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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 6 New Mexico State Aggies

The Aggies are yet again the favorites in the WAC.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Auburn vs New Mexico State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2018-2019 Record: 30-5, First Round of NCAA Tournament
Key Returning Players: Terrell Brown (G, Sr.), A.J. Harris (G, Sr.), Ivan Aurrecoeacha (F/C, Sr.), Trevelin Queen (G/F, Sr.), Clayton Henry (G, Sr.), Johnny McCants (F, Jr.) C.J. Bobbitt (F, Sr.), Shunn Buchanan (G, Sr.)
Key Losses: Eli Chuha, JoJo Zamora
Key Newcomers: Shawn Williams (G, transfer — East Carolina), Wilfried Liyaki (JuCo)

Surprise, surprise, New Mexico State ruled the WAC yet again last season.

With a team that went 13 deep at times, Chris Jans and the Aggies snatched the league’s regular season and tournament titles, and rolled into the NCAA Tournament on an 18-game winning streak. The Aggies took Auburn to the brink in the first round, coming back from eight points down with just over two minutes remaining. That set up a final moment in which A.J. Harris passed up a seemingly open, game-tying layup to kick it out to Trevelin Queen for a potential game-winning three as time expired.

The shot didn’t go down, but the same group that was on the floor for that comeback returns for another shot in the March spotlight. That includes key contributors in Harris, Queen, all-league first team honoree Terrell Brown, and Ivan Aurrecoechea.

Key Non-Conference Games

The raucous games against New Mexico should be even more juiced as, yet again, there are high expectations for the Lobos. UTEP may offer some stiffer resistance as well in Rodney Terry’s second year, and there’s a power conference win for the taking with Washington State (who NMSU beat twice last year) on the schedule. The Arizona game jumps out, but the neutral site tilt with a quality Mississippi State team could be a more realistic opportunity for a statement win.

Nov. 12 at UTEP
Nov. 17 at Arizona
Nov. 21 vs. New Mexico
Dec. 3 vs. UTEP
Dec. 7 vs. Washington State (neutral)
Dec. 14 at New Mexico
Dec. 22 vs. Mississippi State (neutral)

3 things to watch:

Will the Aggies be able to weather early season injuries?

NMSU’s depth — abundant as it is — will get tested out of the gate. A slew of October injuries will notably have Harris (fractured finger) and Clayton Henry (torn thumb ligament) sidelined for most, if not all, of the non-conference season. That puts a severe dent into the Aggies’ backcourt rotation, particularly with the loss of one the team’s primary ball handlers in Harris and top three-point threats in Henry. They can withstand it, especially since star combo guard Terrell Brown and senior Shunn Buchanan can cover the point guard position. But it may put NMSU behind the eight ball in one respect. It seems each year the Aggies’ tremendous record and long winning streaks have them on the fringes of the at-large conversation. Winnable, resume-building games against Washington State and Mississippi State, in addition to the annual home-and-home series with New Mexico and UTEP, will be a tad more difficult without the injured players.

What’s the ceiling for Trevelin Queen?

It’s not that the Aggies are simply a “sum is greater than the parts” team. There is star-power on the roster with all-league honorees Brown and Harris, and Jans surely trusts either of those players with the ball in their hands at the end of close games. Queen, however, may have the talent to be the biggest matchup problem for any team on NMSU’s schedule, including Arizona. The athletic wing showed what he’s capable of in the WAC Tournament championship game, blitzing Grand Canyon with 27 points and six rebounds. He hit six three pointers that game, and followed it up with four in the near upset of Auburn in the NCAA Tournament.

His ability to shoot from deep, fly above the rim and play quality defense makes him one of the most dangerous players in the WAC, and a player that could help elevate the Aggies to the next level.

Can NMSU formally introduce itself to the nation?

So what is that next level? NMSU has conquered every challenge the WAC has thrown at it in recent years, racking up league regular season and tournament titles (the CSU Bakersfield blip notwithstanding) with gaudy records. They’ve also proven their mettle against power conference teams, including taking the Final Four-bound Tigers to the wire with that ferocious comeback.

This is a team that figures to have the realistic ability to make the tournament’s second weekend without the aid of bracket mayhem. That sort of run seems warranted given all the accolades and metrics (No. 65 KenPom average over the past three years) the Aggies have posted. With a deep, veteran team and a rising star of a coach, no time seems better for that run to finally happen and for NMSU to jump onto the radar of the casual March college basketball observer.

X-Factor

Johnny McCants

Unlike last year, McCants, who missed the season’s first four games recovering from injury, comes into the season healthy. And it could be a big one for the Las Cruces native. Despite fielding a more-than-respectable defense last year, it was the offense that fueled NMSU, and Jans emphasized the importance of tightening up the defense late in the year. McCants’ athleticism and size makes him a potential difference maker in the post, as he led the Aggies in block percentage last year and is mobile enough to switch onto perimeter players. An increased role will allow him to help replace some of the rebounding and defense work NMSU got from Eli Chuha, and if he takes a step forward, could help make NMSU an even more well-rounded, dangerous than it already is.