We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #3 New Mexico State.
Team: New Mexico State
Coach: Marvin Menzies, 3rd season (38-29)
Last year’s record: 17-15 (9-7 WAC, T-3rd)
Key losses: None
Why they’re here: Five returning starters, including the WAC’s leading scorer, says New Mexico State’s Aggies will probably finish no worse than they did this year — and will be even better as a team. So too, though, will the rest of the WAC, and this team needs to prove it can play defense before we fully buy into the Newmags making another run to the NCAA Tournament. Academic woes are also lurking in the background.
Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson together form an explosive backcourt combo, and last year’s unexpected emergence of freshman Hernst Laroche as a top ball-handling point guard gave the young Aggies a much-needed floor leader. In the paint, Wendell McKines averaged a double-double every night — the only player in the WAC to do so. Together with Troy Gillenwater and Hamidu Rahman, New Mexico State fields the conference’s deepest frontcourt.
But the Aggies’ powerful offense had to fire on all cylinders every night last year, because the team was incapable of making stops. NMSU had the conference’s worst defense, giving up 74.4 points per game. Some of that can be attributed to the Aggies’ youth and inexperience, but unless the listless defensive effort improves dramatically, Marvin Menzies’ team will have a tough time stopping the conference’s upper-tier foes.
Why they could finish higher: There’s a ridiculous amount of talent on this squad, too much to easily keep down. Assuming Gillenwater and McKines are both available for the WAC season, New Mexico State can wear down just about any WAC squad inside. Together with conference Player of the Year candidate Jahmar Young in the backcourt — not to mention a deep, deep bench — Menzies’ team has the pieces to go all the way. If the Aggies can get their defense to improve from utterly awful to merely mediocre, WAC foes could fall like dominoes.
Why they could finish lower: The news that double-double machine Wendell McKines and fellow big man Troy Gillenwater are academically ineligible for the first semester is a huge blow. Worse, rumor has it McKines may redshirt the entire season. The Aggies are in serious trouble if that’s the case. Center Hamidu Rahman can’t cover the paint all by his lonesome, while New Mexico State’s second-tier forwards are either mediocre or entirely unknown quantities. The bottom line? If NMSU has to play the WAC season minus McKines, move Nevada up to third.
Most Valuable Player: Jahmar Young (17.9 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.4 spg) — No question here, Young is the WAC’s leading scorer and perhaps one of its most talented pure shooters. Not only does he have a sweet touch all around the ball (his turnover numbers are quite low for a shooting guard), he’s also a dangerous long-ball sharpshooter — nailing 42 percent of his tries from downtown. The Aggies surround Young with a talented cast, which makes double-teaming him a dangerous proposition at best.
Most Important Player: B.J. West — With McKines and Gillenwater riding pine until December (at least), prep standout West will have to play strong right out of the gate for the Aggies to have any chance of competing in the early non-conference season. If McKines doesn’t make it back for the WAC season, West’s play gains even more importance. He’ll have to battle in the paint with guys like Magnum Rolle, Luke Babbitt and Marvin Jefferson, who won’t be giving the newcomer a warm WAC welcome.
Non-conference degree of difficulty: 3 — The Aggies confront a schedule of contrasts. They’ll man up and travel to two top-50 RPI teams in UCLA and St. Mary’s, along with home-and-home series against in-state rival New Mexico and cross-border rival UTEP. But the schedule is padded out with Division I’s dregs, including atrocious squads from Texas Southern, Pepperdine and Alcorn State.
Fun fact: No current WAC member has ever gone as far in the NCAA Tournament as the Aggies. In 1970, New Mexico State made it to the Final Four before being defeated by John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins. But they weren’t done — in a now-discontinued third-place game, the Aggies defeated St. Bonaventure to claim the title of third-best college hoops team in the land.
Predicted record: 20-9 (10-6 WAC)