In the WAC Championship, the cool new kid in town is authoritatively ready to overthrow the longtime alpha on the playground. This matchup sets up the perfect narrative theme that pits together old school vs new school philosophies. Grand Canyon, the new division 1 program in their first season of postseason eligibility has made it the WAC tourney final trying to beat New Mexico St who has dominated the WAC over the last decade. Analyzing from the fan bases themselves where GCU basketball games resemble EDM concerts against New Mexico State’s more traditional, opinionated, and older fan base.
After beating Utah Valley 75-60 in the semifinal Friday night, the Lopes are one game away from making history and punching their first ticket to the Big Dance in their first season of tournament eligibility. However, WAC regular-season champion and reigning power New Mexico St stand in their way. NMSU was able to avoid a major upset against Seattle U. New Mexico St opened up as -5.5 point favorites but the line has quickly trended down -4.5 despite the Aggies receiving 57% of the public bets. The game tip-offs at an anticipated sold out Orleans arena at 7 pm PST and will be broadcast nationally on ESPNU.
The Lopes has been building for this moment for a half decade and they are one step away from embellishing their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Lopes battled through nervous tension in their narrow 74-70 win over UMKC. They then went on to play loose and free against Utah Valley and put on their best shooting performance of the season. The Lopes jumped a double-digit lead early and never looked back.
Josh Braun, the preseason WAC player of the year who has struggled during stretches of the season, played one of his best games on the biggest of stages scoring a team-high 15 points on 5-12 shooting. Braun has been at GCU for the programs entire Division 1 existence, and has been the face of the program for the last 4 years. The Lopes will need one more memorable game from their reliable senior star. GCU came into this season with overwhelming hype, and has somewhat underperformed this season. However, today not of that matters as the Lopes have won the games that mean that mean the most.
New Mexico St survived a scare against a very scrappy Seattle U team. The Aggies trailed by 6 at the half, and Seattle U kept it close throughout the game. Zach Lofton’s 31 points helped the Aggies outscore the Seattle by 11 in the second half. The win against Seattle secured the Aggies 7th straight appearance to the WAC title game and gave them the most conference tourney wins in conference history passing Utep. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, the Aggies are very familiar with this stage. New Mexico St has represented the WAC in the NCAA tournament in 7 out of the last 8 seasons.
The Aggies swept GCU in the season series but the Lopes were very competitive in both games. Both teams struggled to score against the opposing teams’ strong defenses averaging less than 1.00 point per possession in both contests. In their first matchup in their WAC opener in Phoenix, the two teams were tied at the half but the Aggies were able to pull away late in the second half holding GCU scoreless for 6: 00-minute stress. In the sequel in Las Cruces, GCU gave the Aggies the biggest challenge on their home court. The Lopes controlled a majority of the game holding 63-53 with 7:53 left. Key Lopes fouled on controversial calls and New Mexico St went on 19-7 run in the final in front of a sold crowd to escape with 74-70 victory. GCU did not have an answer for WAC Player of the year Jermaine Jones who scored 27 points and grabbed 20 rebounds.
Alessandro Lever: The WAC freshman player of the year, has been the Lopes best player in conference play. The Italian big man has averaged 22.6 points during the Lopes 5 game winning streak and has averaged 16.5 during conference play. Lever had a limited impact in GCU’s first two games NMSU. In the two contest Lever has played a total of 34 points and has scored just 21 points. In the first matchup, Lever was yet to be a focal point in GCU offense. In the second matchup had 13 points on 5-7 shooting in 15 minutes, but Never fouled out early in the game. NMSU will attack Lever on the defensive end to try to get the young freshmen in foul trouble. It is vital for the Lopes success that Liver is able to stay on the floor. Lever dominated NMSU for the short time he was on the floor. Expect Alessandro Lever to be a major factor in this game.
WAC Preseason Player of the year Josh Braun: It goes without saying that the Lopes will need Josh Braun to do well in order to win this game. When Braun got hot against Utah Valley, the Lopes rallied off of that energy and momentum. The Lopes can beat anybody when Braun plays well. Yesterday’s performance should give Braun the confidence to stay aggressive against NMSU. Josh has had success against NMSU throughout his career averaging 14.8 points in 8 career matchups. NMSU will make it a priority to stop Braun, but the Lopes will need a find a way to get him going.
Defensive Power: The WAC final pits two of the country’s best defenses against each other Both of these are carried by their defenses. The Lopes have a nationally rank defense that ranks in 4th effective field goal percentage and their the best team in the country at guarding the three-point line allowing teams to shoot a poor 26.5% from three. On the other side, New Mexico St ranks 16th overall in defensive efficiency. Jonathan Williams is one of the best versatile big men in the country who excels in defending the pick and roll.
Zach Lofton: Lofton is without a doubt the best scorer on the floor. Lofton is the conference second-leading scorer averaging 19.8 points per game and is coming off a 31 point performance against Seattle. Lopes had no answers for Lofton in the first matchup scoring 29 points on 8-15 shooting. However, in the second matchup, GCU wing Oscar Frayer locked down Lofton forcing him to shoot 4-17 from the floor. Lofton is a great isolation scorer and the Lopes will need to find a way to slow him down.
WAC Player of the Year Jermaine Jones: It is not a hyperbole to the claim that New Mexico St 6-5 power forward is the most relentless player in the country. The WAC player of the year is averaging a double-double with 10.8 points and 13 rebound stat line. As mentioned before Jones has given GCU trouble scoring 20 points and grabbing 27 rebound in their last contest. Jones resembles a modern-day mid-major version of Charles Barkley. Statistically, Jones is one of the best rebounders in the country ranking 2nd nationally in defensive rebound percentage and 25th in offensive rebound percentage.
Growing Rivalry: College fanbases can express extreme passion about their teams in many different ways and a quick Twitter search of the hashtag #ThingsBetterThanLasCruces would give a confirmation that these two fan bases don’t like each other. In reality the two fan bases have been chirping each other on Twitter over the past 4 years. GCU twitter is very flashy and provocative while New Mexico St has a strong opinionated fan base that doesn’t hesitate to share their thought regardless of how ruthlessly honest their opinions may be. It’s a perfect battle between the old school and new school. NMSU has been an iconic WAC program for decades while GCU is the new trendy school on the block that has quickly stolen all the hype and attention. NMSU and GCU are by far the two biggest brands in the conference. NMSU fans may dismiss this, noting the Aggies 6-2 record against the Lopes. However, a GCU victory in the WAC championship will add fuel to the rivalry fire. However, this may be the only legitimate rivalry in the newly reformed Western Athletic Conference. Both teams have large fan bases that will flock to the Orleans Arena Saturday night. GCU has one of the best student sections in the country and about 800 students are expected to be represented at the game. The shouting matches between these fan bases will be additional eye-catching battle to see during the game. On Saturday, the WAC title game is the place to be in Sin City.