On Thursday at 7pm the Grand Canyon (GCU) Antelopes will battle WAC reigning champions, New Mexico State (NMSU) Aggies in Las Cruces, New Mexico for first place in the conference standings. Both teams come in with a 6-1 conference record, and the winner of this game will be able to control their own destiny throughout the remainder of conference play. The Aggies will look to continue their impressive win streak of 32 conference home games. In addition, the Aggies will seek to avenge their 79-75 loss in Phoenix. The ‘Lopes plan to spoil NMSU” Pan AM Taco Party and gain their 20th win of the season and secure 1st place in the WAC. The ‘Lopes are hoping to be the first WAC team to sweep NMSU since Nevada in 2011-12.
The last time New Mexico State lost a conference home game in the Pan Am, President Obama began his last year of his first term in office, Rihanna’s “We Found Love” was the number one hit song, Billy Cundiff was wanted in Baltimore, Matt Stein’s “The Underworld Awakening” was the top box office hit, Derrick Rose had two healthy knees, and Perry Ellis was a high school student. After the Aggies January 2012 loss to Nevada, they have won 32 straight conference games en route to 4 straight WAC regular season titles and 4 straight NCAA tourney appearances. Over the course of those 1,470 days, the WAC has changed dramatically. The conference dropped its football program (seven of it core members left). In desperation, the WAC scrambled to add six schools to save it’s existence. One of those schools was Grand Canyon. Over the course of the turmoil, the Aggies continued to be the face of WAC basketball. However, in just their third year of Division 1 basketball, Grand Canyon, coached by former Phoenix Suns legend Dan Majerle, have become a viable threat to take the WAC crown from NMSU.
Grand Canyon have arguably been the biggest surprise of the college basketball season. The ‘Lopes boast a phenomenal 19-3 record that includes wins over San Diego State, Houston, New Mexico State, and Marshall. They have made steady strides since their initiation into the highest level of college basketball, winning 15 games and finishing third 3rd in the conference their first year. Their second year saw them win 17 games and tie for second in the WAC. This year have seen them catapult into the national spotlight and be in contention for the conference championship. After the ‘Lopes defeated Cal State Bakersfield last Thursday, they became the first team in basketball to reach the 19 win mark. In addition, the Lopes received a vote in that week’s Top 25 poll. Despite becoming the winningest team in the nation, the school just down the street in Tempe, Arizona State, overshadowed GCU by featuring Olympic legend Michael Phelps in their student section’s famed “Curtain of Distraction.”
The day after the game, Majerle voiced discontent of his team being overshadowed by a simple free throw distraction via Twitter. Majerle referenced Michael Phelps appearance in ASU’s “Curtain of Distraction,” where he appeared from behind the curtain shirtless, wearing his 22 gold medals. Majerle had a fair point, he had just coached a team in its third year of Division 1 to 19 wins, beating marquee teams like SDSU and Houston. However, some criticism came, as GCU still plays a transitions team schedule that ranks 263rd in the country in strength of schedule. Playing teams like Black Hills State, Alcorn State, and Mississippi Valley State do not help a team’s resume. However, this is all irrelevant because GCU is not eligible for the national tournament. The ‘Lopes should not be worried about their coverage or, lack of coverage, from the media. Majerle’s squad should be primarily focused on getting better as a team and achieving their goal of winning the WAC. As much as Majerle wants to stand up for his team, this tweet ended being a distraction for them. A day later the ‘Lopes suffered a horrific home loss to Seattle U. The Redhawks climbed back from a 7 point second half deficit to shock the ‘Lopes 59-57. The Lopes had their worst shooting night of the season, shooting 37% from the field and 26% from three. This loss may have been the best thing to happen to them. On Thursday expect to see a fired up, well prepared, and hungry GCU team.
After losing to New Mexico State by 20+ during their first four contests, the ‘Lopes took down the Aggies in dramatic fashion 79-75 at home last January GCU was highly efficient on offense, only surrendering 4 turnovers. NMSU lost despite having one of their best shooting performances of the season, going 7-14 from three. The ‘Lopes will be in trouble if they the Aggies get hot from beyond the arc in Pan Am Arena. The difference in the game may came down to adjustments and coaching. Despite having a major height disadvantage, the ‘Lopes were able to exploit NMSU interior defense. Grandy Glaze, the ‘Lopes best interior player, at just 6’6, scored 15 points, and exploited NMSU big men, Jonathan Wilkins (6-10) and Tanveer Bhullar (7-3). Bhullar and Wilkins are two of the most defensive inefficient players in the country, combining to give up nearly 40 points per game. However, if GCU is going to beat the Aggies in Las Cruces, the ‘Lopes are going to have to play their best game of the year.
