Most of the time it’s easy to succumb to logic.
When it comes to the WAC, old fashioned rational thought would suggest that New Mexico State looks vulnerable as March approaches. They’ve been racked by injuries and have been in a number of tight games over the past month, and good teams looking beatable come league tournament time is always mildly interesting. For the Aggies, it’s downright intriguing since few teams have dominated a conference like NMSU.
Under third-year coach Chris Jans, the Aggies are 39-3 in regular season WAC play, and that record jumps to an equally gaudy 76-8 going back to the 2014-15 season. In total, despite a one-year, Rod Barnes-induced blip, the Aggies have been the WAC’s NCAA Tournament representative each year since the league took its current form in 2013.
Juggernaut, Goliath...apply whatever cliche you want, that’s what the Aggies have been.
We’ve written about it time and time again on this site. Similarly, we’ve wondered about NMSU’s fallibility too, and it would seem the time is ripe to do that again. However, we’re not falling into that trap this time, tempting as it may be.
The Aggies have been hit hard be injuries. Starting point guard A.J. Harris was out to start the season with a hand injury, came back in late December and suffered a season-ending ankle injury after three games. Three-point threat Clayton Henry also started the year out with an injury, came back for one game in late December and suffered a season-ending hand injury. The team’s best player — Trevelin Queen — tore a meniscus in late January, and while he stunningly zoomed back to action in three weeks, has seemingly been limited in the two games since his return.
Nonetheless, the Aggies have won 15-straight games and are 12-0 in the WAC.
Those wins haven’t always come pretty or as dominant as the record would suggest. In recent weeks, the Aggies had to scrap for consecutive low-scoring wins against UT Rio Grande Valley and CSU Bakersfield. They had to shrug off a sluggish offensive first half at Kansas City to get a win, and then had the ultimate escape job against Utah Valley last Saturday night.
T.J. Washington had given the Wolverines a two-point lead with six seconds left, until Jabari Rice extended the winning streak in dramatic fashion, much like Johnny McCants did a year ago against Grand Canyon in the same building.
There have been moments of dominance for the Aggies, such as a 15-point win at Cal Baptist to start league play, or a 20-point win over nominal WAC rival Grand Canyon on Feb. 1. But, more often than not, NMSU has not blown the competition out of the water in a league that is not strong as it was a season ago. Last year, the WAC had five teams finish in the KenPom top 197, and three within the top 111. This year, it seems likely only two teams will finish in the top 200, with the only-NMSU team (CBU) not eligible for the WAC Tournament.
NMSU itself hasn’t lived up to the high standard it set last year, with its adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency both a tad worse. Much of that can likely be chalked up to the injuries, particularly since they’ve bitten the team’s top point guard and most dynamic two-way player. Terrell Brown, often the Aggies most dependable scorer last year, has also been more supporting player than star this year.
Nonetheless, the team has done nothing but find ways to win since a rocky start to the year.
That’s meant pounding the ball to rugged center Ivan Aurrecoeacha when matchups favor it, or leaning on Rice (29 points against UVU), who has had a breakout sophomore season by averaging 13.2 points per game and serving as a sorely-needed three-point threat (41.1 3P%) with Henry out. They’ve also flashed second weekend-level defense, like holding a potent Mississippi State offense to its second-worst game of the year in a big win just before Christmas.
After the game, Rice was asked if doubt ever creeps into the team’s mind.
“No, I don’t think so, ever,” he said in a press conference video posted by the team. “I don’t think in anybody’s head we’re like, ‘ah we lost this game.’ Ever. Maybe we’re in a tight spot, but we never feel down about ourselves. Even if they would’ve gone up by three, we would’ve still run the same thing and still gotten the same shot, whether it’s by me or [Queen] or [Evan Gilyard], or [Johnny McCants]. Anybody could’ve shot that shot.”
And that’s been the modus operandi for the Aggies, especially since Jans has been in town. Plenty of players with big moments, plenty of ways to dominate league competition. The Aggies may not be coming down the stretch with a dazzlingly deep team and all pistons firing like they did a year ago, but they’re still the class of the WAC, and it’s getting harder and harder to dream up a scenario where that’s not ultimately the case this season.