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New Mexico State can punctuate another fast start with win against Illinois

It would be the Aggies first Big Ten win since 2004.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at St. Mary's Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something about New Mexico State, first year head coaches and hot starts.

Holding an 8-2 record was a stop on NMSU’s journey to its historic 22-2 start last year. This season, the coach has changed, but the Aggies are right back at 8-2. There’s 20-games worth of winning left to match last year’s start and — for some —gleefully send Paul Weir to the fringes of the record book.

But through 10 games, NMSU has a weightier, more impressive 8-2 record than it did a year ago.

Last year, the Aggies won seven Div. I games during that stretch against opponents with an average KenPom rating of 235. This year, NMSU has just six Div. I wins, but the opponents have been more robust, owning an average KenPom rating of 198.

However, you can’t escape that four of those wins have come against NMSU’s currently-sagging rivals. New Mexico hasn’t been a turnkey situation for Weir, and Tim Floyd bizarrely walked away from UTEP before the first game against the Aggies. But the schedule’s overall depth hasn’t been awful, and NMSU did pick up true road wins in both Albuquerque and El Paso. Their losses to Saint Mary’s and head-turning San Diego team also haven’t been bad.

The numbers are nice, but NMSU gets a chance to validate it on the court Saturday night at the United Center against Illinois (8 PM ET, Big Ten Network).

(Unfortunately, Lou Henson, who was set to be honored in the match up between his two former teams, won’t be able to make the game as planned due to health issues).

Jemerrio Jones is coming off a triple-double and Zach Lofton has averaged 25.5 points over the past two games, but the key may be A.J. Harris. The Ohio State transfer sat out Tuesday’s win over Eastern New Mexico with a hip injury and should the point guard play, he’ll be facing a disruptive Illinois defense. Like Brad Underwood’s signature teams at Stephen F. Austin, he has the Illini playing fast and forcing turnovers at a high rate.

They’ve also been dominating the offensive glass. That’s an area that the Aggies should be able to hold their own in, especially if Eli Chuha, who also sat out the Eastern New Mexico game, suits up. Fresh off that triple double, Jones has the 11th best defensive rebounding rate in the country (29.8%), and Illinois will reportedly be without starting forward and third-leading rebounder Leron Black.

It won’t be easy, but if NMSU can pull the upset it’ll be the program’s first win against a Big Ten team since Henson beat Northwestern in 2004. And with Grand Canyon nearly beating Boise State on Wednesday night despite an uneven offensive performance, it would help NMSU keep pace in the perception department.