WAC Tournament Betting Preview: Will NMSU Continue its Dominance?

WAC Tournament Betting Preview: Will NMSU Continue its Dominance? article feature image
Credit:

Dec 23, 2017; Honolulu, HI, USA; New Mexico State Aggies forward Jemerrio Jones (10) and guard Shunn Buchanan (1) react after the Aggies defeated the Miami (Fl) Hurricanes at an NCAA college basketball game at Stan Sheriff Center. Mandatory Credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

The Western Athletic conference tournament tips off today at 3:00 p.m. ET in Las Vegas. The New Mexico State Aggies have won the WAC tournament in five of the past six seasons (and six of the past eight). The lone exception came in 2016, when Cal State Bakersfield defeated — you guessed it — New Mexico State. The WAC has had so much turnover over the years that those are the only two current league teams to have ever won a WAC tournament championship, despite the tourney being played since 1984.

Let’s dive into the bracket to see if anybody can actually take down tourney favorite NMSU. I will also close the article with ATS predictions for each of today’s four quarterfinal games.

2018 WAC Tournament Overview

Dates: March 8-10

Location: Orleans Arena – Las Vegas

Defending Champion: New Mexico State

Notable Injuries: Cal State Bakersfield guard Shon Briggs (out)

All eight teams in the WAC participate in the conference tournament in a standard bracket format with no byes.

Who Should Win

New Mexico State -138

Chris Jans did a phenomenal job in his first season in Las Cruces, and the Aggies are primed to win yet another WAC title despite being on their third coach in the past three years. NMSU’s ranks 13th in the country in defensive efficiency, and it’s the prime reason why the Aggies will be an upset darling in the NCAA tournament should they survive Vegas. NMSU’s defense grades out in the 99th percentile nationally in transition defense and 98th percentile in the halfcourt, per Synergy. Players like Jemerrio Jones (pictured above, left) and Sidy N’Dir have really taken their defense to the next level under Jans’ staff, and Jones has morphed into the Dennis Rodman of the WAC, as he snagged 20+ rebounds in three straight games, despite being just 6-foot-5. Rim protectors Johnathon Wilkins and Johnny McCants helped hold opposing offenses to the 10th-lowest FG% at the rim in the country.

Offensively, the Aggies have an alpha scorer in Zach Lofton who can do everything on the floor and create offense against stifling half-court defenses. NMSU is the complete package, and its performance at the Diamond Head Classic back in December — wins over Miami (FL) and Davidson — proved the Aggies can compete with almost any team in the country. This is a team that can definitely make a trip to the Sweet 16, but it needs to win the WAC tourney first.

NMSU will kick off the WAC Tournament with 8-seed Chicago State, which is fresh off its first league win, and first win over a D1 team, of the season. Poor Tracy Dildy just can’t gain any traction at CSU, and the Cougars failed to tally a win in the entirety of December, January and February. The Cougars will play a frenetic zone press with waves of players off the bench, and since the WAC bizarrely doesn’t give the top seed the early game, NMSU will have to play on short rest after facing the pressure and expending a lot of energy guarding CSU’s Fred Sims, who torched NMSU for 30 points on 9-of-11 shooting from 3. It’s baffling and counterproductive for the WAC to not give its top seed as much rest as possible in a tournament setting.

If Not NMSU, Then…

Utah Valley +305

NMSU’s coronation, however, is far from a guarantee, as the WAC was ultra competitive this season, and 2-seed Utah Valley has every piece needed to upset the Aggies. Utah Valley split with the Aggies in the regular season, and won in Orem without the league’s best center, Akolda Manyang. While the Aggies have the WAC’s best defense, UVU has been the league’s most efficient offense thanks to steady PG Brandon Randolph, the shooting of a trio of big wings in the Toolson brothers and Kenny Ogbe, and rim dominator/dunk machine Manyang. The midseason addition of Kent State transfer Jerrelle DeBerry has given head coach Mark Pope a much-needed slasher on the wing, as well. UVU is loaded with seniors and the Wolverines have the confidence that they can beat the Aggies.

UVU will have 7-seed Cal State Bakersfield first, and the Runners will be shorthanded without Shon Briggs, who is out for the tournament, barring a miracle. UVU dismantled the CSUB press and won both meetings by a total of 56 points. Rod Barnes is a phenomenal coach, but injuries derailed any chance the Runners had to make a run in Vegas.

Potential Sleeper(s)

Grand Canyon +480

The 3-seed Lopes will be playing with a lot of energy, as this is the first chance they’ve had as D1 members to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Dan Majerle’s squad will also have a large contingent of fans in Vegas, as the Havocs travel well and travel loud. If GCU makes a run in Vegas, it will be on the strength of its extremely aggressive man-to-man defense. The Lopes pressure the ball-handler relentlessly in the half court, and are extremely aggressive gambling for steals on the perimeter. Unfortunately the offense is very inconsistent, and GCU is in a different tier than the Aggies and Wolverines in that regard.

The Lopes will take on 6-seed UMKC, a team they handled with ease in a regular-season sweep. The Roos are an interesting team, however, having won four straight in February (which included victories over Seattle and Utah Valley), and I’m willing to discount the season-ending loss at Chicago State, as the Cougars were hungry for a win and UMKC had nothing to play for. Despite the regular-season success the Lopes had against the Roos, this is a tricky matchup for GCU. Casey Benson has struggled against ball pressure all year, and UMKC utilizes an aggressive zone press (head coach Kareem Richardson is off the Rick Pitino tree). Unfortunately for UMKC, it probably can’t muster enough offense, as the Roos bomb the 3 at the league’s highest rate, which plays into the strength of GCU’s hyper-aggressive perimeter defense which held teams to just 27% shooting from deep in WAC play, but more importantly discouraged attempts at the second-best rate.

Most Intriguing Matchup

4-seed Seattle vs 5-seed UT-Rio Grande Valley

Jim Hayford has done a nice job in his first year at SU after hopping over from rival Eastern Washington. Seattle’s strength is its length and versatility, as the Redhawks play two point guards and a point-forward in Josh Hearlihy in Hayford’s spread pick-and-roll half-court offense. Seattle scored a home win over NMSU in a wild OT game, but then proceeded to drop its final three games of the regular season (although all were on the road).

The Redhawks, who had the highest turnover rate in league play, have an interesting and tough match up with UTRGV, which employs a relentless pressing defense. The Vaqueros have a volume scorer and penetrator in Nick Dixon, and a pair of athletic wings in Xavier McDaniel and Terry Winn.

Seattle swept the season series, but needed OT in Edinburg to pull it off.

Thursday ATS Predictions

UMKC +12 (top ATS prediction)
UVU -9 (top ATS prediction)
Chicago State +24
Seattle -3.5 (top ATS prediction)

WAC Tournament Final Prediction

NMSU over UVU

Top photo: New Mexico State Aggies forward Jemerrio Jones (10) and guard Shunn Buchanan (1); credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports.