WAC Tournament Preview: Abilene Christian vs. Utah Valley

Abilene Christian
Airion Simmons and ACU take on 7-seed Utah Valley in their first-ever WAC Tournament on Wednesday night. Courtesy ACU Athletics.
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Day two of the 2022 WAC Tournament concludes with opening round survivor Utah Valley heading to Orleans Arena to face 6-seed Abilene Christian in another late night showdown. The Wolverines cruised to a comfortable 22-point victory over Chicago State last night inside Michelob Ultra Arena. The Wildcats enjoyed an opening round bye to better prepare for their first round matchup on Thursday.

Like many former Southland and new WAC schools playing in WAC Vegas this year, there is little to no history between the two programs. The lone game between these two programs at the Division I level came on December 30, 2021 in Orem. Blaze Nield had a career performance in that one, dropping 27 points on 10-12 shooting from the field including 7-9 from deep. He also dished out 11 assists and was aided by Fardaws Aimaq with a double double of his own (21 points and 10 rebounds). Even though the Wolverines had some strong showings from individual players, the visiting Wildcats took the road win back with them to Texas. Junior forward Airion Simmons had 21 points and Cameron Steele added 17 points plus 9 rebounds in the win.

Utah Valley has one of the best players in the conference. And its supporting players, who, when firing on all cylinders can make a run. But a well rested Abilene Christian squad known for their energy and defensive tenacity will make it difficult for Mark Madsen’s group to advance.

No. 6 Abilene Christian 20-9 (11-7, in the WAC)

Abilene Christian’s move to the WAC still appears to be the right move nearly a year later. The Wildcats lost their long time head coach Joe Golding (now at UTEP). Golding took the program to new heights. From Division II to two NCAA Tournament appearances, including a 53-52 upset over No. 3 seeded Texas last year. Following Golding’s departure, longtime assistant Brette Tanner took over the reigns and guided the Wildcats to a 20-win season and a first round bye this week. Abilene Christian has the tools to get to the championship game on Saturday. But with their current path, need to get past teams like Stephen F. Austin and Seattle on their side of the bracket to do so. The Wildcats went winless against the Bearkats and Redhawks this year. And you also need to factor the endurance it takes to make it all the way to the final game.

Player to Watch: Jr. F Airion Simmons

Simmons has been a leader for the Wildcats since the program moved to the WAC. The 6-5 forward has a unique set of guard skills with the athleticism and size to work down low. His season averages of 11.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG & 1.9 APG and not to forget 1.8 SPG earned him a place the All-WAC Second team. His energy on the perimeter make him a prime candidate for steals and ensuing fast break opportunities. The only thing opposing coaches can find solace in is his 20.5 MPG average. Simmons may not be on the court as much as his team would like him to be. But, when he is on the floor, he is making it count.

No. 7 Utah Valley  19-11 (10-8, in the WAC)

Mark Madsen’s Wolverines certainly gave their all this season in the newly revamped WAC. With the reigning Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year returning, Utah Valley was primed to challenge for a top-half spot in the WAC. Utah Valley was chosen to finish 4th in the preseason poll in October.

But, plagued with injuries throughout the year, a Fardaws Aimaq-reliant program struggled against leveled up competition. 5th place finish aside. The path ahead isn’t an easy one in Las Vegas. But Utah Valley can make their way to the tournament final given the right amount of endurance and will power through the week. They comfortably beat Chicago State Tuesday. But without the proper ball security against one of the best defensive teams in the conference, a big night from Big Maple won’t be enough to advance. Luckily, Utah Valley has First Team All-WAC selection from last season Trey Woodbury back in the lineup for the first time all season. He looked rusty last night with only 5 points in 16 minutes on 2-8 shooting. And even though his teammates fully trusted him and fed him while he was on the court, there was still a bit of hesitancy. But breakout performances are funny that way. You never know when those can’t miss performances are coming.

Player to Watch: R-So. F Fardaws Aimaq

I was trying to highlight another player in this section. But Aimaq is such a big focal point of any team’s scouting report. Its hard to imagine he won’t get his. Aimaq has failed to score in double digits just once in 31 games played. And having scored 20+ points in 15 of those games worries any opposing head coach. Aimaq continues to make his case for NBA scouts. His decision to return to school last summer and improve have paid off. He’s taken his game from the paint to beyond the arc, got in better shape and can beat anybody in the country to the boards.

Prediction

This one will come down to whether the Wolverines are prepared for a quick March Madness turnaround needed to cut down nets and punch tickets. Abilene Christian averages 76.8 PPG as a whole. But ACU doesn’t necessarily have one major scorer. It is more of a team approach on the offensive side of the floor. They’ll need a big game from any of their starters to outscore the Wolverines. I see that happening but it may be close.

Abilene Christian 70, Utah Valley 65

Tip-off for this WAC Vegas 1st round matchup is at 8:30 PST/9:30 MT/10:30 CT and can streamed on ESPN+. The winner of this opening round affair will advance to game 6 on Thursday to face No. 3 seed Stephen F. Austin. Which, is also set for a 8:30 PM PST start.

Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.

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