The battle for the top of the WAC is VERY close to start the beginning of the conference play, with six teams having an above .500 record in the conference. The talent of the schools at the top is completely even, and it will be a photo finish to see who will win the conference by the end of the season. With the top seed in the WAC tournament last year, New Mexico State, sitting at the bottom of the conference, anything goes this season. Here is my breakdown of the Western Athletic Conference and my predictions for what the seeing will be come conference tournament time. Note: All stats and records are as of 1/16.
1) Utah Valley (14-5 Overall, 5-1 Conference)
Overview: Following a season last year where they were in the middle of the conference, the Wolverines have had a phenomenal season to start the year. They have upset BYU and Oregon on the road and had close losses to Wake Forest (by 3), Morgan State (by 1) and Seattle (by 5). This squad has played very good basketball and have been very solid on both ends of the court. They not only are scoring 74.1 ppg (2nd in the conference) but also are only giving up 69.6 ppg this season. They have four starters averaging double figures in scoring this season, each of them leading their team in scoring at some point during the season. A guy to watch is the Wolverines Center Aziz Bandaogo. The sophomore big man is averaging a double-double this season with 11.4 ppg and 10.1 rpg (leads conference – 9th in NCAA). Most teams are guard oriented, but this big man is going to make things interesting for teams moving forward. They did lose their contest to Seattle, but I do think they win out and get the coveted one seed for the conference tournament.
2) Seattle (14-4 Overall, 5-0 Conference)
Overview: The Redhawks are back at the upper tier of the WAC this year and are having great success on offense to get them to this position. They are scoring 73.3 ppg which is tied for third in the conference and is 101st in the country. Seattle is fortunate to have the highest scorer in terms of points per game in the conference thus far in guard Cameron Tyson. The 2022 First-Team All WAC player is producing another solid season, averaging 20.1 ppg and 4.3 rpg. However, the thing that makes the Redhawks even scarier is that Tyson is not the only capable scorer on their team this season. Senior guard Riley Grigsby (12.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and junior guard Alex Schumacher (11.7 ppg, 3.2 apg) play a key role in the Redhawks offense, forcing teams to defend all three of them tight. Having to play the tougher part of their schedule to round out their season could make things difficult for Seattle, but I believe they will win most of their remaining games to get a high seed.
3) Stephen F Austin (13-6 Overall, 5-1 Conference)
Overview: With the loss of two of the four leading scorers from last year, some wondered how the Lumberjacks would respond. Thus far, they have played some very good basketball this year, with some solid wins over South Dakota State and Jackson State. The Lumberjacks are much like Seattle in the fact they are very solid offensively, scoring 73.3 ppg (exactly the same as Seattle). A number of players have contributed to the success that SFA has had this season, but the biggest contributor has been forward Sadaidriene Hall. The second-year man saw mostly a bench role last season, but has found his way to leading the Lumberjacks in points (13.5 ppg) and rebounds (6.6 rpg). The good news for the Lumberjacks is that they have to play the lower half of the WAC for a good remainder of the season. If they can find a way to consistently win games and get a couple of big wins against the top teams of the conference, Stephen F Austin could use that momentum and make a very deep run come conference tournament time.
4) Southern Utah (13-6 Overall, 5-1 Conference)
Overview: For the first three teams, I have mentioned that offense has been the leading factor for the success of their team. However, all three of those offenses do not compare to how good of an offense that the Thunderbirds have this season. They are leading the conference with 78.7 ppg, which is also 30th in the entire country. All five of their starters are averaging double digits in points per game, but they do have one player that is the go-to guy for the squad: Senior guard Tevian Jones. Jones is scoring 19.1 ppg to lead the team (3rd in the conference), while also shooting 40.2% from behind the arc. This offense is absolutely dangerous and defenses have to be locked in on all five starters to have any success. However, the biggest downfall for the Thunderbirds is their defense. They are very poor defensively this season, giving up 77.5 ppg (36th worst in CBB). They have a lot to do on that end to make a run in the WAC. However, their offense is so incredibly talented that not many WAC teams will be able to stop them. This is why Southern Utah is my pick to win the WAC Tournament.
