Fan groups and media around the WAC couldn’t be anymore lucky at the moment. The sometimes used nickname “Wild Wild WAC” sums up the conference season thus far perfectly. October’s preseason poll seems like a work of fiction now in the middle of January. And on Thursday night, the New Mexico State Aggies and Southern Utah T-Birds may give fans even more of a look at how wild the league is in 2022-23.
Championship favorites Grand Canyon and New Mexico State are facing loads of adversity right now. And middle of the pack selections, Seattle and Utah Valley, sit at the top of the current WAC standings and resume seeding. Things have been, exciting and spontaneous. Even if one of the conference’s most storied programs is cellar dwelling at the moment.
For programs all around the conference, each game counts. And because of this, it makes some of Thursday’s league games a little more intriguing.
For the sake of this write-up, we will focus on a game taking place in Cedar City.
New Mexico State 7-11 (0-6, last place in the WAC)
Greg Heiar’s Aggies are struggling. That may be an understatement. But the season needs to be finished and there are still 12 games to play before heading to Las Vegas in March. New Mexico State just has to worry about not being in last place come that time and missing out on the conference tournament entirely. That would be the worst possible way to end such a turbulent season.
So now, the Aggies need to grind.
And it comes at a time when the Aggies start arguably the toughest stretch of their conference schedule. Where will the Aggies get a win? Southern Utah, Utah Tech, Utah Valley, SFA, Seattle U and Grand Canyon are the next six games for the Aggies.
Can Greg Heiar’s crew figure things out over the next three weeks? Cedar City and the America First Events Center is no easy place to play. Perhaps the Aggies are catching the T-Birds in somewhat of a trap game. Southern Utah goes to the Pacific Northwest on Saturday for a showdown with Seattle U.
It remains to be seen. Anthony Roy might actually play in a road game on Thursday night. Can Roy’s presence make a difference? Keep an eye on the body language. When the Aggies get frustrated, it tends to show itself a little too much.
Every game for the Aggies is now a must-win situation.
Keys to an Aggie win:
Defend the paint, defend, and control the tempo.
Southern Utah is currently averaging 86.1 PPG, good enough for second in the entire nation. And while the Thunderbirds are certainly capable of scoring at all three levels, the majority of their money is made inside the arc. Jason Spurgin has some surprising athleticism but a high basketball I.Q. Maizen Fausett has been really good for the T-Birds. And Tevian Jones is a walking bucket.
The best defense for the Aggies may be to slow things down. If you get in a track meet with Southern Utah, you might be in for a long night.
Southern Utah 13-6 (5-1,T-2nd in the WAC)
Southern Utah has come into their first season of Western Athletic Conference play primed for the occasion. The Thunderbirds ended Stephen F. Austin’s 15-game conference winning streak along with a 7-game winning stream this season on Saturday.
Maizen Fausett put up big numbers in a pair of home wins. Tevian Jones continues to play like a WAC Player of the Year candidate. And Todd Simon’s group just continues to win. In the win over SFA, the T-Birds showed they can play a little defense and win a low-scoring ball game.
The T-Birds are 8-1 at home. In fact, the last time the T-Birds lost a game at America First Events Center was Nov. 30.
Keys to a Thunderbird win:
Keep the foot on the gas, put pressure on the perimeter, and rebound.
Southern Utah is one of the highest scoring teams in the country. And they can score in bunches. Five 1,000-point scorers grace the SUU roster. So, push the tempo, push New Mexico State off the 3-point line, and rebound.
Players to Watch
New Mexico State
Junior Guard-Xavier Pinson
With shooting woes being experienced across the Aggie Roster, Pinson has remained locked, loaded and steady. Pinson leads the Aggies at 12.7 points again and also leads the team in assists with 82. When Pinson plays well, New Mexico State plays well.
Junior Guard-Deshawndre Washington
On the flip side, Pinson’s backcourt partner is a dynamic mismatch problem. Deshawndre Washington can back defenders down and finish at the rim. Or, Washington can step out and knock down a shot from the perimeter. It is no secret when these two play well, and stay in rhythm, the Aggies are dangerous.
Senior Guard/Forward-Tevian Jones
Jones is Southern Utah’s leading scorer. The 6-7 guard is averaging 19.6 points and shooting over 40 percent from 3-point land. People may think of Jones as simply a perimeter shooter. But, Jones has sneaky quickness and athleticism that can shock you at any given moment.
Senior Guard-Maizen Fausett
The 6-5 senior guard is coming off two really good games offensively. Fausett was 7-9 from 3-point land last weekend and averaged 20.5 points in a pair of wins. With all the attention that Tevian Jones gets, Fausett becomes the beneficiary of open looks and lack of defense.
For the Thunderbirds, plenty is at stake when they welcome the Aggies into the America First Event Center Thursday night. Currently tied for second place in the WAC, the T-Birds are right in the mix for the regular season title. In the tight conference race this season is shaping up to be, every win counts.
For the Aggies, every game feels like a must-win at this point. Currently still winless in conference and with fans nationwide watching completely confused, Greg Heiar should be feeling the pressure, especially after a turbulent non-conference slate to go with an abysmal WAC start. To say the stakes are very high in Las Cruces would be an understatement. And a chance to knock off one of the conference’s hottest teams at home may just turn things around for the Aggies.
The KenPom ($) line for this one is Southern Utah winning by five. Most Sportsbooks have set the line at -6 for Southern Utah.
Southern Utah 84, New Mexico State 79
Tip-off for this WAC rematch is scheduled for 7:00 PM MT and can be watched live on ESPN+.
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.