The Western Athletic Conference pushes on to the 2022-2023 college basketball season. And with a new season comes one of the most successful programs in the West since 2020 in Southern Utah. Along with that, New Mexico State finally broke an impressive 30-year drought.
All in all, the 2021-2022 inaugural season of the media-dubbed Revamped WAC met fan expectations and then some.
As a whole, the conference achieved its highest KenPom ranking ($) in almost a decade. The WAC was 15th out of 32 conferences. Seven teams were ranked inside KenPom’s top-150 ranking. New Mexico State topped things off with the WAC’s first NCAA tournament win since 2007.
The last time a WAC school won a tourney game was when 7-seed Nevada led by Nick Fazekas, Ramon Sassions and freshman JaVale McGee beat 10-seed Creighton in New Orleans. That 15-year slump was finally broken when the Aggies beat 5-seed UConn this past March, giving future conference champions a new ceiling.
With such a stellar season at our backs, fans and media alike look to November. To what will likely yield another highly favorable season. As the conference realignment wheel keeps on turning, the WAC like many mid-major conferences continues to adapt.
New Mexico State and Sam Houston, still a relative newcomer to the league, exit for Conference-USA in 2023. This is a move about the dollars and cents of college football. And it certainly hurts what is a proud basketball conference.
But before that, we shall enjoy yet another draft of the Western Athletic Conference. This one minus Lamar and Incarnate Word while adding Southern Utah and UT-Arlington.
The Mavericks bring yet another a geographic footprint in the state of Texas and a piece of a top-5 media market (Dallas-Fort Worth).
But, let’s talk about the other newcomer in Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds of Cedar City, UT bring one of the top winning percentages of the new decade (out west). Yes, even higher than the Aggies or the Antelopes.
— SUU Men's Basketball (@SUUBasketball) August 17, 2022
Winning Ways in Cedar City
When college basketball fans think of winning programs out west, SUU isn’t one of those programs. Yes, the likes of Gonzaga, Arizona or San Diego State likely come to mind first. And when folks think about mid-major programs who put W’s in the win column every week they may think of Boise State, Colorado State, Grand Canyon or New Mexico State.
But right up there among college basketball’s A-listers in the West are the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. SUU is a program that flies just under the radar. But hey, it’s not necessarily hurting them so far.
The Thunderbirds are led by former UNLV interim and powerhouse Findlay Prep head coach Todd Simon. Since taking over the program in 2016, Simon has led Southern Utah to a 96-94 record and a Big Sky regular season championship. This makes Simon the program’s second winningest head coach in the last three decades behind Neil Roberts (54-51, 51.4%) of the late 80’s/early 90’s.
And from the graphic above, over the past two seasons, SUU has been rather good. Simon has led the T-Birds to a 43-16 record the past two seasons combined. And in that time, SUU has won a Big Sky regular season title. Had it not been for Tevian Jones breaking his wrist late in 2021-22, SUU may have went on to win the Big Sky again.
Yes, hovering above .500 may not look like success to every onlooker. But, what Simon has pulled off thus far is a true rebuild. Yes, in his first season at SUU in 2016-17, the T-Birds won just six games. But, SUU improved in 2017-18 with 13 wins before back-to-back 17-win seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Now, the T-Birds are off their second straight 20-plus win season and ready to keep up their winning ways in the WAC.
He’s done so with player development as well as utilizing the transfer portal. Landing players from all levels of college basketball. From the Big Ten to the American East. Lastly, sprinkle in a strong culture, recent winning tradition and stability to the mix and you have an immediate title contender in the new addition.
The Thunderbirds bring back three of their top five scorers from last season and have once again reloaded with incoming transfers. Todd Simon’s squad looks poised to enter the annual top-5 WAC title race this fall. And we’ll be here for all of the action.