New Mexico State’s 2020-21 odyssey has landed it in a familiar place: back in high school.
Still unable to play games at the Pan American Center, the latest twist in the Aggies’ herky jerky campaign has landed them across state lines in El Paso at, of all places, a high school. But don’t let that fool you, dare we say the facilities at Eastwood High School are sparkling?
Look for yourself.
Tremendous visit at @EastwoodHQ @EastwoodSports with @EHSCoachLopez former @NMStateFootball player (how many knew that ) & UTEP Miner FB also! @NMStateAggies NATION first class operation! Amazing arena pic.twitter.com/GCFspEmqHE— Mario Moccia (@MarioMocciaNMSU) January 28, 2021
NMSU has had to navigate a particularly difficult path during this pandemic-affected season. State restrictions within New Mexico prevented the team from practicing or playing for a large chunk of the year, forcing them to relocate to the Arizona Grand Resort in Phoenix for multiple months. They dealt with road games at NAIA opponents, COVID pauses and, ultimately, just three overall games during their time in Phoenix.
The plan, at one point, had been to play home games at GCU Arena, where they ultimately were swept by the Lopes — as the road team — last weekend in their first league games.
But a loosening of those state restrictions in late January allowed the Aggies to return home to practice, but not host games. That led the team to — relatively — nearby Eastwood High, where they found a surprisingly adequate facility ready to host the WAC’s preeminent men’s basketball program. NMSU Athletic Director Mario Moccia talked about the decision in a release.
“We found a tremendous location in Eastwood High School. Our staff who toured their facility were amazed not only by the aesthetics inside the bowl but also the back-of-house infrastructure needed to host NCAA Division I teams,” commented NM State Director of Athletics Mario Moccia.
“[Eastwood HS Director of Athletics] Julio Lopez and the entire school laid out the red carpet for us, and Aggie Nation is very appreciative,” Moccia continued
Now, there’s no one reading this website that would turn a nose up at a facility. That’s nothing more than high major snobbery. But as far as replacement high school gyms go, this is quite the find with its semi-bowl, individual seats, 2,000 capacity all completed within the last year and a half. Not of course, that any of it is likely to matter with there being no indication that the four games the gym will host for the men’s program will include any fans.
Fans or not, Eastwood will now be the unlikely sight Chris Jans’ effort to mount a last stand to NMSU’s WAC dominance. The Aggies’ 31-game regular season league winning streak was snapped last weekend in Phoenix, as a team that has had limited practice time — let alone game time — together went up against a talented Lopes squad that has played well for large parts of this season.
Despite the scant playing time, NMSU was able to cause GCU problems with its interior athleticism in the first game, but were marred by poor shooting, especially in the second loss where the Aggies went just 7-31 from distance.
“We talked to our team about how big of a game this was,” said NMSU head coach Chris Jans. “We said, ‘Hey, this is a huge game for us after losing last night. We’ve got to find a way to eke out a win and split this first WAC series.’ Obviously that wasn’t the result, and it’s disappointing.”
But as California Baptist heads to the Aggies’ interim home on Friday night, it’d be foolish to count out the WAC heavyweight. The team got Jabari Rice and Clayton Henry back from injury recently, got Oklahoma State transfer Marcus Watson eligible and still have plenty of firepower to turn a hectic season around, especially as players like Wilfried Likayi, Donnie Tillman and C.J. Roberts work themselves into their respective roles.
The optimist might say that NMSU’s dreadful shooting so far this year will be cleansed as players like Henry (1-10 3FG) get into rhythm, and the team in general gets more time on the court — and together — as it tries to find rotations that work. The pessimist might say that it’s already February and GCU has a top-level mid-major point guard (Jovan Blacksher) and an interior duo that will pose a tough challenge for a team just getting into its season.
For now, Eastwood High becomes another part of the Aggies’ twisting 2020-21 season.