PHOENIX — Coming into 2018-19, there were only 21 programs in the country that recorded six consecutive seasons of 20-or-more wins. On the list are the most consistent programs in college basketball: Duke, Kansas, and Kentucky.
Another is New Mexico State. And it guaranteed its position on the same list next year after a dramatic 67-64 victory over WAC rival Grand Canyon on Saturday. Once again, the Aggies will be strong favorites to win the WAC Tournament and advance to the Big Dance. Their near-upset of Kansas early this season proves they could be dangerous if given the chance against a conventional power. But success is just about the only consistent thing at New Mexico State.
Chris Jans is the program’s third head coach in the last four years, following the departures of Marvin Menzies to UNLV and Paul Weir a year later to New Mexico. When he accepted the job in the spring of 2017, he did so knowing win now was the only mode of operation in Las Cruces. Which he did, by constructing a roster of transfers and JuCo graduates, and installing his “play angry” defensive principles developed under Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. The Aggies finished 28-6 last year and earned an NCAA Tournament berth.
However, once Jans got on the transfer treadmill, he realized it was difficult to get off. Stars Zach Lofton and Jemerrio Jones graduated. Two other contributors transferred on to bigger programs. When the dust settled, Jans had just five returning players, and only one starter.
He had no choice but to bring in 10 newcomers to make up this year’s roster, knowing he would need to rebuild the rotation from scratch.
Then a funny thing happened.
“Certainly you’re trying to go out and recruit the best players you can get, but normally you have separation at positions where eventually it’s pretty clear who should be playing the major minutes,” Jans said.
Except in the team’s preseason practices, the separation never occurred. Players had different skillsets, sure, but all were producing at around the same level. Rather than force it, Jans decided to see what a deep rotation might look like.
The result: Players are given whatever Jans thinks they have earned or deserve on a given day, and the rest is shared. Over the course of this season, 13 players average more than 10 minutes per contest, 12 have started at least one game, and seven have led the team in scoring.
“I may coach 15, 20 years and it may never happen again,” Jans said. “It’s a very unique situation, and we just kind of rolling with it.”
He believes the strategy has a few unique advantages. The team rarely has to worry about foul trouble, for instance, since players don’t play enough minutes. Common wear and tear injuries like a rolled ankle or a strained knee — like the one big man Ivan Aurrecoechea sustained two weeks ago — don’t affect the game plan. Jans is convinced players can play harder knowing they don’t need to conserve energy for extended minutes, and the camaraderie is better, because there is shared ownership in the outcome of a game.
On the other hand, the rotation is why the team found itself practicing for over two hours on Friday night in an empty GCU Arena, less than 24 hours after an overtime win at Cal State Bakersfield and commercial air travel. Most years, there’d be no need for practice this long in February, but here there are hardly enough reps to go around. The Aggies’ scout team consists of two of the team’s freshmen and three assistant coaches, leaving 13 players to rotate in and out in every offensive and defensive walkthrough.
The impact of Jans’ uncertain minutes distribution can be felt in the practice. Players have learned they can ill-afford to relax on any possession, lest they cede precious minutes to their teammates. The competition is palpable.
“You’ve got to be locked in at all times, you can’t make mistakes,” said Trevelin Queen, who hit the game-winning three to beat CS Bakersfield but had no guaranteed spot in Saturday’s contest.
Backcourt mate Terrell Brown agreed:
“Everybody is a player on our team, so I always have to have a chip on my shoulder, like it’s my last game playing or something.”
Jans loves making his players perform and compete on a daily basis. Most college basketball coaches preach incessantly about trusting the process, but Jans has little use for it.
“That’s not a phrase I use very often,” he said with a laugh.
To him, success is all about results. He wants to win, and doesn’t care what it takes to get the job done. Players are asked to execute, to get the rebound, to pass the ball to the open player, to go grab the loose ball. How they go about doing it makes little difference.
