On Thursday at 7pm PST, there is a major #WACTION showdown in the Valley as the two top WAC contenders will battle to gain control of the Western Athletic Conference. Newly postseason eligible Grand Canyon University will host their conference home opener against defending WAC Champions, the New Mexico St Aggies. Although #11 ranked ASU is hosting the Oregon Ducks in a PAC-12 matchup that is just 20 miles away, the WAC clash between GCU and NMSU is the hottest ticket in town. This is a highly anticipated game that will feature the rowdiest environment in all of college basketball. The GCU crowd will white out the arena, creating an insane atmosphere to help their team beat one of the best mid major teams in college basketball.
Storylines for NMSU:
NMSU has quietly emerged as one of the best mid-majors in college basketball this season. The Aggies received a Top 25 vote in the latest AP poll, and former Wichita assistant Chris Jans has quietly orchestrated one of the most brilliant coaches jobs in the country. Despite major roster turnover, the first year Aggie head coach has led his team to a 11-3 record that has included major neutral site wins against then-ranked No 5 Miami and Big Ten program Illinois. NMSU has suffered losses against USD, USC, and at Saint Mary’s. NMSU has an impressive resume, is ranked No.67 according to Kenpom, and is ranked third among all mid-major programs according to collegeinsider.com.
NMSU has had success by playing an old-school rubbish style of basketball that focuses on hard-nose defense, crashing the boards, and taking care of the basketball. The Aggies are very good at doing all of those things as they ranked 47th in defensive efficiency, 19th in offensive rebounding percentage, and 98th in turnover percentage.
NMSU is 6-2 all time against GCU, but they have dropped their last two games playing inside GCU Arena. With impressive non-conference wins and a lack of a bad loss on their schedule, NMSU has a arguable chance for an at-large bid if they can finish with an unblemished record in WAC play. A road win at the rowdy GCU Arena would certainly add to that resume.
Storylines for GCU
Heading into the season, the newly postseason-eligible Lopes were one of the biggest storylines in the mid-major universe. GCU was picked has the WAC preseason favorite by coaches and the media. In his fourth year as the GCU head coach, former NBA star Dan Majerle had his most talented GCU team, and he had the support of one of the nation’s most remarkable fan bases.
During their non conference slate the Lopes were not able to live up to their overhauling hype, but they did not suffer any gorgeous losses justify being a bombshell bust. GCU began their first postseason eligible season with a respectable 11-5 record, but the Lopes are desperate for a big win. GCU has yet to beat team ranked in the top 150, and they are dropped all five of their games against good competition (USD, St.Johns, Louisville, Illinois, and Boise St).
GCU established themselves as one of the best defensive teams, ranking 24th in defensive efficiency, 4th in effective field goal percentage of 42.4%, and 12th nationally in turnover percentage. However, the Lopes have had their offensive struggles, ranking 229th in overall offensive efficiency and averaging just 73 ppg-ranked, 218th nationally. GCU has had major shooting struggles, shooting just 32.3% from three, which is a major problem since sinking the deep ball has become a cornerstone of GCU’s offense. The GCU offense is overdue for positive offensive regression since the Lopes have way too much offensive talent to continue to play this poorly on that side of the ball.
Last weekend, GCU opened up WAC play with a 73-57 road win at Seattle. The Lopes are concentrated on achieving their goal of winning the WAC and making the NCAA tournament. A statement home win against the defending conference champions is a result the Lopes desperately need. The Lopes players will be playing in front of the Havocs for the first time in over month. The GCU rowderiness of the Havocs student section is worth 3 points in Vegas alone. The game flow of this game should favor the Lopes as the teams are essentially mirror images of themselves. GCU will need to avoid committing turnovers on the offensive end to limit NMSU chances in transition, to force them to make baskets in their half court set. Break down more of this matchup by looking at the players to watch.
