When we started the Mid-Major Top 20 project, we knew there would be some teams that wouldn't exactly appear to be repeating their work from last year. Iona was probably the biggest standout in that manner. The Gaels just lose too much in the tightly contested MAAC.
And at first glance, New Mexico State appeared to be a team that would fade out of the driver's seat in its conference. The Aggies were the terror of the WAC last season. Losing their top three players should have put them at a disadvantage entering this season.
But the fluidity in the WAC changes all of that.
The Aggies will still be at the top of the league; they just won't be doing it with the same cast of characters. They will be forced to find a replacement for Wendell McKines and the combo of Hernst Laroche and Hamidu Rahman.
The trio were the top value players for New Mexico State last season among full-time players. Christian Kabongo is also gone, after the guard gave them almost 15 points per game in his 11 appearances.
Most teams would be struggling after losing that much firepower. But this is the WAC, a league that can't keep its membership consistent from one year to the next.
The biggest challenge for the Aggies will likely come from Denver, a team led by mid-major star Chris Udofia, a player who will likely end up as the player of the year in the WAC. Or Utah State could make some waves, led by Kyisean Reed and Preston Medlin. But the remainder of the league shouldn't make the New Mexico State fans worry too much, even with the new look.
The top determinant of how far the Aggies can roll this season will be Daniel Mullings, the top value returnee according to HW30.
Not that his score was off the charts at 0.83 HW30, but given what the team lost, he didn't need to be more than that last season. Mullings was still an important cog in the machine, excelling on defense with a 11.2 DEF100 score, good enough for second best on the team among players with more than 150 minutes. His quick hands allowed him to nab 58 steals last year, and he did it while committing just 2.0 fouls per 40 minutes.
His shooting is somewhat average and just a 61.9 percent free throw percentage isn't what you want from a guy who might become your top ball handler this year, but if some of the other new faces can provide the offense, Mullings could concentrate on what he does best -- kick-starting the Aggie machine.
A good amount of that offense could come from the wing and Bandja Sy, a reserve last season who gave the team almost nine points per game. Sy ended the season with a 0.7 HW30 for the Aggies, and should see that number improve as he becomes a bigger focal point in the offense.
There should also be hope that center Tshilidzi Nephawe can step in to shore up the inside game, and that Tyrone Watson continues to be a senior leader.
Bottom Line: The Aggies might not have the same dominant look as last season, but the remaining pieces could still make a formidable machine in the WAC. Without a strong favorite in the league, New Mexico State should be considered among the leaders to get the NCAA Tournament spot for the league.
Add in a fairly light schedule for the team -- Oregon State, New Mexico (twice), Bucknell and South Alabama are the "heavyweights." The Aggies should breeze into the conference season after priming the team on a few cupcakes.
Look for this team to slowly make a name for itself in the mid-major world, and sneak into March underrated in terms of its ability to pull of that NCAA upset.