Sometimes stories just fall into our lap here at WAC Hoops Digest. Other times, you wake up to a message on Twitter following a nap and the unthinkable has happened. At times during the 2020-21 season, I had multiple trips cancelled as COVID reared its ugly head. Just ask former UTRGV beat writer Andrew McCulloch how disappointed I was when the GCU at UTRGV series got cancelled due to COVID. Or ask Dixie State sports information director Steve Johnson about the multiple times I planned to come cover a series only for COVID to leave its mark.
And that’s kind of how the 2020-21 season went. There were stories of triumph but also stories of great sadness. The WAC became more stable for the foreseeable future with the announcement in January. A team went undefeated in the regular season and won the conference tournament but wasn’t able to play in the NCAA tourney because of transition rules. One school had to relocate both its basketball teams due to COVID restrictions. It was just one of those years.
So, let’s take a look at the Top-10 stories from the 2020-21 season, starting with the bottom first.
10. Transfer Portal Madness
Free agency in college athletics is upon us and is here to stay. And the transfer portal is the key element in that process. You are hard-pressed to find a team that hasn’t recruited or signed a player out of the transfer portal this season. Players are transferring at a rapid pace and it’s becoming the accepted norm in college sports. In the WAC alone, nearly every team has multiple players they signed out of the transfer portal. If you haven’t been following Twitter recently, just look at the New Mexico State Aggies. Seems like they add a new player from the portal every other day. GCU added four Division I transfers to its roster. Lamar, UTRGV, CBU. Everyone has added players from the portal. It equates to the WAC getting stronger in a sense.
Some transfers have flourished in recent years. Look at Fardaws Aimaq (Mercer) and Asbjørn Midtgaard (Wichita State). Gorjok Gak, Trey Woodbury, Darrion Trammell, and others all have had outstanding years in the WAC. Others left for what they thought were greener pastures and it ended up not working out. But, it’s what is driving college basketball as more players want to play for the coach rather than the school, it would seem. And that’s okay. What matters is the product on the floor and in 2020-21, the transfer portal was good to the WAC.
9. COVID Chaos
Remember the opening paragraph about trips being cancelled? Yeah, it wasn’t half as difficult for me as it was for the Directors of Operations for each squad. Imagine having your phone by you 24 hours, 7 days a week just so you don’t miss the opportunity to schedule a game on the fly. Or so you can cancel travel plans in enough time to get refunds if you have to postpone or cancel a game due to a positive COVID test.
Look at what COVID did to UTRGV. The Vaqueros were primed for a run at a WAC title. UTRGV was 9-4 and had just swept Dixie State in the WAC opening series for both squads. Then COVID hit and the Vaqueros next five games were cancelled. When the dust settled, UTRGV was finally able to play a game in the wake of the GCU series being cancelled. The Vaqueros lost on a buzzer-beater at Texas Southern on Feb. 6. And then the the following morning, I woke up to the unthinkable. The message nobody wanted to believe. Lew Hill took his last breath that night when he laid down to sleep. And from there, UTRGV finished the season losing its final six games.
Not much more to say on that topic.
8. Chicago State Men, Dixie State Women Cancel Seasons
We will add into this section that prior to the start of the 2020-21 season, Chicago State men’s basketball coach Lance Irvin opted-out of coaching. Irvin has dealt with various medical issues and didn’t want to run the risk. Understandably so. But, it was awkward to watch as Chicago State played its nine non-conference games before opting-out of the rest of the season. And that was right as conference play began. A lot of it was due to injuries and health reasons that were keeping the Cougars from fielding enough players to compete.
The Dixie State women simply had a difficult time scheduling any games. And then on Jan. 5, Dixie State announced the women’s basketball team would not play the remainder of the 2020-21 season. Five of their eight non-conference games were cancelled due to COVID. Athletic Director Jason Boothe had the following to say:
“We have kept the safety and well-being as the top priority for our student-athletes throughout the pandemic and given the issues this team is facing, this decision is right in line with that top priority. Once we get through the pandemic and all the issues it causes for everyone involved, we look forward to having the team back in action next school year.”
7. Utah Valley Women Represent WAC at NCAA Tourney
This is one of those bittersweet stories. For the first time in program history, Utah Valley played in the NCAA Tournament. That is the sweet part. Dan Nielson’s crew did just enough to earn the WAC’s automatic bid by having the most conference wins ever since joining the WAC. Led by Maria Carvalho and Josie Williams, the Wolverines played themselves into the 2-seed for the WAC tournament. And that was huge.
