Conference play continues Friday night with a triple-header of double-headers. Dixie State and UTRGV highlight the WAC Hoops schedule this weekend in the first-ever meeting as conference foes. And this series is where the focus of this article will be.
Ready for some #WAChoops ?
— UTRGV Men’s Basketball (@UTRGVmbb) January 15, 2021
With the unorthodox seasons had by some programs in the WAC so far in 2020-2021, the start to conference play can’t come any sooner. Though a mid-January start feels just as unusual as it sounds, this weekend’s slate of games have an extra special meaning for some.
While Chicago State’s operations remain suspended, New Mexico State continues to hope intra-squad games in practice will be enough prep to them for a conference title quadruple-peat (sorry for that). And, Grand Canyon is playing a back-to-back series against NCCAA (yes you read that right, not a typo) opponent Bethesda.
The rest of the conference gets WAC action started today with Dixie State’s trip south to face UTRGV.
Dixie State Beginning First Conference Slate in the WAC
This weekend’s series between the Trailblazers and Vaqueros in Edinburg is the first WAC action for the newly welcomed Dixie State program. Aside from the Trailblazers first exposure to WAC hoops this weekend, Friday afternoon’s matchup is also the first meeting between these two programs ever.
Dixie State played in the RMAC since 2018 before departing for D-I pastures this past offseason. Prior to that, they were members of the PAC West since 2007 where they logged multiple conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances.
UTRGV has been a member of the WAC since the 2013-2014 season after the Great West Conference folded, following conference mates Chicago State and Utah Valley after just four seasons. Since joining, the rebranded Vaqueros have managed a better finish in the conference year in and year out. Hoping to follow up on last season’s 3rd place finish, 5th-year head coach Lew Hill (65-76, .461 W%) and company see their new conference mates as just another stretch of road before their destination, the top of the WAC.
On the other side of the scorer’s table is now sixteen-year head coach Jon Judkins (569 career wins; .686 W%). Who himself is looking to build on his successful tenure with the Dixie State program as he elevates them to college basketballs highest level.
Matchup to Keep an Eye on: Battle in the Paint
This section could have gone to the opposite side of the offense, with both squads having some of the most talented floor generals in the conference in Javon Levi and Cameron Gooden. But, with Levi’s status unknown at the moment, having not played since December 6th due to a foot injury I look inward and beneath the basket.
Picking up some slack in the scoring column for the Vaqueros is Sean Rhea, who leads the team with 15.6 PPG through eight contests. His opposition down-low tonight is fellow veteran big-man Hunter Schofield, who is having a bit of a down year production wise at the division-one level (9.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG & 1.0 APG) but shouldn’t be underestimated.
Things could also be mixed up a bit, as both players mentioned above only log around twenty minutes a game. Rhea splits his time down low with the teams third leading rebounder Malik Lawrence-Anderson (5.6 RPG). While also welcoming back highly anticipated graduate transfer Jeff Otchere, who made his first appearance of the season for coach Hill and company on January 7th against D-II St. Mary’s University. The 6-11 big man and former 2x American East Conference Player of the Year logged 7 points, 5 rebounds & 4 blocks in just 12 minutes.
Schofield and fellow senior forward Jarod Greene, may have a big night of defending a head of them with juco transfer Mikey Frazier (6-11, 250) possibly slated for more minutes given Otchere’s return.
Injuries on Both Sides
So far, no updates to be found surrounding the status of key backcourt pieces Javon Levi of UTRGV and Dason Youngblood of Dixie State. Both have missed game time so far this season with foot injuries and both are key pieces to their teams success.
Levi the reigning 2x WAC Defensive player of the year has appeared in just four games so far this season, with the last being a Dec. 6th loss to Texas A&M. And though his production has dipped a bit in a few areas, the 5’11 ball hawk is still leading the conference at 3.0 SPG. On paper Seattle’s Darrion Trammell may have something to say about that, given his 1.8 SPG but 22 overall, but Levi’s season total of 12 in a third the amount of games is still noteworthy.
While Youngblood, has been out since his squads trip to Spokane, WA last month to face the No. 1 team in the country Gonzaga. Since, the Trailblazers have only played in one other game, an impromptu mid-week meetup with New Mexico on Wednesday before heading south to Edinburg early Thursday morning. The status of both is unclear, but seeing both players get some game time this weekend no matter how short is a good sign for both programs.
What’s on the Line?
Dixie State is coming off of a nine-point loss to New Mexico Wednesday night at home. Dixie State was previously 3-0 on the season at the Burns Arena. UTRGV, on the other hand, has had a week in between contests. The Vaqueros had a 29-point romp over a D-II foe. Both had two very different previous outings but both have the same goal: finish conference play strong.
The storyline for the Trailblazers in this one is the beginning of a new era. This despite though being ineligible to participate in the WAC tournament later this year due to their transitional status from the NCAA’s Division-II ranks. They have the chance to follow a similar entrance to other programs who entered the conference in the last decade by winning, and winning early.
For UTRGV, it’s maintaining their reputation in the conference. It’s also about staying true to their preseason predicted place as a challenger for the conference title come March. Tonight is the first chance to begin that run and help solidify their place in the conference.
Also, for those hoops fans in the Valley who haven’t brushed up on their new conference foe tonight, take a listen to Dixie State assistant Andrew May below. May joined the All-Access Network’s Coast2Coast segment to discuss what to expect from one of the WAC’s newest members.
He touches on the success of the program back in the RMAC. May also discusses the transition to D-I, the experience of those within the program, and WAC expansion.
— All-Access Network (@AllAccess_Net) January 15, 2021
Tip off for this WAC season opener is at 6 p.m. CT and can be seen on the WAC Digital Network.