Last season’s co-WAC regular season champions, Utah Valley and Grand Canyon, meet almost a year later. Both programs are feeling the pressure mid-February college hoops can sometimes bring. Especially for those teams stuck in the middle of their conference standings with teams poised to continue winning in front of them and just as dangerous teams at their backs hoping they fall any given night.
Grand Canyon holds the all-time series edge over Utah Valley at 11-8 overall. However, the Wolverines have won two of the last three meetings. Their visitors on Thursday won the most recent meeting 74-64 in Phoenix on March 6th last year, which saw five Lopes reach double-figures.
Of all of the WAC men’s basketball matchups to tune into on Thursday night, these two squads taking the floor in Orem might be the most evenly matched with the most at stake.
Grand Canyon 16-5 (7-3, 4th in the WAC*)
The Antelopes are looking to extend their current two game winning streak Thursday night in Orem. With a tough but manageable three game road stretch beginning in the UCCU Center ahead. For Grand Canyon to make to run up the WAC standings approaching mid-February. Coach Bryce Drew’s team needs to zone in and think of another streak at hand, a three game losing streak at Utah Valley dating back to January 27th, 2018.
Luckily for the Lopes they appear to be in bounce back form. GCU lost three straight road game that started in Nacogdoches. But that streak ended with a convincing 78-66 win over then league-leading Seattle inside GCU Arena last week. GCU had a closer 56-50 win over California Baptist in Phoenix on Saturday. And this program’s defense of their home court this season went to 12-1. The only home loss coming to a currently red hot and borderline top-25 Wyoming squad in late November.
Keys to an Antelope win:
Defend the 3, Crash the boards, Attack the rim
To win this one, Grand Canyon will have focus their defensive efforts on multiple positions on the court. Utah Valley is the best 3-point shooting team in the WAC (37.3% as a whole) and has the conference’s leading rebounder Fardaws Aimaq. Aimaq should also be a focus of the Lope’s offensive plan of attack as well. Getting to the free throw line is key. However, GCU shoots a meager 66.0% (332 in the nation) from the charity stripe, including their guards. If Grand Canyon can keep Aimaq on the bench in foul trouble, they can take away 25.8% of Utah Valley’s scoring. It also negates 32.7% of the Wolverines’ rebounding totals. Like I said a poor approach if they can’t knock them down, but an idea to neutralize one of the WAC’s best early.
Utah Valley 15-7 (6-4, 6th in the WAC)
Now third year head coach Mark Madsen has kept his Utah Valley Wolverines competitive in the newly leveled up WAC. With the 2021 conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year returning, Utah Valley looked to hold their own this season with some quality mid-major additions coming to occupy the top-half of the WAC standings.
The Wolverines were riding a 3-game winning streak before the entering February. Utah Valley fell at Stephen F. Austin by nearly 20 points. Road trips into Texas this season have been extremely tough, giving losses to WAC powers Grand Canyon and New Mexico State as well. In this year’s Western Athletic Conference no one is safe. After that double-digit loss in Nacogdoches, Utah Valley turned around and beat Sam Houston in Huntsville, 57-54. A feat only two teams have managed to accomplish this season, the other being Missouri State who is fighting for a MVC regular season title at the moment.
Keys to a Wolverine win:
Make the three, Second chance opportunities, Spread the floor
As mentioned prior, the Wolverines are the best 3-point shooting team in the WAC. But only get about 25% of their points on average from behind the arc. They take 17.8 3-point field goals a game, putting them at 332nd in the nation. The Wolverines should really take advantage of their perimeter shooters and attempt to free up the rebounding machine in Aimaq to look for second chance opportunities. This will also keep the Lopes guessing defensively as offensive rebounds and drives towards the hoops should lead to kick outs to better stretch the floor.
Players to Watch
Sophomore Guard-Jovan Blacksher Jr.
Gone is the frontcourt duo that led Grand Canyon to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance last season. But still around is the 5’11 Oakland, CA native but nearby Shadow Mountain HS product. This is Blacksher Jr.’s team now. He is currently averaging 17.0 PPG, 3.9 APG, 2.9 RPG & 2.0 SPG this season and improving in the only major area he was lacking as a premier scoring point guard this year, the free throw line. Still shooting 72% from the charity stripe, he has improved from just 66% last month.
