by Conor Gereg
College Basketball will look uniquely different this season with the impact of COVID-19 set to leave a lasting impact on the sport. The Division I level of college hoops will look especially altered with some new faces and should the ball actually be tipped this winter as there will be a quartet of new programs hitting the floor: UC-San Diego joining the Big West, Bellarmine (Louisville) joining the ASUN, and a pair of teams joining the WAC with Tarleton State (Texas) and the program we’ll profiling be today, Dixie State (Utah).
These four schools will join the Division I ranks for the first time in each program’s history, a proposition that’s not only expensive but a process that’s especially exhaustive for a small school to accomplish. Among the criteria for D1 membership are specifics on scholarship allotment, attendance thresholds, and a waiting period on tournament eligibility. This group of schools won’t be eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2025.
Competition In-State: Canvassing Utah
Founded in 1911 as St. George Stake Academy, the university later became known as the Dixie Junior College, named after a region known as “Utah’s Dixie” as called by state icon, Brigham Young.
Dixie State is one of seven schools hailing from Beehive State and among the state contingent they’ll compete with in-state Division I schools BYU, University of Utah, Southern Utah, Utah State, Utah Valley, and Weber State. That’s quite a few programs for a state that’s 30th in the nation in population (for perspective, Minnesota, a state with nearly double Utah’s population, has just one Division I program—at least for now as St. Thomas will join the sports’ highest ranks in 2021-2022).
The Dixie State Trailblazers enter the Western Athletic Conference with a fair amount of recent success, appearing in the DII Sweet Sixteen in 2011 led by Head Coach Jon Judkins, who will enter his 16th season at the helm. During Judkins’ tenure as head coach he’s earned Pacific West Coach of the Year honors six times while also setting a school record in 2017-2018 with 17-straight victories.
Judkins brings his winning pedigree to the WAC and an impressive streak of 12-straight 20+ win seasons to the Division I ranks. 23-7 last season, the Trailblazers will enter the WAC as it begins to reshape itself—again.
A League Perpetually Changing Shape
Dixie State with join a rapidly redesigned Western Athletic Conference, a league that loses CSU-Bakersfield to the Big West and Kansas City (formerly UMKC) to the Summit. Both universities leave the WAC for leagues that are far better fits at a geographic level, moving CSU-Bakersfield to the California-centric Big West and Kansas City’s travel footprint within the far more pragmatic mid-west.
The many configurations and permutations of the WAC’s membership is enough to make your head spin. The league is however beginning to take shape geographically around the Grand Canyon region; however outliers like Chicago State, Seattle University, and California Baptist create an expanded footprint that’s difficult to sustain for this nine-school collection comprised of both public and private institutions:
New Mexico State
Grand Canyon University
UT Rio Grande Valley
Tarleton State (Texas)
This grouping of schools looks to build on its basketball reputation, finishing 25th among the nation’s 32 Division I basketball conferences, trailing just behind east-coast leagues like the America East (23rd) and the Metro Atlantic (26th). Historians of this league will remember when the WAC packed some serious punch in its name-brand affiliates, once housing programs like Arizona and Arizona State (both departed in 1978), Nevada (2012), TCU (2001), SMU (2005), San Diego State (1999), Tulsa (2005), BYU (1999) and many more recognizable faces that have since moved onto greener pastures. With these departures this league is a mere shell of what it once was, yet for Dixie State, the WAC represents the next step in basketball ascension.
Path to Success
Dixie State, located in the southwest corner of Utah and just 90 minutes from Las Vegas, will compete for recruits hundreds of miles away from the larger Utah programs like BYU and University of Utah, programs that are each approximately 4-hours north of Dixie State. Being out of the shadows of the state’s biggest brands will be a good thing for the Trailblazers who’ve had success recruiting in California and internationally, pulling in players from Canada.
It will take years for Judkins and his team to overtake conference power and the conference’s longest tenured member, New Mexico State (WAC member since 2005). New Mexico State has been crowned the league’s champion in five of the last six years. The Aggies’ dominance will take a lot of Dixie State to overcome though the Trailblazers will return a collection of players who’ll make an immediate impact. Center Hunter Shoefield will enter his senior season coming off a year that saw him lead the team in scoring (16.4 PPG) and anchor Jon Judkins’ offensive attack yet again. Flanking Shoefield will be rising senior guard Dason Youngblood who will be an immediate factor as a perimeter defender and consistent contributor offensively (10.1 PPG).
While it may take a number of years for Jon Judkins to upgrade the talent level at Dixie State, it’s become clear that the history tells us that the Trailblazers have the ingredients to make the leap.