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League Lockdown: Can New Mexico State keep hold of the WAC?

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Paul Weir takes the reigns in Las Cruces after nine years as an assistant. The return of an elite guard is the first step toward continued WAC dominance.

Ian Baker will lead the Aggies in 2016-17.
www.nmstatesports.com

Two offseasons ago, Tulsa nearly hired Marvin Menzies away from New Mexico State. Had that happened, perhaps first-round pick Pascal Siakam doesn’t end up in Las Cruces. Perhaps the Aggies don’t win consecutive WAC regular season titles and reach the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15. Perhaps the Aggies lose their grip as the lead horse in the fledgling league.

Instead, Tulsa hired Frank Haith and Menzies kept NMSU as the class of the WAC. But in April he did leave, this time ending up as UNLV’s fallback after Chris Beard’s brief stint in Las Vegas. Does that create an opening in a league dominated by the Aggies since it largely took its current form three years ago?

New coach Paul Weir sure doesn’t hope so. The long-time NMSU assistant is believed to be the first Canadian Division I head coach, and his inaugural season got a big boost when All-WAC first-team guard Ian Baker (13.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.6 APG) decided to return for his senior season.

"Ian is one of the most unheralded top players we have had since I arrived here," Wier told the Las Cruces Sun-News in May. "He has sacrificed many personal goals for the greater good of the team. I believe our schematic changes offensively are going to allow him to thrive and for him to go down as an all-time Aggie great."

That’s a high standard, even when just considering NMSU’s short time in the reconfigured WAC, where players like Siakam, Daniel Mullings and Sim Bhullar (all Canadians) have come through the program. Weir immediately kept the talent pipeline flowing, landing Ohio State transfer guard A.J. Harris, a former Rivals four-star recruit.

Harris will need to sit out this year, but can help push Baker to that next level in practice, along with those offensive changes that Weir mentioned. This could include a faster, more perimeter-oriented attack that features Baker (38.0 3P%) alongside junior guards Braxton Huggins (34.0 3P%) and Jalyn Pennie (34.3 3P%).

Yet Weir’s greatest challenge will be maintaining the defensive reputation Menzies established. The Aggies were in KenPoms top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency four of the last five years, peaking at 26 last season. Assuming good health, Bhullar’s similarly massive brother Tanveer (7’3’’, 335 pounds) could help replace some of the rim protection that left with Siakam. When Weir was hired, Bhullar quickly put away any concern about a possible transfer.

"I'm going to be here 100 percent," Bhullar told the Las Cruces News-Sun after Weird was hired. "I wanted (Weir) to get the job and he got the job. We know how good we can be and we know that he can lead us there. It's huge having a relationship with him because he is Canadian. I don't think he will have much trouble as a first-year head coach because over the past 12 years he has enough relationships that he can call on."

And that may be Weir’s biggest asset: continuity. NMSU has gone 38-6 in WAC play over the past three years. More importantly, the Aggies have made three straight WAC Tournament championship games. Those are hard numbers to bet against, no matter who is at the helm.