New Mexico State is bound to be a conference automatic bid, but that has not stopped the Aggies from establishing themselves as one of the dangerous potential double-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament, according to HERO Sports’ latest Bracketology.
Before the season began, little could be assumed with regard to the New Mexico State Men’s basketball team. Last year they made the NCAA tournament as the conference’s auto-bid champion. In a few short months after they were ousted in the first round, however, the Aggies lost their coaching staff and the majority of their roster. Only four scholarship players returned this season. New head coach Chris Jans was dealt a hand many would not want in their first year as coach.
“When you get the job, the first thing you do is look at the stat sheet and the roster to see who’s returning, how much returning firepower we have from the year before,” said Jans. “But when the dust settled a lot of those guys, for whatever reasons chose to transfer.”
Jans and his coaching staff–made up of many who worked the junior college circuit — recruited well into the fall, something that is rare at the highest level of collegiate basketball.
“There were some negatives to that, not having the eight weeks in the summer to actually practice with the team. We had to do individuals workouts instead, and that kind of put us behind. Some of the guys that ended up sticking with us are doing awfully well.”
In a ridiculously short amount of time, the Aggies won 11 of their first 13, including a victory over Miami. Outside of a five-point loss to San Diego, the only blemishes on New Mexico State’s roster are tournament-bound teams, St Mary’s and USC .
There are oops and then there are OOPS!
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) January 31, 2018
Once the conference season began, the Aggies continued the momentum from its non-conference slate starting 6-0 in the WAC, as part of an eight-game winning streak. Every game has a purpose for New Mexico State. Something Jans has learned from his time as an assistant under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State.
“Our approach to every game is it’s the Super Bowl, every game we play in is meaningful,” said Jans. “Going through what we went through at Wichita State, every game was pivotal to winning a conference championship or putting yourself in a position to be an at-large.”
That sense of urgency has filtered on down to the players. Only a few of which were here last year when the Aggies played spoiler, winning the conference tournament by beating regular-season champion Cal State Bakersfield in the finals. Visions of an NCAA berth and making a name for yourself or your school on the national stage can be gone an instant. Such is life in the WAC, where the chances of an at-large berth are improbable, and where your whole national existence is tied to one weekend in March in Las Vegas.
The mentality of the players can be summed up by one of the few returnees to the Aggies, Eli Chuha.
“We’re fighting for our life, we look at every team as the number one team in the nation.”
— NM State MBB (@NMStateMBB) January 31, 2018
That fighting mentality is evident on the defensive side of the ball. The Aggies rank ninth in points allowed per 100 possessions and eleventh in points allowed per game. They also rank in the top 10 in assists allowed per game, opponent assists per field goals made, assists per turnover and opponents three-point percentage.
It all equates to New Mexico State–should they get into the tournament–being a hard out and an even tougher matchup for one of the higher seeds in the Big Dance. For the Aggies, they are already used to playing every game like it's their last.
Such is life in the WAC.