New Mexico State is in unfamiliar territory, as our own Kyle Cajero put best a few weeks ago in this excellent piece on the at-the-time sub-.500 Aggies.
Things have gotten slightly better since, with NMSU having gone 5-3 with nice wins over Colorado State, South Florida and UTEP. Nonetheless, it has still been a sea change for the WAC powerhouse, which at 7-6 is a far cry from the 10-2, 9-2 and 9-2 marks it had racked up to this point the past three years, respectively.
But the past two days have brought big-time news for a team fighting to find itself.
On Thursday, NMSU point guard A.J. Harris — who has started 64 games over his Aggie career — was cleared to return to the court, per his Twitter account. The 2019 second-team all-WAC honoree had been sidelined up to this point with a finger injury.
Harris’s return comes a day after guard Evan Gilyard, a UTEP transfer, received a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately, and made his debut in a win over Arkansas Pine Bluff (17 minutes, 3 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds). In addition to adding fuel to the Battle I-10 (though not immediately, since the teams have already wrapped up their home and home), Gilyard adds an experienced, potent scorer to Chris Jans’ rotation (13.6 PPG, 32.6 MPG in 2018-19).
With Harris and Gilyard in the fold, the Aggies figure to improve on their turnover percentage, which has been among the worst in the country to this point. In recent losses to Washington State and New Mexico, NMSU turned the ball over a combined 39 times.
Harris should also especially help on the defense end, as the redshirt senior is tenacious defender that landed on the All-WAC defensive team a year ago.
The bolstered roster in Las Cruces obviously matters in the WAC race, where the Aggies still appear a heavy favorite despite a down non-conference season per their lofty standards.
But it may matter nationally as well.
NMSU started the year at No. 6 in the Other Top 25, as they brought back much of the deep rotation that helped them storm through last season with 30 wins. The up-and-down start to the season saw them tumble out of the rankings, but Jans is starting to have the makings of another dizzyingly deep team.
The early season injuries to Harris and wing Clayton Harris put sophomore guard Jabari Rice into a bigger role, and he has flourished as one of the team’s most consistent offensive threats (13.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG). Critically, he pushed NMSU to that big win over the Rams on Nov. 25 with a career high 21 points, including 12 points in overtime. Trevelin Queen has also looked comfortable in a leading role, but now gets the support of the Aggies’ primary ballhandler back in the mix.
In all, a team that had may have disappeared from the national radar could be quietly laying the stage to be a threat once again in March.