Wolverines host GCU and NMSU in critical battle for WAC seeding

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Coming off of a split in the Texas two-step against Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston last week, the Utah Valley men’s basketball team is returning home for arguably its toughest— and most important— homestand of the season.

The Wolverines will play at the UCCU Center for the first time in almost three weeks. They will be facing off against a pair of familiar WAC foes in the Grand Canyon Lopes and the New Mexico State Aggies as we come down the home stretch of the season.

UVU (15-7, 6-4 WAC) still has an outside shot at claiming a share of the WAC regular-season title, but the Wolverines will likely have to win out and get some help around the conference to sneak into the title picture. 

Coming into Thursday’s game against the Lopes (16-5, 7-3 WAC), the Wolverines sit three games back of the league-leading Aggies (19-3, 9-1 WAC), who still have to travel to GCU and Seattle U in addition to the two games remaining against UVU. With #WACVegas just under a month away, there will surely be a considerable shakeup from top to bottom in the conference. 

This week’s games against GCU and NMSU will define how this UVU men’s basketball team approaches the remainder of the season. If you sweep both games, there is high confidence that this team can run the gauntlet at the Orleans Arena in the first week of March and clinch the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth. 

If the team splits, not much would change. Essentially it would just take the Wolverines out of the regular season title conversation. If the team gets swept, however, then the tenor of the season changes dramatically. UVU has been great at home this season, going 8-1 with the lone loss to Abilene Christian to start conference play.  

Expectations were high following the upset victory over BYU back in December, but the Wolverines have gone just 8-6 since then. Granted, Mark Madsen’s squad was without sixth man Justin Harmon for 11 of those games and has now gone 2-1 since his return to the lineup a couple weeks ago against Chicago State. Harmon has averaged 11.3 PPG in his 11 appearances this season, and his presence was sorely missed while he was rehabbing a thumb injury.

We haven’t heard much about the potential return of Trey Woodbury, last season’s leading scorer for the Wolverines, but at this point, we might just see him get a medical redshirt to save a year of eligibility. On the flip side, if you return a player to the lineup that’s averaged upwards of 15 points a game in the past, the team has to like their chances of beating just about anybody in the conference. 

Looking ahead at this week’s games, the Wolverines will be facing off against two of the best backcourts in the conference. UVU’s guards will surely have their hands full in handling these stellar ball-handlers as they come to the UCCU Center.

GCU is led by junior guard Jovan Blacksher Jr., who is quietly having one of the most productive seasons in the country. Blacksher is fifth in the conference in scoring, averaging 17.0 PPG, and is coming off of a career-high 26 points on Saturday against Seattle U. He has also been one of the top sharpshooters in the country, shooting 41% from three, second in the conference behind Connor Harding.

The Aggies are led by one-two punch of redshirt junior guards Teddy Allen and Sir’Jabari Rice. Allen is second in the conference in scoring, averaging 19.5 PPG, and Rice has been one of the top facilitators in the league, averaging 3.4 assists in addition to his 12.3 PPG.

Last season, UVU split the season series with both GCU and NMSU, with all four games coming on the road due to COVID-19 scheduling constraints. The Den will surely be out in full voice on Thursday and Saturday cheering the Mighty Wolverines onto victory as they face these longtime conference rivals.

Thursday’s game against GCU is scheduled to tipoff at 6 p.m. MDT and Saturday’s game against NMSU is scheduled to tipoff at 2 p.m. MDT. Both games will be broadcast on ESPN+ and ESPN 960.