Prior to the 2020-21 season, it was agreed upon by all schools that if CBU were to win either the men’s or women’s WAC tournament, the next-highest seeded team would represent the WAC at the NCAA Tournament. Utah Valley did just that, eeking out GCU for that 2-seed in the final WAC standings.
Here is the bitter. GCU ended up beating Utah Valley in the WAC semifinals. So, the Wolverines kind of limped their way into the NCAA Tournament after CBU won the WAC Tournament over GCU. It’s the biggest reason why the Wolverines had to face the overall top-seed in Stanford. Either way, Utah Valley played in the NCAA Tourney and Dan Nielson continues to build a program that once lost to Chicago State at home, snapping the Cougars 59-game losing streak.
6. A Tale of Two Big Men
One big man set the record for rebounds in a season, averaging 15.0 boards per game. The other big man led the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 70 percent from the floor. And both big men won WAC regular season championships with their respective teams.
Utah Valley’s Fardaws Aimaq did something that hasn’t been done in 40 years. Aimaq led the nation, pulling down 15.0 rebounds per game, earning him WAC Player of the Year. The Mercer transfer also averaged 13.9 points per game while leading the Wolverines to a share of the WAC regular season crown. Not only that, Aimaq was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year, as well, plus many more awards for his monster season. It is crazy to think that the one thing Aimaq didn’t do was break Utah Valleys single-season record for rebounds. The record is 344 set by Geddes Robinson during the 2011-12 season. Aimaq finished with 330 total rebounds in a COVID-shortened season.
Coming into the 2020-21 season, Midtgaard was a bit of an unknown. The 7-footer from Wichita State played just 6 games for the Shockers and averaged around 3.0 points per game. But, Bryce Drew got the most out of the big man from Denmark. Midtgaard was a First Team All-WAC selection after leading the nation with a 70.7 shooting percentage. Midtgaard averaged 14.2 points per game, 9.7 boards per game and 1.25 blocks per game.
In fact, Midtgaard had a stretch of five straight double-doubles and logged 11 total for the season. In the regular season finale which GCU had to win to earn a share of the WAC regular season title and No. 1 seed for the WAC tourney, Midtgaard had 15 points and 11 rebounds. And in the NCAA tournament game against Iowa, Midtgaard had 18 points on 8-11 shooting.
These two big men were extremely impressive in 2020-21.
5. CBU Women Go Undefeated But No NCAA Tourney
22-0 in the regular season to win the WAC regular season crown. Make it 24-0 after shooting its way through the WAC Tournament. Make it 26-0 heading into the third round of the Women’s NIT. And an amazing season ended with a 79-55 loss to Rice in the third round of the Women’s NIT.
Ane Olaeta won WAC Player of the Year. Jarrod Olson was Coach of the Year. Sports Illustrated and many other major news outlets caught wind of the story that was the CBU women. The Lancers were the only team outside a major conference in the last five years to start a season 20-0. The exclusive club includes UCONN, Louisville, Mississippi State and NC State. Pretty nice company, huh? But, due to the transition rules, the Lancers were not allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it’s something the NCAA needs to look at,” CBU head coach Jarrod Olson said in a Sports Illustrated article. “I think four years a long time; it really penalizes the kids more than anything.”
But, the Lancers have joined elite company. And due to the COVID chaos, the Lancers return EVERYONE from that 26-1 team so don’t be surprised if something special happens again in Riverside.
4. NMSU Men and Women Have to Relocate, No Games at Pan Am
The COVID restrictions were so tight in the state of New Mexico that the Aggies basketball teams couldn’t hold full practices. There were groups of 4 or 5, a lot of one-on-one workouts and no way to build team chemistry. Add in that the Aggies couldn’t play a home game in their beloved Pan American Center and it was a mess. Prior to the season beginning, though, athletic director Mario Moccia and his subordinate Braun Cartwright came up with a plan.
The Aggies were going to relocate to Phoenix, AZ for a time at the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa. No interaction with fans, separated from family, isolated on what some thought was a little island. And it turned into somewhat of a nightmare. A few games were cancelled, scheduling games became a mess because the Aggies really didn’t have a home court. In fact, the NMSU men went to California for what they thought were going to be a few games to instead only play one game.
The women had to relocate to Tucson, AZ to prep for their season-opener against UTEP. The restrictions in New Mexico excluded the Aggies from practicing or playing in the state of New Mexico. On Jan. 19, the restriction of not being able to practice in the state was lifted. So, both Aggie teams got to practice on their home floor and sleep in their own beds for the time. However, home games were held at a high school in El Paso right down I-10. Eastwood High School became the place where the Aggies would host WAC contests.
