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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 23 New Mexico State Aggies

The WAC juggernaut is loaded yet again.

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at Arizona Jacob Snow-USA TODAY Sports

2019-2020 Record: 25-6 (16-0), WAC regular season champion
Key Returning Players: Jabari Rice (G, Jr.), Johnny McCants (F, Sr.), Evan Gilyard (G, Sr.), Clayton Henry (G, Sr.), Wilfried Liyaki (F, Jr.)
Key Losses: Terrell Brown (G, Sr.), A.J. Harris (G, Sr.), Ivan Aurrecoecha (F/C, Sr.), Trevelin Queen (G/F, Sr.)
Key Newcomers: Donnie Tillman (F, transfer/UNLV), C.J. Roberts (G, JuCo), Mayan Kiir (F, transfer/South Florida), Jason King (G, JuCo), Kalen Williams (G, JuCo), Marcus Watson (F, transfer/Oklahoma State)

This site is not shy about touting New Mexico State’s near-comical dominance of the WAC. And even as we separate the bit and stick to reality, the fact remains that the Aggies did not, in fact, lose a conference game a year ago.

That was at the heart of a third straight dominant campaign for Chris Jans since arriving in Las Cruces in 2017. NMSU did not lose after Dec. 14 and finished the year on another one of its patented gaudy winning streaks (in this case, 19 games). It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, as Jans had to juggle injuries throughout the year — namely to point guard A.J. Harris — which in part led to a shaky 6-6 start.

Nonetheless, the Aggies still grabbed an impressive non-conference win against Mississippi State, had a star emerge in Jabari Rice and added to its trophy case. Another tidy, impressive year for the WAC juggernaut.

Key Non-Conference Games

NMSU has not released any non-conference details, but is reportedly still finalizing dates with its two rivals, New Mexico and UTEP.

3 things to watch

Where’s the ceiling for Jabari Rice and the Aggies’ offense?

Rice, the WAC Preseason Player of the Year, won’t be surprising anyone this season. The junior excelled when his role expanded due to injuries, and becomes NMSU’s top offensive option heading into 2020-21. He almost single-handedly fended off Utah Valley last year in the Aggies’ biggest league scare, scoring 29 points (4-5 3FG) and hitting a three in the final second to keep the winning streak intact.

With a roster lacking the previous year’s continuity, more efforts like that might be needed. Rice’s perimeter skill set (38.4% 3FG) also will likely be at the heart of how NMSU will try to claim yet another WAC crown. The Aggies have feasted from deep over the past two seasons, with nearly half their field goal attempts as a team coming from distance. With Rice, Evan Gilyard, versatile forward Johnny McCants and the now-healthy Clayton Henry still around, the quick-trigger from the outside could yet again be a staple of Jans’ offense.

Can the Aggies find top-level front court production?

The graduation churn has hit NMSU particularly hard in the paint, where Jans must replace a couple of all-league performers in Trevelin Queen and Ivan Aurrecoechea. The pair were two of the Aggies top-three rebounders a year ago, but the team doesn’t figure to struggle on the boards. Rice, for his part, is a tremendous rebounder for a guard, and NMSU does return its leading rebounder in McCants, who will be heavily relied upon in his final season.

The biggest question mark may be the loss of Aurrecoechea’s grinding, efficient back-to-the-basket game. His size and skill in the paint could be a safety blanket in the rare times the NMSU offense stalled, such as the near loss at UVU or sticky games against Kansas City and CSU Bakersfield. Across those three contests the senior put up 40 two-point attempts, and made 25 of them. Queen was a transcendent talent, but the Aggies will need to adjust to life without the big Spaniard. UNLV transfer forward Donnie Tillman is not a like-for-like replacement as he’s more of a perimeter threat, but should sop up some of those minutes.

Will the WAC be able to prepare the Aggies?

This one is understandably out of NMSU’s control, at least in the short term. Prospects are grim for the overall quality of the WAC, with seven of its nine teams ranked 237th or worse in the opening KenPom ranking. That makes sense given it is welcoming two Division I debutants in Dixie State and Tarleton State, but is still a severe departure from where the league stood three seasons ago.

Perhaps either or both of those programs go the way of Cal Baptist and make an instant impact. But in the short term, NMSU looks several clear, sweeping cuts above the rest of the league, even with a roster in quasi-transition. In a truncated season, can that adequately prepare them for a late season run? That’ll be a challenge Jans will have to manage throughout the year, especially with a truncated non-conference proving ground.

X-factor

Late season additions

The Aggies welcome in plenty of talent, including Tillman and a trio of Junior College guards led by oft-traveled (and oft-well-regarded) C.J. Roberts, who has had stops at Missouri and Texas Tech. Those are the certainties, but Jans is also sitting on a pair of intriguing transfers in forwards Marcus Watson (Oklahoma State) and Mayan Kiir (South Florida) who will be eligible midseason unless either or both are granted waivers to play immediately. Watson is a former four-star prospect while Kiir played in 38 games for a solid Bulls team in 2018-19.

In a strange season, the mid-year transfer may not be as tricky to mix in as usual. But with the potential for games to be reshuffled or cancelled, particularly in the non-conference, the Aggies could be short on time to gel a talented roster prior to — crossing our collective fingers — the NCAA Tournament. Watson and, likely to a larger extent, Kiir, could be needed for impact minutes in the rotation, meaning any actual game reps will be incredibly valuable as the season goes on.