He is also averaging 14.2 field goal attempts a game, which also equates to 29.2% of shots taken for the Lopes. And while his assists per game (3.9 APG) has decreased from last month, this is more attributed to his backcourt mate’s evolution as a ball handler for Grand Canyon than his own failings as the team’s floor general.
Senior Guard-Holland Woods Jr.
Woods Jr. has been a perfect compliment to Blacksher in the backcourt this season for Bryce Drew. Helping a more frontcourt driven offense last season transition to one more focused on points earned through its guards. The former Arizona Sun Devil is averaging 13.3 PPG, 3.1 APG & 2.4 while shooting 36.0% from beyond the arc.
Although the 6-1 senior guard makes up one of the smallest backcourts in the conference, they combine to average 30.3 PPG and play tough nosed defense at the top of the key.
The WAC preseason Player of the Year (Media Vote) is a force in the paint for most teams to handle any given night. The 6-11, 245-pound, Vancouver, British Columbia native dubbed “Big Maple” is averaging 19.0 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 1.8 APG & 1.4 BPG while shooting 48.9% from the floor. Increasing not only his scoring output from last season’s WAC POY & DPOY campaign but also his assist rate, free throw percentage by nearly 10% and how long he stays on the floor with 34.2 MPG.
Where Aimaq thrives is around the rim. His NCAA leading 15.0 RPG last season has dropped slightly due to his expanded offensive role. However, Aimaq still dominates the conference, averaging nearly 5.0 rebounds a game more than his closes challenger in CBU’s Daniel Akin and leads in both defensive and offensive rebound totals. All of this to log a nation leading 19 double-doubles this season with NBA aspirations come this summer.
Junior Guard-Connor Harding
The BYU transfer has slid in perfectly to a duel role left by the now departed Jamison Overton and currently sidelined Trey Woodbury. The 6-6 junior guard is second on the team in scoring with 11.5 PPG, third in rebounds (4.0 RPG) and second on the team in assists (2.5 APG). Harding is also shooting 45.3% from the floor and 41.7% from beyond the arc, which leads the team for those with at least 30 3-point attempts.
Harding has a dangerous game, as he can knock down long range bombs and mid-range jumpers. He is also particularly good at making the difficult or well-defended shot. Which as a part of a Wolverine Perimeter that includes other sharpshooters Le’tre Darthard (36.8%) and Blaze Nield (38.1%), creates floor spacing opportunities when double-teamed or driving the ball to the basket.
What’s on the line?
This late in the season there is plenty on the line for both programs. The Lopes and Wolverines are sitting in the middle of a very malleable WAC standings at the moment. There are only eight games left before all of the conference departs for Las Vegas for tournament action on beginning March 8.
For Grand Canyon, they are still in pursuit of the third place Sam Houston Bearkats but with a very eager and dangerous Stephen F. Austin on their tail only down one game to the Lopes. Utah Valley is a bit lower in the conference race, trailing the Lumberjacks by one win. But with another Texas Four addition, Abilene Christian on their heels for the 6th place spot.
Like I said, very malleable at this stage of conference play. And just ask the Lopes, how a bad week or stretch of games could really halt your repeat title hopes. Also in mind is the top two seeds in the WAC tournament. Both receiving byes into the semi-finals, making for an easier pathway to the championship game, especially this year.
The KenPom ($) line in this one has the Wolverines as the 5-point favorites and the only Lopes predicted loss for the remainder of the season. Obviously this is a hard one to gauge. With the Wolverines holding the homecourt advantage this season at 8-1 on the year and making things particularly difficult for Grand Canyon when they come to town, I feel they hold out for the win.
Utah Valley 70, Grand Canyon 65
Making for an even more interesting middle of the WAC scenario for games lined up this weekend. Which includes another tough homestand for the Wolverines against New Mexico State on Saturday. While the Lopes stay in the state of Utah to face Dixie State in St. George where they are more heavily favored to secure the W. But don’t count this Grand Canyon squad out. They are too well coached and have one of the best backcourts in the WAC on any given night.
Tip-off for this must watch WAC matchup is scheduled for 6:00 PM (MT & Phoenix Time) 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.