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Johnny McCants’ injury puts big hurdle in New Mexico State’s path

The Aggies’ WAC dominance might be at risk in 2018-19.

New Mexico State v Clemson Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

New Mexico State has had a remarkable ability to change out coaches and stars in recent years and continue winning. Keeping that streak alive just got a little harder.

On Tuesday, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported that redshirt sophomore forward Johnny McCants could miss up to six months with a foot injury, putting most, if not all, of his 2018-19 season in jeopardy.

This is a devastating blow to NMSU, which is vying for its seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in the last eight years. Yet again, the Aggies will need to deal with turnover at key spots. This includes replacing the reigning WAC POY/rebounding maestro Jemerrio Jones, as well as Zach Lofton, the league’s second-leading scorer (20.1 PPG).

McCants would not have accounted for all that lost production himself, but he seemed ticketed for a big season. Last year, the Las Cruces native flashed potential as a redshirt freshman, even if it didn’t fully show up on the stat sheet. He did average 4.3 rebounds in just 15.3 minutes per game, and post an intriguing block rate (5.4%), but it was his spring-loaded athleticism that stood out most.

There were plays like this against Northern New Mexico:

Or this against CSU Baskersfield, if you’re looking for better competition:

NMSU’s front court is not without depth. Eli Chuha is back for his senior year, and while his playing time slipped under Chris Jans last year, he’s just a season removed from a monster sophomore campaign (12.4 PPG, 8.9 RPG). Denver transfer C.J. Bobbitt is now eligible, and the 6’7’’ forward should be a factor after being a steady contributor over two seasons as a Pioneer (50 starts, 24.4 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG). Jans also added JuCo reinforcements in forward Mohamed Thiam and center Ivan Aurrecoechea.

But McCants will still be heavily missed even if there is depth in Las Cruces. His athleticism would’ve been relied on heavily to approximate an elite NMSU defense that made life miserable for opponents inside and outside the three-point arc, and eliminated second chances last season. The Aggies finished top-10 nationally in effective field goal percentage and defensive rebounding percentage. Jones was a big reason for this, and it would take a talent like McCants to help replace his contributions.

NMSU should be doubted with caution given the program’s ability to continue dominating the WAC in the face of roster and coaching turnover. The Aggies do, however, seem as vulnerable as they’ve been in the league’s current set up, and that could be a major boost for two programs in particular.

The 2018-19 pecking order appears to have Utah Valley and Grand Canyon at NMSU’s heels, with Seattle not far behind (though losing mammoth center Aaron Menzies didn’t help). UVU and GCU have never been to the NCAA Tournament at the Div. I level, and pouncing on the opportunity this year — if it is there — is intriguing for both schools.

Both have X-factors at play that suggest their respective ceilings are high, especially if given some national exposure. For the Wolverines there’s a dynamic coach in Mark Pope that has recruited at an exceptional rate, and for the Lopes there’s the bundle of shiny things that have been discussed ad nauesam at this point (Dan Majerle, the resources, the facilities, the fan support).

Neither, however, have been able to topple NMSU (though GCU had just one crack at it as an NCAA-eligible program). With one of its potential stars sidelined, next season may present the best chance yet.