WAC Tournament Preview: California Baptist vs. UTRGV

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Justin Johnson and UTRGV are looking to knock off California Baptist on Tuesday night in the opening round of the WAC Tournament. Courtesy UTRGV Athletics.
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2022 WAC Tournament 1st round action kicks off with a battle between the No. 8 CBU Lancers and No. 9 UTRGV Vaqueros. Both programs weathered the storm brought on by the newly revamped Western Athletic Conference. But, both fought on and earned their way into the postseason.

The history between these two programs isn’t long, with California Baptist holding the 3-2 edge over UTRGV during their short time in the WAC. The last time these two programs met was last month on February 12th in Riverside. Back then, the home team managed to keep the W at home with a 80-72 win over UTRGV. CBU won despite a monster 38-point performance by Vaquero junior guard Justin Johnson, one of two UTRGV players to reach double figures that day. California Baptist was led by a Dan Akin double double (12 points, 17 rebounds) and 18 points and 9 assists from freshman guard Taran Armstrong, both team highs.

Now nearly a month later, both face off inside the Michelob Ultra Arena in the opening game of the tournament. Both programs don’t want their season to end right out the gate on Tuesday afternoon. So expect 100% effort on both sides as the Sin City festivities tip off.

No. 8 California Baptist 17-14 (7-11, 6th in the WAC)

Rick Croy’s Lancers hung around all season in the revamped WAC. Most of the scoring power from last season returns and CBU had an influx of talent via the transfer portal. According to Croy, this team is offensively different from last year’s 4th place finish and No. 4 seed. There are plenty of players across the roster who can light up the boxscore any given night. But it is the defensive side of the ball where the Lancers have changed. Some nights, Lancers’ games ended in a 56-53 or so score. Without starting point guard Taran Armstrong for five weeks, the mentality had to change. And it has.

When asked by WHD’s Kyle McDonald what the game plan might be against the Vaqueros, Croy noted, “Be good with the ball, we’ve got to be really detailed defensively.”

Player to Watch: Fr. G Taran Armstrong 

Armstrong has been stellar all season long. The WAC Freshman of the Year averages 10.5 PPG, 6.6 APG & 5.2 RPG. All this despite missing five weeks on the injured list to start the calendar year. He managed to produce an amazing first year in college basketball. This includes a broken single-game assists record for the Lancers, logging the program’s first triple-double performance back in November and sealing the season off with the WAC Freshman of the Year award. A first for the program as well. Long story short, the Aussie is a superb floor general for a true freshman. And the passes he is able to complete makes him the most dangerous player on the court most nights.

No. 9 Texas-Rio Grande Valley 8-22 (3-15, 9th in the WAC)

Year one in Edinburg was a little underwhelming for first-year head coach Matt Figger. Struggling to dress a full team all year has been tough to overcome for the former Austin Peay head coach.

Player to Watch: Jr. G Justin Johnson

Since Johnson’s transfer from Southern Miss, he’s averaging 18.1 PPG, 6.8 RPG & 2.4 APG for the Vaqueros. His performance this season was good enough for Second Team All-WAC and All-Newcomer Team selections. The 6-6 combo guard uses his length and ball handling ability to drive the lane, get fouled and make his money at the free throw line. Johnson is averaging seven free throw attempts a game, which puts him atop the conference and second for made free throws.

Prediction

California Baptist 75, UTRGV 65

Tip-off for this WAC Vegas beginning matchup is at 6:00 PST/7:00 MT/8:00 CT and can streamed on ESPN+. The winner of this opening round affair will advance to game 3 on Wednesday to face No. 5 seed Sam Houston State. Which, is also set for a 6:00 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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