5) Grand Canyon (12-6 Overall, 3-2 Conference)
Overview: When I was looking into the ATS and O/U records for Grand Canyon, I had to pause and take a second look. Grand Canyon is 12-5 to the over this season, which surprised me because the Antelopes are one of the best defensive teams in the country, holding teams to a mere 63.0 ppg (26th in CBB). The over-unders in their games thus far have been upper 120s to lower 130s, and the over has hit by less than eight points in seven of those covers. This defense is very solid and has caused and will continue to cause problems for teams in the WAC this season. However, the area they have struggled with is scoring points, scoring a mere 67.9 ppg. The Antelopes are led by a guard-forward one-two punch in guard Rayshon Harrison (15.3 ppg, 2.9 apg) and forward Gabe McGlothan (11.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg). The duo have been key to the already struggling offense. If Grand Canyon can find others to step up offensively and continue to be solid defensively, they will be a dark horse contender to win the WAC at the end of the season.
6) Sam Houston State (13-5 Overall, 3-3 Conference)
Overview: The Bearcats have been on the opposing end of some big upsets in college basketball this season. They went on the road and defeated Oklahoma by 1 the first game of the season, and they went on the road and defeated Utah by 10 in their fourth game of the season. Sam Houston State is much like Grand Canyon for the fact that they rely on their defense to win them games rather than their offense. The Bearcats are giving up only 63.4 ppg, which is second in the conference and 33rd in the entire country. On the other end, the Bearcats have struggled offensively, scoring only 69.9 ppg. The leader of this team has been senior guard, Qua Grant, who is leading the Bearcats in points (13.9 ppg), assists (4.0 apg – 5th in conference), and steals (2.3 spg – also leading conference). WIth a difficult schedule lying ahead for the Bearcats and a three losses in the conference already, it is going to take a lot for the Bearcats to get a higher seed in the tournament. However, they, much like Grand Canyon, could be a dark horse to win the WAC with how their defense has played if they continue to play at that level.
7) Tarleton State (10-8 Overall, 3-2 Conference)
Overview: In the non-conference slate of regular season games, the Texans had a very impressive showing. They defeated both Boston College and Belmont in their first few weeks, and had a couple of close losses to Arizona State by 3 and Drake by 7. Entering conference play, every win and loss that the Texans have had has been within single figures. They have an impressive win over Southern Utah, but they also have a very bad lost to Abilene Christian as well. A big reason to the lack of consistency has been the loss of guard Freddy Hicks who has not played since December 6. When he has played, Hicks has been the go-to guy for the Texans, averaging 17.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, and 3.0 apg. Tarleton State simply has not looked as sharp as they have been with him. If he comes back soon, the Texans are going to be salty and tough to stop. However, if he cannot make a return this season, Tarleton State will likely find themselves at the bottom of the conference and will get bounced in the first round of the tournament.
8) California Baptist (11-8 Overall, 3-3 Conference)
Overview: This is a tale of complete opposites when we talk about the Lancer’s offense with the Lancers defense. Defensively, they are on par with the best teams of the conference, giving up only 64.4 ppg (3rd in conference, 46th in NCAA). This defensive effort has caused them to beat the likes of Washington and Central Michigan, while also nearly defeating Minnesota on the road (lost by one). Unfortunately for the Lancers, they are about as bad as they come offensively, only scoring 66.6 ppg (2nd worst in the WAC). Their leading scorer is guard Taran Armstrong, who is averaging 10.5 ppg and 4.9 apg (leading the WAC). Cal Baptist also has a very tough schedule remaining for the remainder of the regular season. The Lancers have the defense that can get the job done. However, if the offense cannot find ways to score more points, they are going to find themselves toward the bottom of the WAC with little likelihood of finding a way out.
9) Texas-Rio Grande Valley (10-8 Overall, 2-4 Conference)
Overview: There is a major compliment that can be given to the Vaqueros for how they’ve played this season, and there is also a major complaint for how they have played. The compliment is this: They are up there with Southern Utah as one of the best offenses in the WAC. They are scoring 78.7 ppg, which is the 31st best offense in the NCAA. The Vaqueros also have the WAC’s leading scorer in senior guard Justin Johnson, who is averaging 20.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 3.1 apg. Along with Johnson, guard Will Johnson and forward Dima Zdor are also averaging double digits with 16.6 and 10.2 ppg respectively. Their offense is insanely talented and very difficult to contain. The complaint is this: They not only have the worst defense in the WAC but also the worst defense in the country. UTRGV is giving up 84.3 ppg, which is the 5th worst in the entire country. Playing against solid offenses in the WAC has proven to be the down point for the Vaqueros. Things need to get cleaned up on the defensive end if they want any hope for a postseason run.
10) Abilene Christian (9-9 Overall, 1-4 Conference)
Overview: The record for the Wildcats is slightly skewed in terms of how they have done this season. Out of the nine wins that Abilene Christian has this year, 5 of them came to McMurray, North American College, Arlington Baptist, Texas A&M Commerce, and Howard Payne, all schools that are Division III or lower. Their only win in the conference thus far has come to a Tarleton State squad that has dealt with injuries. The Wildcats are scoring 69.9 ppg while giving up 74 ppg. It is disappointing to see the season that Abilene Christian has been having given they have two guards in Immanuel Allen and Tobias Cameron who are shooting 41.1% and 48.0% respectively from behind the arc. They have been very solid from behind the arc shooting 34% as a team. The WIldcats need to find a spark offensively outside of the three to get them some momentum to close out the season. Unfortunately, it does not seem likely that a spark will come, and a first round exit sounds like the likely outcome for their squad.
11) Texas-Arlington (6-13 Overall, 1-5 Conference)
Overview: Much like Abilene Christian, the record for the Mavericks is skewed, as half of their wins have come to teams that are Division III schools or lower this season. Defensively, they are not too bad, giving up only 67.6 ppg. However, that fact is quickly overshadowed by the fact that they are not only the worst offense in the WAC but also the worst offense in the entire country. The Mavericks are scoring 58.5 ppg, which is the seventh worst in the NCAA. However, if you are a fan of Texas-Arlington, there is hope for the future. The top two players on the team are sophomore Shemar Wilson (11.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg – 3rd in WAC) and junior Kyron Gibson (10.1 ppg, 3.1 apg). This Mavericks squad is young and inexperienced, but if they stay together, the future is very bright for this team. Unfortunately, success is unlikely to be found for them this season, and fans should hope for at least one or two wins left to round out the year.
12) New Mexico State (7-11 Overall, 0-6 Conference)
Overview: To round out our slate of WAC teams, we have the Aggies of New Mexico State, who was the one seed in the WAC tournament last year. To say that conference play has been rough for the Aggies is an understatement. Opportunities were there for New Mexico State to win games, but they simply could not finish games right. They lost to Seattle by 3, Southern Utah by 4 and Steven F Austin by 5. Things simply have not looked good for the Aggies overall. However they do have a trio of double digit scorers in guard Xavier Pinson (12.7 ppg, 4.6 apg – 2nd in WAC), guard Deshawndre Washington (12.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg – 5th in WAC) and forward Issa Muhammad (10.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Although Pinson is a senior, both Washington and Muhammad are juniors, which will be very helpful for the Aggies next season. Unfortunately, things are not looking good for New Mexico State this season, and they are looking for at least one win in the conference before March.
Ineligible School Due to Transition Rule
- Utah Tech (9-9 Overall, 1-4 Conference): The Trailblazers will be eligible for the WAC Postseason next year. This is unfortunate for them, as they have a couple of talented seniors on that squad that will miss their opportunity to play in the postseason. Senior guard Cameron Gooden is having a very solid year, averaging 15.6 ppg and shooting 38.7% from behind the arc. WIth the experience that Utah Tech will gain this season, they could very well be a dark horse in the WAC next year.
Talent among teams is split completely in the WAC this season, as nearly every team has a number of guys that can score the basketball at will. The difference down the stretch for teams is how all of the teams will be using their strengths to their advantage. Will the offensive-minded teams outscore the defensive-minded teams? Will the defensive-minded teams hold their own and outscore the offensive minded teams? The next month or so is going to say a lot about who is going to come out on top of the WAC this season. Good basketball is played all around, so if you’re ever looking for a mid-major game that will display good basketball, the WAC will have you covered!