Opening Night
Aaron Cash and UT Arlington open the KT Turner era at College Park Center on Monday Night. Courtesy Western Athletic Conference.

Opening Night Men’s Games to Watch

Opening night of the 2023-24 college basketball season is finally upon us. It has been a long eight months or so without our favorite sport taking center stage.

However, that all changes on Monday night. Nine of 11 WAC teams tip off their season on Monday night. Five of those teams face Division I opponents. Four others play non-Division I opponents. Two team, Seattle U and Utah Tech don’t open their seasons until Wednesday, Nov. 8.

So, what games am I watching? Yes, you guessed it…the games against Division I opponents. There are two games against Power Conference foes while three other games are against other mid-majors.

Which one is the biggest game of the night? I will give my list in order of most important.

1 – Oral Roberts at UT Arlington

  • Time: 7 p.m. CT
  • Stream: ESPN+
  • Radio: KTNO 620AM
  • Line per ESPNBets: UT Arlington -1.5, O/U 143.5

You’re probably asking yourself, why is this at the top of the list? Well, first, Oral Roberts is coming off a 30-win season, a Summit League regular season and tournament title, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Second, it is the first game under new head coach KT Turner for the Mavericks. Did I mention it is mid-major against mid-major in a game that it seems like the oddsmakers believe UT Arlington can win at home to open a new season?

Look, we don’t know what we are going to get from the Mavs in 2023-24. KT Turner said that the goal was to win now. It is not a rebuild, or any such thing. He wants to win now. Aaron Cash returns. Brandyn Talbot is back. Shemar Wilson is healthy. DaJuan Gordon makes the journey from Las Cruces to the DFW Metro area. The big question mark is if SEMO transfer Phillip Russell will be able to play. Right now, that is extremely up in the air.

People will argue that games against the Power Conference teams are more important. Yes and no. If a WAC school can pull an upset, sure. But in games against Power Conference teams, the WAC will always be the underdog, and let’s be real, the WAC is never going to get ranked higher than a Power Conference. So, we enjoy watching our teams play those games. And if they end up pulling off a massive upset, we enjoy celebrating those.

But, as I have said for years now, winning games against other mid-majors, especially ones where you are favored, are so much more important in the grand scheme of things. A home loss could be devastating to a team that has hopes of making it to WAC Vegas.

How will KT Turner’s first game at UT Arlington fare? Only time will tell.

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2 – Southeast Missouri at GCU

  • Time: 7 p.m. MST
  • Stream: ESPN+
  • Radio: 1580/The Fanatic
  • Line per ESPNBets: GCU -16.5, O/U 143.5

There were some who were vocal the other day when I tweeted out that this was one of the big games around the WAC on opening night. Look, sure, SEMO won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. And yes, they lost in the play-in game to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. But, they earned their trip to the NCAA Tournament.

So, you have two teams, who in 2022-23, earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. SEMO won four games in four days. GCU won four games in five days.

Again, mid-major against mid-major. But, there is a little extra behind this game, at least for GCU.

Have you seen all the hype the Lopes have been getting leading up to the 2023-24 season? Mid-Major Madness tweeted that this could be a top-25 team. Not just a top-25 mid-major. A legit top-25 team. Andy Katz tweeted out that GCU was one of his Top-10 Underrated Teams.

So, playing at home, with all the hype surrounding you, with the Preseason Player of the Year in Ray Harrison, in front of the Havocs, you don’t really have to be told why this is a big game on opening night. The Lopes have goals of winning the regular season title and WAC Tournament title again. They want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Many, even though they haven’t officially said it out loud, believe this is a second weekend team. With Harrison, Jovan Blacksher returning, Gabe McGlothan back, and additions of Tyon Grant-Foster, Collin Moore, Syd Curry, Duke Brennan and others, on paper, this might be the best GCU team of the Division I era.

Getting off on the right foot with a huge target on their backs and all the hype surrounding them, is exactly why this is a big game on opening night.

3 – Southern Utah at CSU Bakersfield

  • Time: 8 p.m. MT
  • Stream: ESPN+
  • Radio: None
  • Line per ESPNBets: Southern Utah +1.5, O/U 136.5

In its first season in the WAC, Southern Utah ran to the WAC Tournament title game. However, Todd Simon left for Bowling Green and the T-Birds entire 2022-23 roster, minus three, left or had their eligibility come to a close.

