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Pace, advanced stats help propel New Mexico State into national conversation

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But the Aggies have a lot at stake every night in the WAC.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Arizona State
Braxton Huggins is enjoying a career year.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Numbers help explain Braxton Huggins’ break out season.

They aren’t the numbers you might expect.

Sure, the New Mexico State junior guard is posting career highs across the board, and scored a career-high 31 points in the Aggies’ 77-64 WAC-opening win at UMKC. Those are good numbers, but they aren’t the numbers splashed in red and green across KenPom.com.

One of the first things NSMU coach Paul Weir did when he was promoted this offseason was bring someone on his staff dedicated to analyzing advanced metrics. He said he got the idea from Brad Stevens doing something similar at Butler.

And while Weir said it’s not the sole decision-maker for him, the advanced numbers have correlated with playing time.

“Part of the reason Braxton and even Sidy [N’Dir] started playing more was when we started looking at the numbers we realized good things were happening when they were on the court,” he said after the UMKC win. “And that’s really what it comes down to for me. I’m not here to play somebody I like more or want them to feel good. I just want to play the best guys that help us win the game.”

Huggins and N’Dir, who’s missed the past six games with a foot injury, have flourished with the opportunity.

Player 15-16 MPG 16-17 MPG 15-16 PPG 16-17 PPG
Player 15-16 MPG 16-17 MPG 15-16 PPG 16-17 PPG
Sidy N'Dir (RSo.) 11 28.6 3.9 13.7
Braxton Huggins (Jr.) 14.1 24.4 5.9 15

The break out seasons have meant more depth, with former starting guards Matt Taylor and Jalyn Pennie now coming off the bench. That’s something Weir - whose team is now on a 12-game winning streak - wants to capitalize on.

“We have to find a way to get the possession count up and not get stuck in a 54-52 game, where a bad call, or a missed layup, or missed free throw, or made three-point prayer or whatever happens to go down can lose you a game,” he said. “My job is to try and utilize our talent as best we can, and that’s playing our depth, playing up and down and getting the possession count as high as we can so our players can show who we are.”

And NMSU has played faster lately. The 14-2 Aggies have played in games with 73 or more possessions five times over the past eight games, while only playing in one such game over their first eight.

That should be frightening for the WAC.

“They’re very good, they don’t win 11 or 12 straight games by coincidence,” UMKC coach Kareem Richardson said. “Paul has done a good job. Even though he was on staff for nine years, all of Marvin Menzies’ tenure, he’s put his own twist on it. They’re using their athleticism in a different way than they have in the past, so you have to give him credit for having the courage to make that change.”

But the WAC should also frighten the Aggies.

As the league behemoth, they’re going to deal with tough efforts every night, like the one UMKC gave them Thursday at Municipal Auditorium. A Roos team that had lost six-straight games didn’t roll over, even after an early deficit.

“I feel like the start of the second half we came out better than we usually do,” UMKC forward Kyle Steward - who had a career-high 12 rebounds - said. “It’s been a problem with us the whole season, but I feel like we came out better than we have before.”

Steward and fellow senior LaVell Boyd (15 points) stabilized the Roos after early struggles against the NMSU press, cutting a 14-point deficit to just seven at halftime.

That’s the type of game the Aggies will need to get used to, and Weir talked about the ramifications of even a single, not-so-well-placed conference loss with the Las Cruces Sun-News.

“And that’s unfortunately the pressure you have at our level. You don’t have conference play with 18 games against great teams and maybe get to make up for a maybe a bad non-conference or one bad loss. For us, that bad loss unfortunately hovers over you for a long time. We all hope we can get to a point where that is not the case. But that’s just the world we live in and we all have to find a way to work through that.”

At the heart of the matter is an at-large bid that NMSU’s stellar non-conference run has forced people to consider, which is especially compelling since it’d be a first for the league in its current configuration.

But that’s a conversation the Aggies can put to rest in Las Vegas in March. At this point there’s little doubt they’ll be the favorites to make that happen.