Vaqueros were picked to finish third in both preseason polls.

Add in that both Jabari Rice and Clayton Henry are out for ‘weeks’ according to head coach Chris Jans and its a recipe for disaster.

It’s going to be a baptism by fire for the Aggies. It may take some time to work out the kinks and build team chemistry, leaving the potential for someone to come in and claim the regular season crown. Could it happen? Absolutely. Will it happen? Time will tell. 

Regardless of what happens in the regular season, I’m confident in thinking that Chris Jans will have his team ready to roll for the WAC tournament, and it could be NMSU’s fourth straight tournament title. 

 

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  • I checked the Division I NCAA manual to find the membership requirements for conference sports sponsorship by the WAC, an NCAA core conference. In all sports except men’s basketball, the membership requirement is six schools; men’s basketball requires seven. So, I believe all systems would be go with the five reported new members (Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Southern Utah, and Stephen F. Austin) plus the two moving into the conference this year from Division II (Dixie State, Tarleton State).

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