It’s New Mexico State’s world, and everyone else in the WAC is just living in it, or so it has seemed for the past two months.
Heavy winds may have slightly delayed the Aggies arrival in Las Vegas, but that didn’t change the fact NMSU has blown away league competition this year. As owners of a 16-game winning streak, the Aggies are the clear-cut favorite to cut down the nets for the second consecutive season. However, not all of those wins — 15 of which came against league competition — were comfortable. There was a buzzer-beating heave to sink Grand Canyon, an improbable comeback from nine down with just over a minute left to ultimately stun CSU Bakersfield in overtime and a last-minute scramble to get by UT Rio Grande Valley.
What, exactly, does that mean? A glimmer of hope for the rest of the league that the Las Cruces juggernaut is beatable under the right circumstances, or evidence that the Aggies simply have mettle? Both can be true, and a league enjoying its strongest overall season in current format will try and pull the long-odds upset.
New Mexico State (27-4, 15-1): Chris Jans has had the Midas touch all season, pulling the strings on what is at times a 14-man rotation, and getting 15 league wins and a regular season title out of it. The Aggies are an efficient offensive team that can beat the opposition in a number of ways. That deep rotation means plenty weapons, such as a creative guard (Terrell Brown), pure back-to-the-basket scorer (Ivan Aurrecoeachea) and high-rising penetrating threat (Trevelin Queen), among others. Defense was the focus down the stretch, and in the end the Aggies finished with the second-most efficient defense in WAC play. And despite losing rebounding monster Jemerrio Jones, they’ve remained one of the country’s best on the glass. Beating them will not be easy.
The Dark Horses
Utah Valley (23-8, 12-4): Mark Pope did a tremendous job with a relatively inexperienced team to engineer a second consecutive 23-win (at least) season. The Wolverines finished the year on a tear, winning 10 of their last 11 games, with their lone loss being a competitive outing in Las Cruces. The brutally-efficient Jake Toolson was the WAC’s best offensive player, and catalyst for an offense that lit up the three-point line in league play. UVU has depth in the frontcourt, particularly if senior Connor MacDougall — who missed 12 games before playing in the last two contests — continues to shake off the rust. They’ve also got a pair of unheralded playmakers in Ben Nakwaasah and T.J. Washington. In short, the pieces are there for a run from the No. 2 seed.
Seattle (18-13, 6-10)
Grand Canyon (18-12, 10-6)
The winner of this No. 3/No. 6 first round match up could grab momentum, hang on for dear life and see where it takes them. These are two teams, however, headed in opposite directions.
GCU ran out to a 7-1 start, at which point Dan Majerle — and this site — proclaimed them the team to beat. Things have tumbled since, with a 3-5 finish to league that play saw the Lopes’ defense and, especially lately, offense struggle at various times. Senior forward Michael Finke has been on a torrid stretch in the last month, and GCU still possesses as much raw size as anyone in the league. They have the talent to win three games in Las Vegas, but nothing in the last month and a half suggests that’ll happen.
The opposite may be true for Seattle, the same team that started WAC play 1-9. That lopsided stretch was due to a rash of injuries that smacked the team, not only to key contributors in Matej Kavas and Delante Jones, but to some of the supporting cast well. The silver lining was that the Redhawks grew in ways both big (Terrell Brown continuing to emerge as an offensive force) and small (Riley Grigsby stepping in as a quality rotation player). Seattle is now healthy and has won five out of its last six games, including a win over GCU just last Saturday. The Redhawks are likely a saltier and deeper team than the one that ran through the non-conference at 12-3. That could spell danger for the rest of the WAC.
You won’t find anyone in this space betting against NMSU, not for the time being. Images of UVU, Seattle, GCU and even UTRGV cutting down the nets don’t seem like fever dreams, but the most likely scenario is yet another NCAA Tournament bid for the Aggies. The team is simply rolling, and showed no sign of letdown with three dominant wins over the final week and a half of the regular season. The Tournament MVP could one of a roomful of Aggies, but it’s a safe bet he’ll be wearing crimson and white.