2022 WAC Tournament 1st round action concludes Tuesday night with a matchup between No. 7 seed Utah Valley and No. 10 seed Chicago State. This is the last WAC Vegas for Chicago State as they prepare for an exit on July 1st. So naturally, that requires the quintessential tournament run combined with the never old one last hurrah in Las Vegas for the Cougars and their fans.
Utah Valley has dominated this series, winning the last seven straight and boasting an 18-4 record against Chicago State since their entry into Division I back and as members of the now defunct Great West Conference. Although, the last time these two programs met back on January 27th of this year, both squads shot like they had just entered cheat codes before tip-off. The Wolverines were able to edge out their hosts in the Windy City, 101-87, for the win. But, both sides made it very entertaining, with the Cougars shooting 54.1% from the field and 45.0% from deep. Led by Dominique Alexander with 23 points and joined by three others in double-digit scoring. While their visitors shot 69.1% from the floor and 72.7% from deep, led by 18 points from Connor Harding and aided in the victory by five other Wolverines in double-digit scoring.
A Chicago State upset would be just what the doctor ordered to kick off a highly anticipated 2022 WAC Vegas. But even given the injuries to coach Mark Madsen’s roster this season, they still have plenty of fire power to handle their business in the 1st round and begin a run to the finals on Saturday.
No. 10 Seed Chicago State 7-24 (3-15, 9th in the WAC)
Former interim head coach Gerald Gillion has led the Cougars to their most overall wins and conference wins in nearly seven seasons. Yes, Chicago State’s current record, seed and finish in conference play may not jump off of the page to your average college basketball fan. But for fans of the WAC and Cougar fans themselves, you can’t deny this team improved. The Cougars avoided a last place finish for the first time since 2013-2014, when they finished 4th. Wherever this program lands next season, they have the tools in place to keep improving.
“They scored 100 points on us,” Gerald Gillion said of the first matchup against Utah Valley. “I haven’t had a 100 points scored on me all my life. If we can’t do the job defensively we’re going to be in trouble.”
Player to Watch: Jr. G Brandon Betson
Betson has helped lead the Chicago State rebuild this season and his 14.2 PPG, 3.0 APG & 2.4 RPG averages earned him Second Team All-WAC honors this week. The 6-1 JUCO product out of California made the game winning drive to the basket that helped seal the 61-59 win over New Mexico State last month.
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— Chicago State Men's Basketball (@ChicagoStateMBB) February 26, 2022
No. 7 Seed Utah Valley 19-11 (10-8, 5th 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.
“Our whole team is not only excited to be here but prepared and ready for this challenge,” Mark Madsen said. “This is a situation where you have to take every game just one step at a time, one game at a time. But our guys are ready. Our guys are prepared and our guys are rested.”
Player to Watch: R-So. F Fardaws Aimaq
The officially announced two-time WAC Defensive Player of the Year and 1st Team All-WAC selection is coming off of a super campaign in Orem. Averaging 18.8 PPG, 13.9 RPG & 1.3 BPG in 30 games (All Starts) and an impressive 34.5 MPG. Spectators and followers of the conference feel Aimaq should have repeated as WAC Player of the Year. Although the tumble of Utah Valley down the conference standings this year may have taken the big man out of contention. But, that’s a theory for a different day. Regardless of the individual hardware, Aimaq is a focal point on any opposing coaches scouting report.
“They have arguably the best player in the league so he’s going to get his,” Gillion said. “We have to make it tough for everyone else to get theirs.”
Those were the words of Chicago State head coach Gerald Gillion when asked about the Cougar game plan by WHD Editor Kyle McDonald. In truth, that is really all you can do against the 6-11 Vancouver, British Colombia native dubbed “Big Maple”.
KenPom has the Wolverines as 14-point favorites in this first round matchup. Understandably, given their dominance in the series in recent years. However, I am high on this Cougar squad after their buzzer beater upset over regular season co-champs New Mexico State late last month. I don’t see a definitive answer for Aimaq down low and any assistance by Harding or anyone else on the Utah Valley roster may be just enough for the Wolverines to advance on without any trouble.
Utah Valley 75, Chicago State 61
Tip-off for this late night the 8:30 PST/9:30 MT/10:30 CT and can streamed on ESPN+. The winner of this 1st round affair will advance to game 4 on Wednesday to face No. 6 seed Abilene Christian. Which, is also set for a late night 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.