While the halfway point is still a game away, we can already see some trends developing for the New Mexico State men’s basketball team, as well as the Western Athletic Conference.
The Aggies have hovered around .500 all season. Now 10-11, it should come as no surprise their conference record is also average. NMSU sits at 4-3 in WAC play, but since the Aggies begin their second trip through most league opponents this weekend, it seemed like a good time to look back and ahead.
With a new look for the WAC Tournament bracket, which awards the top two teams a bye into the semifinals, there could be cause for concern regarding the Aggies current spot in fifth place.
NMSU was the first team with a conference road win, beating Idaho on opening weekend. On that same trip, the Aggies outplayed Boise State for 30 minutes before losing by three. Their home win against Fresno State (who came into the Pan American Center 3-0 in the conference) isn’t as impressive, since the Bulldogs have lost their last four.
The second-half schedule also provides reason for optimism. NMSU plays five of its last nine WAC games at the Pan Am.
Boise State and Idaho make the return trip to Las Cruces this weekend. The Aggies follow that up with a road game at Fresno State (3-4) and back-to-back games against winless Louisiana Tech. The Aggies then make the always challenging San Jose State/Hawaii road trip, which appears easier than in past years.
It all sets the Aggies up for meaningful home games against Utah State (March 2) and Nevada (March 5) to close out the season.
After an up and down start, that’s all the Aggies could ask for.
From an individual standpoint, NMSU junior forward Troy Gillenwater has been terrific.
Gillenwater leads the league in scoring in WAC play and has showed toughness in his first year as a starter, playing through a foot and ankle injury.
Due to early-season injuries, young players have been asked to step in right away. Some have responded better than others.
It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect much from freshmen or sophomores playing for the first time. You take what you can get from young guys.
One player who needs to return to form for the Aggies to contend is junior center Hamidu Rahman. Rahman has missed games due to a calf injury this season, but even before the injury, his production was less than what we expected from him entering the year. Throughout his career at NMSU, Rahman has shown the ability to get up for big games. He needs to do so to take some pressure off Gillenwater and the younger players.
Other things that have stood out to me:
Northern Aggies on their way: Utah State has won a piece of three straight WAC regular season championships. At 7-0 in league play and riding a 21-game regular season conference win streak, the UtAgs seem well on their way to a fourth.
Idaho causing trouble: I was worried about Idaho entering the season after the team lost its best player in point guard Mac Hopson, as well as one of the top defensive big men in the conference in center Marvin Jefferson.
I don’t want to take anything away from the Vandals, who started 5-1 in conference play. But I can’t help myself. Of Idaho’s first five wins, the Vandals’ opponents were a combined 9-23 entering Saturday’s games. Only Nevada, at 3-3, was .500 or better.
The Vandals fell to Boise State by three on Saturday to move both clubs to 5-2.
Idaho is second in the WAC is scoring defense (60.9 points per game) and first in field goal defense, holding teams to 38 percent shooting.
WAC staying put: The WAC has a conference RPI of 15, according to RealTimeRPI.com. Not bad, but not great and it won’t get any better. Utah State (43 RPI) is the only conference club in the top 150, but the UtAgs have a schedule strength of 205. Boise State has the next highest RPI at 158.
First half all stars: If I was voting for a first-team All-WAC right now, here it is.
La’Shard Anderson (Boise State point guard) — Anderson’s 2.8 steals and 5.2 assists per game lead the WAC. In conference play, he’s also second in scoring at 17.9 points per game.
Adrian Oliver (San Jose State guard) — Oliver has the two highest scoring outputs of any WAC player of 42 and 35 points. He leads the conference in scoring at 23.3 points per game.
Troy Gillenwater (New Mexico State forward) — Gillenwater is second behind Oliver in scoring with 19 points for the season, shooting 36 percent from 3-point range in WAC games. He’s also seventh in rebounding with 7.1 per game.
Tai Wesley (Utah State forward) — Wesley has taken leadership of the UtAgs, scoring 16.3 points and pulling down 7.1 rebounds per game in WAC play.
Dario Hunt (Nevada center) — Hunt has responded to the challenge of adding offense to his game as a sophomore, scoring 13.3 points per game in league play and shooting 65 percent (second in WAC). He’s also fourth in rebounding with 7.9 and first in blocked shots with 2.3 per game.