It’s getting to the point that an NCAA Tournament wouldn’t feel right without Pistol Pete’s face somewhere on the bracket.
For the sixth time in the last seven seasons, New Mexico State (28-5, 12-2) has secured a spot in the field. For a decent part of this season, it looked like the Aggies may get there via an at-large bid after non-conference wins over then-No. 6 Miami, Davidson and Illinois. But a two-game losing streak in mid-February sunk that dream, though it didn’t sink a regular season title.
And so NMSU, which was has dominated the WAC Tournament over the past 11 years, needed to win three-straight in Las Vegas to get into the field. That’s just what they did, beating Grand Canyon to lock up their 24th NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.
This one wasn’t always set in stone. Chris Jans is NMSU’s third coach in three years, after Paul Weir bolted to New Mexico after his own excellent debut season in 2016-17. Part of that success was because of WAC Player of the Year Ian Baker — who graduated — and high-scoring wing Braxton Huggins — who transferred to Fresno State. Several other rotation players transferred out of the program as well.
Jans, however, engineered one of the country’s best defenses (15th in defensive efficiency), that did not give up easy looks, and rarely allowed teams to get second chances. He nearly seamlessly replaced Baker and Huggins (more on that below), and may find himself as a hot candidate as the coaching carousel twirls this offseason — though Aggie fans must be thinking enough is enough.
Though he doesn’t play any minutes for NMSU, Jans’ journey to Las Cruces is a major story itself. The longtime Gregg Marshall assistant got his first crack at a head coaching job at Bowling Green in 2014-15, and was an instant success as he guided the Falcons to a 21-win season. But he was fired after video surfaced of him acting inappropriately in a bar.
After returning to Wichita as an assistant, the Aggies gave him a second chance, and Jans discussed the incident after being hired.
“I took a huge financial and professional hit and more importantly, embarrassed myself and my reputation,” said Jans, who will make $250,000 in the first year of his four-year contract after making $325,000 in his one season at Bowling Green. “I have done things to improve myself. I wasn’t pointing fingers and I tried to turn a negative into a positive and act in a way that people are proud of. I can’t take it back. It is going be part of my history for the rest of my life and I understand that and I think I’m strong enough to shoulder that.
”I would ask them and everyone else for that matter to give me a chance and prove that was a complete aberration. I’m a better person today because of it.”
The hire looks like a master stroke by NMSU. Jans signed Texas Southern graduate transfer Zach Lofton, the reigning SWAC Player of the Year, and the athletic wing carried the Aggie offense right away (19.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG). He’s an all-around threat that has scored against NMSU’s best competition, and can generate free throws and stretch defenses from three (38.2 3P%).
He would have been the WAC Player of the Year, had it not been for the brilliance of Jemerrio Jones. The undersized, 6’6 forward is one of the country’s best rebounders, leading the NCAA in defensive rebounding percentage (37.1%) as he hauls down 13.2 rebounds per game. That plays into NMSU’s exceptional strength on the glass, but Jones is also a capable playmaker that can spur fast breaks after grabbing the opponent’s missed shots. There simply aren’t many players like him in the country, making it difficult to prepare for him.
The Aggies also got a great season from hyper-athletic Ohio State transfer point guard A.J. Harris, and have good depth in the backcourt (Sidy N’Dir) and frontcourt (Johnathon Wilkins, Eli Chuha, Johnny McCants). McCants, a Las Cruces native, plays under 16 minutes per game, but is worth watching for his athletic punch off the bench.
As many No. 5 seeds, Clemson is in for a challenge. The Tigers depleted frontcourt should be challenged by the Aggies depth, and as a team that doesn’t do a great job grabbing offensive rebounds (219th in the country), they could find themselves with few second chances as Jones gobbles up the glass. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a mid-major backcourt as athletic as Harris-Lofton-N’Dir.
But with those positives, the NMSU offense has gone stagnant at times, and gotten too reliant on Lofton to go get a shot. Against ACC talent, a drought like that could extend long enough to take the Aggies out of the game.
Yet betting against this particular Aggies’ team seems foolish. They’ve proven it against all types of competition throughout the entire year, and should have every chance to validate the growing number of people that see them as a sexy Sweet 16 pick.