The highlight of this contest will be the epic performances between super sophomores Pascal Siakam and Josh Braun. In the first meeting, Braun led the ‘Lopes to victory scoring 23 points and hauling in 11 rebounds. Siakam was able to score 17 points and secure 12 rebounds, despite being constantly doubled and tripled teamed. Only sophomores, Braun and Siakam are easily the best two players in the WAC, and one can make an argument they be two of the best mid-major players in the country. Siakam is one of the most dominant big men in college basketball. The 6-9 senior from Cameroon plays with an old school, tenacious edge on the court. Playing with an aggressive attitude, Siakam displays a high basketball IQ which helped him gain the 7th best offensive efficiency rating in the country. Siakam is averaging a double-double per game, scoring 22 points (ranks 13th in the country), while securing 11.9 rebounds (6th highest in the nation), and 2.2 blocks per game. Siakam is a player that cannot be stopped, but GCU is going to have to play good team defense to limit him. They did a really good job shutting down Siakam in the second half of their game in Phoenix. However, expect the Aggies to be prepared for GCU’s scheme. It will be interesting to see how much Siakam has improved against double teams.
Josh Braun, the ‘Lopes leading score and the vice president of the Fellowship of Christian athletes on the GCU campus, is one of the nicest and friendliest people off the court, but you would not think that watching Braun on the court with his tough and tenacious style of play. Recruited by PAC-12 schools, Braun suffered two ACL injuries during his final years of high school in Arizona. Due to his injuries, Braun options became limited. The PAC-12 schools backed off their recruiting, which resulted in Braun deciding to play close to home at GCU. Braun was Majerle’s first signee as head coach. Braun resembles the same type characteristics that made his coach, “Thunder Dan” become a successful NBA player. Braun does all the little things right and sets the standard for the rest of the team. His has the ability to create contact in the paint, is aggressive on the boards, plays tough defense, and consistently makes clutch shots. All of these traits is the reason why Braun has the second highest offensive rating in the country. The ‘Lopes will need Braun to have another big game in order for them to get a win in Las Cruces.
In addition to Braun and Siakam, look out for the following players to have a big impact on the game.
NEW MEXICO STATE
Jalyn Pennie 6.5 PG 4.8 REB 1.3 Assists: The Aggies are going to have get production from their guard play outside of Ian Baker. With Siakam forcing double teams, the Aggies are going to have shooters open on the outside. Pennine is going to be placed in a position where he is going to need to take big shots. Pennie is coming off a career game where he scored a career high 20 points against UT Rio Grande.
Jonathan Wilkins: 6.8 PG 3.7 REB 1.1 Assists: The forward opposite of Siakam needs to have a big game on the defensive end. Wilkins has the ability to create mismatches by stretching the floor on offense. However, he is a defensive liability on the other side of the court. Wilkins does a terrible job of influencing shots. Wilkins 7 blocks on the season is 4th lowest among starting big men who average at least 24 minutes per game.
Keonta Vernon: 6.5 PPG 5.2 REB 0.5 Assists: Vernon is going to have a huge impact on the defensive end of the floor. Standing at 6’6, Vernon will have the tough task of guarding Siakam while he is the floor. Coming off the bench, Vernon is the ‘Lopes best defender. When Vernon guarded Siakam in the first game, he had a 4.1 point differential in player efficiency.
DeWayne Russell 9.5 PPG 3.0 REB 5.8 Assists: The conference assist leader has to have a big game for the ‘Lopes to come out of New Mexico with a “W.” With a noisy crowd, it is not going to be easy. Lopes beat NMSU in January due to the fact they had 4 turnovers all night. You can credit Russell for that stat. After playing a total 32 minutes and possessing the ball 39% of the time, Russell did not commit a turnover in the Lopes win against the Aggies. Russell has been great at taking care of the ball. Russell has had 3 or less turnovers in all but 3 games this year. Russell is going to need that trend to continue Thursday night.
This is a huge game for both the Aggies and the ‘Lopes. It is fair to say that these are two best teams in the WAC this year. Whoever wins this game will most likely be the regular season conference champion. With the ‘Lopes ineligible to play in the WAC tourney, we get to see what essentially is a conference championship game in February. The game in Las Cruces is equal to the National Championship game for the Lopes. This is the game Dan Majerle and company highlighted on the schedule at the beginning of the season. The ‘Lopes will look to get back on track after a bad loss, and will be eager to further prove this season is not a fluke. New Mexico State will look to remain the alpha dog in the WAC. Over the past two years, the Aggies have failed to beat a top 100 team. With GCU ranked 99 in the BPI, the Aggies have yet another opportunity to do this. There is a lot on the line for both teams Thursday night, and it will be a game definitely worth watching.