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New Mexico State takes small step filling massive rebounding void

You don’t replace Jemerrio Jones with one player, but signing a sought-after JUCO big man is a start.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Former New Mexico State forward Jemerrio Jones had his first NBA workout, showing his skills to his hometown Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday. The next day, the Aggies inked a player that will try and help fill Jones’ undersized-but-tremendously-important shoes in Las Cruces.

From the rebounding side, they got a significant reinforcement on Wednesday, as Jans signed Indian Hills Community College forward Ivan Aurrecoechea. The Spaniard comes to Las Cruces as a highly-rated JUCO prospect that averaged 11.5 rebounds per game last season, and — per Verbal Commits — had interest from New Mexico and South Florida.

“We are thrilled that Ivan made the decision to join our program,” Aggies coach Chris Jans said. “Ivan plays with a lot of passion and toughness, and will quickly become a fan favorite for our Aggie fan base. His ability to rebound the ball, score around the basket and team-first mentality will allow him to impact our team immediately.”

But replacing Jones won’t be easy.

The glass was Jones’ playground in 2017-18. The senior vacuumed in 13.2 rebounds per game, and his 450 total rebounds not only led the nation, but also were a WAC single-season record. You could’ve called him under the radar, but late in the season profiles on Jones’ rebounding prowess became all the rage.

SI did it. The Athletic did too. Everyone wanted a piece of the 6’5’ rebounding dynamo, especially as he racked up three 20-plus rebound games in mid-February. And when the season ended he got his due by being named WAC Player of the Year and honorable mention AP All-American.

Jones was so much of what made NMSU a hit in Chris Jans’ first season. As the nation’s best defensive rebounder, he eliminated second chances for opponents, fueling an elite defense. He also played into a versatile offense as a legitimate playmaker that could hold his own in transition.

But Jones is gone, and for the third straight year, the Aggies are replacing the reigning WAC POY.

It wasn’t as if NMSU didn’t already have options in the frontcourt. Rising senior Eli Chuha took on a reduced role under Jans, but is one season removed from averaging 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. Johnny McCants, who will be a redshirt sophomore, has athleticism in spades and is a breakout candidate. The Aggies also have freshman Robert Brown coming off a redshirt year, who was a three-star prospect out of high school.

Adding Aurrecoechea fortifies the mix as NMSU attempts to reinvent itself yet again while maintaining its stranglehold on the WAC. Through three coaches in three years, the Aggies have remained the class of the conference, despite roster turnover at significant spots.

Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins starred in 2016-17, taking on bigger roles as then-WAC POY Pascal Siakam left for the NBA. Both left the program last offseason — Baker due to graduation, Huggins because of transferring — then Jans pulled in Zach Lofton and coaxed a historic season out of Jones to keep the Aggies at the top of the league.

Point guard A.J. Harris appears to be the prime candidate to be NMSU’s latest star, but with Lofton and Jones gone, the most important pieces must yet again be reset. If nothing else, from a depth perspective the Aggies took a step forward on Wednesday.