Players to Watch:
New Mexico State
Zach Lofton 6-4 G Senior: 18.9PPG 5.4 Assists:
The former SWAC player of the year is the major difference maker for the Aggies, and he will be the center of focus for the Lopes defense. Lofton leads the Aggies with 18.9 points per game, while shooting 49.5 percent from the floor. Lofton is one of the best one-on-one players in the country and can create scoring opportunities by driving into the lane or shooting from the outside. GCU will utilize star defender Gerard Martin to limit Lofton production. Aggies will need a big game from Lofton to beat the Lopes on the road.
Jermaine Jones 6’5 F Senior: 11.4ppg 10.1 RPG
The undersized 6’5 forward is one of the best rebounders in the country. Jones ranks 4th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, and is one of the toughest guys in the country. Jones plays with a Charles Barkley-like mentality and is a key player for the Aggies on both ends of the court. Jones will be matched up with GCU senior Keonta Vernon, whose games are mirror image of themselves. Jones will need to enforce his presence on the boards while staying out of foul trouble.
Eli Chua 6’7 F Junior 8.8ppg 5.7 rpg:
After a fantastic sophomore season, the junior forward as taken a step back this season. Chuha has not looked great this year and is only averaging 20.8 minutes game under Chris Jans. However, Chuha has given the Lopes trouble in the past averaging 13.5 points and 12 rebounds in his two previous meetings against GCU.
Oscar Frayer 6’7 Sophomore G/F 9.9 PPG 4.4 RPG.
Frayer has been a human highlight reel as of late with his dunks being featured on #SCTOP10 and Bleacher Report. Frayer is arguably the Lopes’ most talented player and he has averaged 13 points over his last four games while shooting 59% from the floor. Lopes will need Frayer to continue to have the hot hand.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 31, 2017
Josh Braun 6’4 Senior Guard 13.4 PPG 4.3 RPG .383 FG%
The preseason WAC player of the year is the Lopes’ leading scorer, but Braun is simply not playing his best basketball during his senior season. The Lopes’ senior leader is averaging career lows in points, shooting percentage and three point percentage. In 2015, KenPom rated Braun had 49th best offensive player in the country with a rating 124.3. Braun has had unlucky start to the year, and look for GCU’s best player to put together during the teams biggest game of the regular season.
Alessandro Lever 6’10 Freshman Forward: 6:3 PPG 3.4 RPG .263 3pt FG% (Dark Horse)
Since senior guard Casey Benson is listed as a gametime decision, the freshmen from Italy gets the nod as Lopes player to watch. Lever adds a new dimension to a GCU team that NMSU has never seen before. Lever gives the Lopes a height advantage over NMSU they never had, and Lever has an opportunity to disrupt Jones and Chuha. Lever is a talented European big who can stretch the floor and score from the post. Despite what his guardy numbers may suggests, the European freshmen leads the Lopes offense in usage rate while averaging just 15.7 minutes a game. It is apparent that coach Majerle wants to give Lever the ball when he enters the game. Expect the gameflow to mostly flow in the halfcourt, look for GCU to try to post up Lever against NMSU shorter bigs. GCU has an opportunity to have major success against the NMSU defense if Lever is able to hit mid range jump shots and can stretch the floor by hitting a few threes from the outside.
In conclusion, this is a must watch matchup for college basketball fans. The atmosphere in the GCU arena will be insane as these two teams battle for control of the WAC. NMSU has a slight talent advantage, but they have an enormous task of trying to get a win in this environment. GCU is a talented team and I feel they matchup with this NMSU team very well. NMSU is a one point favorite on 5Dimes and this game can honestly go either way. As mentioned before, the Lopes are overdue to have offensive regression and the energy in the arena will help ignite this team Thursday night. Even if starting point guard Casey Benson chooses to sit out, I expect the Lopes to take care of business at home. Majerle will have his team playing with a sense of urgency and GCU will make big plays at the end of the game to secure the win. Final score prediction, Lopes win 63-60.