In steps former Western Illinois head coach Rob Jeter to fill the same position at Southern Utah. Jeter inherits Parsa Fallah, Zion Young and redshirt freshman Braden Housley from the 2022-23 squad. Reports are that had Drake Allen not been the point guard at SUU in 2022-23, Housley would have been the starting PG instead of redshirting.

Either way, a trip to former WAC school CSU Bakersfield is an interesting opening night matchup. The Roadrunners under Rod Barnes play with a physicality that many opponents can’t handle. How will almost an entirely new roster handle a road trip against a physical opponent who plays on a wild blue court? Especially an undersized Southern Utah squad?

Well, newcomer Prophet Johnson (what a name, right?) had this to say on the WAC Basketball Preview Show.

One other thing to remember…assistant coach Shaun Gutting runs the offense. And think about this…during his time at Casper College, Gutting’s teams averaged nearly 90 points per game. With a bunch of guards, and crazy amount of quickness, and perhaps a chip on their shoulder from being overlooked, this Southern Utah squad may surprise some on opening night.

4 – Abilene Christian at Oklahoma State

This is one of those games that could be similar to what Sam Houston did to open the 2022-23 season. The way that Brette Tanner’s crew gets after it defensively, and how fast they play, could cause problems in Stillwater. Along with that, Tanner features a veteran squad. Manny Allen, Airion Simmons, and Cam Steele have all been in the program for 3-plus seasons.

Ali Dibba is in his second season in the Purple and White. Hunter Jack Madden is back for another run. There are a lot of pieces back for Tanner. The biggest question that many hope gets answered on opening night is: who will be the starting point guard?

Two years ago, it was Reggie Miller. Last season, it was Damien Daniels. Both players played their entire careers under Tanner or at least while Brette Tanner was a member of the ACU staff.

The expectation is that JUCO transfer Kavion McClain will step into that role. Quickness, good defender, and a little better offensively is the report out of Moody Coliseum on McClain. About the only difference, well two differences, are his strength compared to Damien Daniels and the fact McClain is right-handed.

GCU transfer Aidan Igiehon gives the Wildcats some additional size in the paint. Keep an eye on Leonardo Bettiol. The 6’8 forward had glimpses of being really good in 2022-23. With a big frame and good hands, he might play a big role in the paint for the Wildcats.

We have seen opening night magic happen before. Can ACU, with its experienced roster, pull off some magic to start a new season?

Ali Dibba is back at ACU as the Wildcats feature a very experienced roster. Courtesy Western Athletic Conference.

5 – Tarleton at Virginia

  • Time: 6 p.m. CT
  • Stream: ESPN+
  • Radio: Unsure (Will update with link when it comes available)
  • Line per ESPNBets: Tarleton +16.5, O/U 126.5

It is another season and another Tarleton roster with perhaps a few known commodities. Jakorie Smith returns. Lue Williams is back. Kiandre Giddy looks in better shape and ready to man the paint for the Texans.

However, the familiarity stops there. Lots of new faces with a lot of youth, as well. Will it be the same Billy Gillispie-type of playing style? Of course. That will never change. Get after opponents on the perimeter, be physical, and force teams to play a little faster and turn the ball over. Just ask GCU or Utah Valley how frustrating it can be to play against the Texans. If you don’t remember, Tarleton beat GCU by 19 in Stephenville and it really wasn’t even that close. The Texans also blew out Utah Valley by 19 in a game that wasn’t that close, either.

Billy Gillispie’s crew frustrates teams. They don’t let you get into an offense, they push you off the 3-point line, and create havoc. Now, with scorers like Jakorie Smith and Lue Williams, this team will still do its thing. And what better way to do it than against a team that plays a slow pace and focuses on its own style of defense? Yeah, Tony Bennett-coached teams aren’t know for their pace of play. So, opening night in Charlottesville could turn into an old fashioned slugfest in the back alley.

Can Tarleton throw enough punches to be in the mix for an upset? We have seen that possibility at Gonzaga, at Kansas, against Boston College, and so forth over the years under Gillispie. Not saying it will happen, but also not saying it won’t happen.

About the author

Kyle McDonald

Love everything about WAC Hoops so decided I wanted to write more about it and cover this amazing conference that just keeps getting better. Follow us on Twitter @wachoopsdigest for information, game analysis and much more.

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