In Friday’s practice, Mohamed Thiam caught Jans’ ire. The 6-9 JuCo transfer is long, athletic, and has enough raw talent for some to draw comparisons to New Mexico State alum and current Toronto Raptor Pascal Siakam. In the last three games, Thiam has seen his minutes increase to fill in for the injured Aurrecoechea. Yet on Friday, he forgot an offensive set, and on another occasion overlooked his defensive assignment to double the low post.
“What are you waiting for!?” Jans shouted, eyebrows raised and arms extended, his raspy voice bringing the practice to a halt.
The following night, Thiam never entered the game.
New Mexico State’s volatile operation would not be able to function without players seeing the other side of Jans. During a film session Saturday morning, Jans teased Thiam by showing a muscle-flexing celebration he gave after an offensive rebound and put back in the CS Bakersfield game.
“That’s cute,” Jans said, “showing off those little bumps.”
Later, he replayed the video of his team celebrating after Queen’s buzzer-beater from the same game, going into slow motion to point out various players’ faces with his laser pointer. The team howls with laughter.
“Our biggest enemy right now is division within,” Jans said. “After every game one of the first thoughts I have is ‘who do I need to talk to, whose dauber is going to be down.’ It’s instantly in my head.”
For the most part, the team has handled its fragile construction well. A record of 20-4 certainly helps, but for all of the competition in practice, the team seems genuinely close off the court and goes out of its way to support each other on the bench. Fifth-year senior Eli Chuha, the only player still on the roster to experience all three head coaches, took it upon himself to reassure Thiam.
“I’m always in Mo’s ear a lot saying, ‘your time is coming, stay ready,’” Chuha said. “Sometimes when things aren’t going our way, we do get disconnected, but it’s kind of me and Shunn [Buchanan]’s job to bring guys back together.”
The lack of individual ego might come from the team’s culture, but it’s also indicative of the way the roster is constructed. Eight Aggies come from the junior college ranks. Three have transferred from other Division I programs where they received less playing time. Several are on their third or fourth school. They arrive in Las Cruces humbled by adversity and hungry to show what they can do. As Jans puts it, “we’ve got kids that got a lot to prove.”
The junkyard dog mentality is probably a big reason why Jans’ teams have been so successful on the road, where they are 8-1 this season. And why, despite the raucous environment created by Grand Canyon’s “Havocs” student section, New Mexico State built a lead early in Saturday’s game. By the 12-minute mark, 10 different Aggies had checked into the game.
While the team relied on AJ Harris to carry the offensive load in the first half, it was Brown who came alive in the second. During one stretch, he hit four triples in the span of five possessions, allowing the Aggies to build a nine-point lead. Then on the other end, Brown drew a charge on Grand Canyon forward Michael Finke, whom Jans called “charge bait” in the team’s film session. The play caused Jans to go into a full body fist pump on the sideline, letting out a primal yell.
Then, just as quickly, the lead evaporated behind the Lopes’ three-point shooting. With 30 seconds to play, GCU dribbled the ball down the floor trailing by a single point. What happened next was nothing less than poetic justice. As the Lopes tried an entry pass into Lever, Queen stole it away. The Aggies were fouled intentionally, but when Chuha missed the second free throw it was Queen again who jumped up and grabbed the offensive rebound, sealing the victory.
That the game was won with a steal and an offensive rebound by a player who is: attending his fourth school, joined the team in September, only became eligible in mid-December, is only averaging 10 minutes per game, and hit the game-winning shot 48 hours earlier is almost too perfect.
“I knew my time was going to come,” Queen said. “My time came and I took advantage of it.”
After a mosh pit dance celebration in the locker room and the promise of at least one day off, the team took a moment to relax. The win gave them a two-game lead in the WAC standings with just seven games remaining. By Monday, Jans promised the fight for minutes will begin again in earnest. The slate is wiped clean and the players must prove themselves anew. For a program that has now won 20 games in seven straight seasons despite an ever-changing cast of characters, it’s all about results.
“We’re trying to win each and every game, each and every day, each and every possession,” Jans said. “That’s what we do.”