The Land of Enchantment hasn’t been that magical for New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia over the past week.
Put aside the optics of losing Paul Weir to the in-state rival, hard as that may be for Aggie fans. Simply losing the young head coach to anyone is a big blow, as he’s been a central part of a resurgence in Las Cruces that began when Marvin Menzies was hired in 2007.
To put it in perspective, from 1995-2007 — which covers the tenures of Neil McCarthy, Lou Henson (for the second time) and Reggie Theus — the Aggies made three postseason appearances. But from the time Menzies arrived in 2007, with Weir on staff, NMSU has played in six NCAA Tournaments and one NIT.
That’s a step up in stability. Over that time the WAC did lose competitive programs like Nevada, Boise State and Utah State, and that can’t be overlooked. But NMSU won 76.1 percent of its games over nine seasons of Menzies and one season of Weir, and that can’t be undercut either.
A big reason for the avalanche of victories was that the Aggies had a consistent talent advantage in conference games. In recent years, the Aggies have excelled at finding international players. This includes two WAC Player of the Year winners in Pascal Siakam (Cameroon) and Daniel Mullings (Canada), and a slew of solid to great contributors: Sim Bhullar (Canada), Tshilidzi Newphawe (South Africa), Matt Taylor (Canada), Jonathon Wilkins (France), Renaldo Dixon (Toronto) and Sidy N’Dir (France).
Weir, a Toronto native, will almost certainly begin trying to redirect that Canadian pipeline to Albuquerque. But should the next hire break from the Menzies/Weir tree - which is not a given since first-year assistant Jesse Bopp is seemingly the players’ choice - plenty of international recruiting infrastructure would be at risk.
You can’t assume that Weir would’ve hung scores of banners at NMSU if he hadn’t been poached by the Lobos. In the end, it had been just one season. But all signs pointed to him at the very least maintaining the Menzies’ momentum.
The counting numbers look great: he won 28 games, oversaw a 20-game winning streak and won the WAC Tournament. But none of that was a given. He changed up the Aggies’ style, playing at a faster pace than the team had in recent season. He also switched up the rotation, uncovering one of the league’s best scorers in junior Braxton Huggins, who had been a role player over his first two seasons.
Recruiting was going well too, as he landed talented Ohio State transfer A.J. Harris and a recruiting class that finished fourth in our mid-major rankings.
It was a small sample size, but losing Weir is not an easy pill to swallow in Las Cruces. And might be just as hard on the WAC.
The league is coming off a banner year in its current form. It finished 19th in conference RPI and 17th in KenPom’s AdjEM conference ratings. Both marks are the best since all current teams joined the WAC in 2013.
Over those four seasons, NMSU has been the highest-rated KenPom team three times, finishing in the top-100 on each occasion. Now, that stability and seemingly upward trajectory is at risk for a league very much trying to find its footing.
Moccia may again make a good hire, and as he said, he’s ahead of the game after learning so much about several candidates last season.
“I think doing one just one year ago gives us some advantages and allows us … to be well ahead of the curve of where we were last year at this time,” Moccia said. “I will tell you we have received an avalanche of interest from all across the coaching spectrum.”
The candidate list reportedly includes Bopp, Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield and Baylor assistant Jerome Tang.
But where does that leave the WAC if the next coach doesn’t pan out, or takes a few years to get the program going?
Grand Canyon seems primed to explode, especially since it’ll be postseason eligible for this upcoming season. Utah Valley should be in good position as well as it returns most of a team that made a run in the CBI.
After the Lopes and Wolverines, however, there is a lot of uncertainty.
Rod Barnes is coming off a great two-year run at CSU Bakersfield but must replace two players — Jaylin Airington, Dedrick Basile — that were an integral part of that success. UMKC is coming off the first postseason victory in its Division I history, but loses five seniors. Seattle, which some see as a sleeping giant, has a new coach in Jim Hayford. Each situation could turn out well, but that’s not a given.
And neither is immediate success at NMSU, which is a first in this geographically-dispersed version of the league.