📍 Eastwood High School • El Paso, Texas
— NM State Aggies (@NMStateAggies) February 2, 2021
Not the usual home court advantage of the Pan Am. But, both Aggies squad made due. The men finished third in the WAC standings and nearly won another WAC Tournament before falling to GCU in the championship game. The women struggled to a 4th-place finish in the regular season standings and lost to eventual tournament champ CBU In the WAC semifinals.
3. Oscar Frayer and Lew Hill Pass Away
Remember when I said I woke up from a nap and had a message that I just couldn’t believe? That was the case on Sunday morning, February 7, 2021. It was a tweet by Jeff Goodman that had been sent to me saying that Lew Hill had passed on in the early morning hours, less than 24 hours after coaching his team in a buzzer-beating loss at Texas Southern. The legacy of peace and love was taken way too soon. Hill was the catalyst in helping UTRGV become prominent in the WAC. And the Vaqueros increased in wins every year under Lew Hill.
But it wasn’t just his coaching that was what made Lew Hill great. It was his mentality. The ability to give someone a second chance or never be in a bad mood. Lew Hill was the man that ‘had no enemies’ according to now-Texas head coach Chris Beard. Lew Hill’s death rocked the college basketball ranks.
And then the Oscar Frayer news came to light just three days after playing in the NCAA Tournament. Traveling with his sister and a friend on a highway near Stockton, California, the car swerved out of control, and burst into flames. Another one of those unthinkable messages you get. One of the most athletic players in the WAC who just played in the NCAA Tournament who was going to walk across the stage to get his degree in a month was gone. Oscar Frayer, who always had a smile on his face, gone.
“We love O,” GCU head coach Bryce Drew said in a release put out by the school. “He was the heartbeat of our team with his vibrant, energetic personality. I cannot put into words the hurt and sadness we all feel, but we know he is in heaven and that gives us great joy to know we will be together again.”
— GCU Men's Basketball (@GCU_MBB) April 6, 2021
2. GCU Makes NCAA Tournament for First Time
It finally happened. GCU slayed the dragon. It took the Lopes three tries but getting over the hump finally came. Led by WAC Tournament MVP Jovan Blacksher Jr., GCU rolled past Seattle in the semifinals and then took out all the anger that had built up over the past three and half seasons on New Mexico State in the championship game. And it was all done under first-year head coach Bryce Drew. Perhaps that was the difference. GCU has been close before but was never able to figure out New Mexico State. However, under a new coach, the Lopes finally figured it out.
And the Big Dance was waiting. GCU was a 15-seed who got the pleasure of meeting National Player of the Year Luka Garza and the 2-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes. And for the most part, the Lopes held their own. The shooting from the Hawkeyes was just too much to overcome. Iowa shot 54 percent from the field and was 10-22 from deep in the 82-71 win to end GCU’s first time at the Big Dance.
“They shot the mess out of the ball,” Lopes head coach Bryce Drew said of the Hawkeyes (22-7), who set GCU oppponent season highs for scoring and shooting. “We were just a few miscues, a few mental lapses, a few shots that if they would’ve missed and we would’ve made, we could’ve taken this thing right down to the wire.”
“We just beat a really, really good team,” Iowa head coach Fran McCaffrey said. “Grand Canyon really impressed me immediately when I started watching them on film and they impressed me even more tonight. They compete. They share the ball. They move the ball. They defend. They rebound. That is a really good team and Bryce has done a terrific job with that program.”
1. WAC Expansion
It was the biggest news story on this website and on many others, I would assume. The WAC was on life support. There were technically only five eligible teams for the WAC tournament had transition teams not been able to play in the WAC tourney in year three. Chicago State wasn’t coming because their season was over prior to conference play. And Dixie State and Tarleton State were in their first year in the WAC. The rumblings were there for expansion. But, it finally became official on Thursday January 14, 2021.
Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Lamar and Abilene Christian were set to join the WAC for the 2021-22 scholastic year. Southern Utah would be entering a year later prior to the 2022-23 season. Huge, huge news for the WAC. The additions added stability at a necessary juncture. And the additions also brought football back to the WAC. Best part is the Sam Houston State enters the 2021 football season as the defending National Champs after winning the title in the COVID-driven spring season.
Basketball-wise, the WAC just got stronger. SFA and Abilene Christian have had recent success especially in the NCAA Tournament. Sam Houston State continues to get better. And Lamar has its eyes on the prize with the hiring of Alvin Brooks to the head coaching position. Not only that, these four Texas schools along with SUU have a will and desire to compete at the highest level and invest in their athletic departments according to GCU president Brian Mueller.
“The addition of these five institutions sets the WAC on a very exciting trajectory with members who are committed to being a premier mid-major conference,” GCU Interim Vice President of Athletics Jamie Boggs said.