The 2022 WAC Tournament comes to an end Saturday night inside the Orleans Arena. And let’s just say that one team proved that you can win three games in three days. That same team will go for its fourth win in four days and a trip to the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. Championship Saturday is upon us. A trip to the NCAA Tournament is at stake. And it goes down at 7 p.m. PT on ESPNU at the Orleans Arena.
So, let’s get to it.
No. 6 Abilene Christian 22-9 (11-7 in the WAC)
Abilene Christian’s move to the WAC still appears to be the right move nearly a year later. The Wildcats lost their long time head coach Joe Golding (now at UTEP). Golding took the program to new heights. ACU made the jump from Division II with a bang. ACU has two NCAA Tournament appearances. And the Wildcats also have a 53-52 upset over No. 3 seeded Texas last year. Following Golding’s departure, longtime assistant Brette Tanner took over the reigns and guided the Wildcats to a 20-win season and a first round bye this week. Abilene Christian has the tools to get to the championship game on Saturday. That has been seen night in and night out in Las Vegas. ACU beat Utah Valley, and regular season co-champs Stephen F. Austin and Seattle.
Now, the Wildcats get New Mexico State. A win sends ACU to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. It also means ACU beat all three regular season co-champs to do it. We all know ACU can play defense.
The Wildcats lead the country in three defensive categories. ACU leads the nation in turnovers forced with 21.9 per game. ACU’s turnover margin is at plus-9.0 and ACU averages a nation-best 11.3 steals per game. In its three games in Las Vegas, ACU has forced 24, 21, and 19 turnovers. Keep an eye on one of the best defensive teams in the country on Saturday night. ACU has a tendency of getting under the skin of its opponents. And because of this, teams are flustered and get out of sync. It’s a recipe that led to the upset over Texas in the NCAA Tournament last season. And its a recipe that has led to ACU playing for a WAC title.
Player to Watch:
Jr. F Airion Simmons
Simmons has been a leader for the Wildcats since the program moved to the WAC. The 6-5 forward has a unique set of guard skills with the athleticism and size to work down low. His season averages of 11.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG & 1.9 APG and not to forget 1.8 SPG earned him a place on the All-WAC Second Team. His energy on the perimeter make him a prime candidate for steals and ensuing fast break opportunities. The only thing opposing coaches can find solace in is his 20.5 MPG average. Simmons may not be on the court as much as his team would like him to be. But, when he is on the floor, he is making it count.
No. 1 New Mexico State 25-6 (14-4 in the WAC)
Saturday night is what Johnny McCants, Clayton Henry and Donnie Tillman came back for. After losing 74-58 to Grand Canyon in the 2020-21 WAC Tournament title game, the chip on the shoulder of the Aggies was massive.
Well, Saturday night, the Aggies have a chance for redemption. After dealing with all kinds of COVID restrictions in 2020-21, the Aggies are back in the WAC Tournament title game. Dating back to the 2012 season, the Aggies have made 10 consecutive appearances in the WAC Tournament Championship game. New Mexico State has won the title game eight times in those 10 appearances. Only GCU and CSU Bakersfield were able to beat the Aggies in title game.
New Mexico State is fresh off a 75-70 win over Grand Canyon on Friday night. Teddy Allen had another big game against the Lopes, scoring a game-high 25 points while going 12-12 from the free throw line. Allen hit a pair of free throws with six seconds left to put the game away.
The big advantage for the Aggies will be the size on Saturday night. Will McNair Jr., Yuot Alok, Johnny McCants and Mike Peake give the Aggies a huge size advantage. ACU’s Airion Simmons and Cameron Steele are listed at 6-5 and 6-8 and that might be generous. So, keep an eye on the rebounding battle and points in the paint.
New Mexico State won the first and only game these two teams played during the regular season. Teddy Allen went for 41 points in the 77-63 win on Jan. 15 in Las Cruces. But, ACU was also without Airion Simmons.
The Aggies are on a mission. And they are one game from accomplishing the first part of that mission. The Orleans Arena is said to be the Pan Am Center of the West. And New Mexico State has only lost twice at the Orleans Arena.
Player to Watch:
Gr. F Teddy Allen
The WAC Player of the Year had 41 points in the first meeting between the Aggies and Wildcats. And in Friday’s semifinal, Allen had a game-high 25 points. Again, it has been said plenty of times, as Teddy Allen goes, so goes New Mexico State. Allen needs to get going early against a defense that loves to get after it. When Allen gets going early, it ignites the energy in the rest of the Aggies. Teddy ‘Buckets’ is key for New Mexico State to accomplish its goal of getting back to the NCAA Tournament. It is a big reason why Allen came to Las Cruces…to win.
KenPom has the Aggies as 3-point favorites and crowned champions of the 2022 Hercules Tires WAC Basketball Tournament. In its home away from home, New Mexico State has only lost twice. And after what happened in the 2020-21 championship game, there is a major chip on the shoulders of the Aggies.
But, on the other side, ACU is a veteran squad that has been in these moments before. The Wildcats won the Southland Conference Tournament in 2020-21 and beat Texas in the Round of 64. Reggie Miller, Airion Simmons, Coryon Mason, Tobias Cameron, and others all played on that team. And now that they have knocked off two of the three regular season co-champs, know they can beat anyone.
But, the size may be a little too much for the Wildcats. It is something to keep an eye on.
New Mexico State 70, Abilene Christian 67
Tip-off for this WAC Vegas championship matchup is at 8:30 PST/9:30 MT/10:30 CT and can seen on ESPNU. The winner of this Championship game will cut down the nets inside Orleans Arena, receive the WAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and await to hear their seed tomorrow on Selection Sunday.
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.