Here are my highlights of the schedule with my predictions at the end.
At first glance, if the Aggies don't win 20 games with this schedule, I would say something is wrong and/or the Aggies have suffered another multitude of injuries. With UNC losing what they did, I think the most challenging games are the Lobos, Miners, a potential game vs. Murray State and Arizona. The Northern Colorado game will be tough just because it's the first game and it's on the road, but the Bears lost virtually everyone from the team that beat NMSU on Bracket Buster weekend. The Aggies have to at least split with the rivalry teams, not only because there are few chances for quality wins, but because of a horrendous record recently against the rivals including 0-4 last year.
While the schedule is not as challenging as last year's, it also has potential to be difficult, especially early on. I wouldn't be surprised if the Aggies started 0-2 with road games at Northern Colorado and New Mexico. I think the Aggies are due to return the favor of a Miner sweep and I like the idea of a rivalry game starting things off at home on Nov. 19 before going to Alaska. The Northern Colorado game will be tough even though they lost a lot, but it's still the Aggies first game of the year and for whatever reason, this program isn't known for getting off to fast starts. I think there will still be some time where guys are figuring out their roles, but the Aggies should have enough experience to open with a win.
The Great Alaska Shootout doesn't have any big name schools, but if things play out the right way, the Aggies can get a lot out of it. Central Michigan sophomore guard Trey Zeigler was ranked in the Top 30 guards by ESPN in high school but elected to play for his father, Ernie Zeigler at Central Michigan. Central Michigan went 10-21 last year and 7-9 in the Mid American Conference. Zeigler is their best returner in terms of offense, scoring 16.3 ppg to lead the team.
A win on Thursday would set up the first of two meetings on the season against Southern Mississippi if they beat Irvine. Southern Miss went 22-10 last year and reached the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament. Southern Miss outrebounded its opponents by eight per game and held opponents to 65 ppg. They had nine players who played double digit minutes per game. Five of them were seniors. DJ Newbill was third on the team in scoring as a freshman and USC transfer Angelo Johnson was fourth and was a 41 percent 3-point shooter.
The Aggies then would hope for a matchup with either Murray State or San Francisco. Murray State vs. NMSU would be a quality game for the tournament and for the Aggies. Murray State went to the NCAA's two years ago. Murray State was 23-9 and 14-4 in the Ohio Valley Conference last year. Eight Murray State players played at least 16 minutes per game last year. Five of them return, including leading scorer Isaiah Cannan (11.7 ppg) There were five players who started at least 20 games and three of them return. Murray State only scored 68 points per game last year but their opponents scored 61 per game. They also appear to be a good 3-point shooting team, shooting 38 percent as a team but only Canaan (40 percent shooter) and Donte Poole (34 percent) return as players who attempted at least 65 3s.
San Francisco would be interesting because Wendell McKines originally committed to play there but came to NMSU instead and developed into one of the better players Menzies has coached here.
Going 2-1 at least in Alaska is not only possible, but it's a must. Obviously the Aggies are capable of going 3-0. I think the tournament is a waste if they lose to Central Michigan in their opening game, then you drop down to take on Irvine and aren't getting the most of the tournament.
I have the Aggies losing to Arizona at home on Nov. 29 in the marquee home game of the non conference season. Under ideal circumstances, the Aggies would have more than two days from traveling from Alaska after three games in three days to rest and get ready for Arizona. If travel and legs were even, it would be a great matchup of a top recruiting class at Arizona vs. a seasoned NMSU team full of juniors and seniors. The Aggies could still catch the Wildcats in the midst of trying to figure things out with new players.
Outside of the rivalry games and Arizona, the Dec. 21 home game against McNeese State has me excited. McNeese went 21-12 and 11-5 in the Southland. Former Lobo Will Brown joins the team and their leading scorer Patrick Richard returns. McNeese shot a ton of 3s last year and scored 74 ppg so it could be an up and down game.
From what I have read, the Lobos will be one of the top teams in the Mountain West this year, maybe even more complete a team than Alford's group two years ago that went to the tournament. It's true that the Lobos haven't had to deal with Wendell McKines, but the Aggies didn't face 6-9, 245 senior Drew Gordon, who sat out last year's rivalry games after transferring from UCLA. He went on to average 14 and 12 in MWC play. Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker joins the team this year and Phillip McDonald is a senior who has had some big games vs. NMSU.
UTEP seems to be rebuilding after having lost several players left over from the Barbee era. Tim Floyd will be good, but the Aggies will have a substantial experience advantage over the Miners. I have the Aggies sweeping the Miners for the first time since 2006. But they have to at least gain a split. A sweep in NMSU's favor is more possible this year than any since Menzies has been here.
Too many cupcakes after returning from Alaska will give the Aggies wins on their record, including two games against teams that won't even count in their RPI. You can pencil in wins against the likes of Western New Mexico, Southern, Pine Bluff, Southern Mississippi on the road, Bakersfield twice and Northern New Mexico. That's seven games where the Aggies are playing inferior competition.
I have the Aggies finishing the season 24-8 and 10-4 in WAC play.
As I've written the last few months, I have a lot of doubts about this year's NMSU team. Having said that, I think they can realistically enter WAC play 13-2. It wouldn't surprise me if they did that, but I was overly optimistic last year as well so I'm going to temper my expectations. There were three games where I thought could go either way so I have the Aggies entering WAC play at 12-3 with losses in the championship game in Alaska vs. Murray State, home loss toArizona and at New Mexico. I could also see McNeese State beating the Aggies at home but they lost a lot of experience from last year's team.
The Aggies have lost seven straight to the Lobos and haven't won in Albuquerque since 2002. The losing will continue in the Pit this year, but hopefully this experienced group won't be shaken by the Pit like the last couple of years.
The Aggies open at home with win over UTEP to move to 2-1 heading to Alaska, where they advance to the final and lose to Murray State to return home at 4-2. They hang with Arizona but lose a good game. They win road games at Southern Miss and UTEP and then have five straight home games. NMSU can and should go 5-0, getting off the losing streak vs the Lobos with a win to improve to 11-3 and get people excited hopefully even though the Lobos game occurs during the break. NMSU can enter Conference at 12-3 — an optimistic start that includes a 12-game win streak.
10-4 in league would put the Aggies in the mix for the regular season title this year. I have them losing at Nevada and Utah State to split with those schools. They normally drop one on the San Jose/Hawaii swing, I think they will lose at a good Hawaii team after beating San Jose on the way out. I like Idaho this year and could see the Aggies dropping the road game at Moscow this year. The Aggies have a home BracketBuster game. If they are anywhere near the win total I have projected for them, it could be a quality team (hopefully not Pacific again) I gave them the win there since they have it at home and have been good in BracketBuster games that actually matter