|Junior center Chili Nephawe is one of four returners from last year's NCAA Tournament team the Aggies will lean on to replace Hernst Laroche, Wendell McKines and Hamidu Rahman.|
Photo courtesy of NMSU
NMSU opens practice officially on Friday.
The Aggies return two seniors, a highly regarded and rather large incoming freshman and a sophomore guard that is likely an all-Western Athletic Conference talent.
How it all fits together will take some time but should be interesting to watch.
Here are five storylines to follow entering the season, which begins on Nov. 11 at Oregon State:
Replacing the Big 3
Each team has its own personality and identity. For the better part of the last four years, the personality of the team centered around Wendell McKines, Hamidu Rahman and Hernst Laroche.
All three played on two NCAA Tournament teams and finished their careers in the top 21 on the all-time scoring list. McKines left as the second leading rebounder and was one of two players to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Rahman was No. 2 all-time in blocked shots and Laroche was second in assists and first steals.
Tyrone Watson and Bandja Sy have been role players up to this point in their careers. As the lone seniors on this year’s team, an increased level of production would be welcomed in addition to the on-court experience and leadership they provide. Sophomore guard Daniel Mullings and junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe also were key contributors to last year’s WAC Tournament championship team.
It will be difficult to match the 26 wins NMSU compiled last year, but surpassing 20 wins and defending a conference championship are certainly realistic goals. There are new faces playing key positions and the Aggies upgraded their nonconference schedule significantly.
NMSU should still challenge for a WAC title. Utah State has similar question marks with talented newcomers and a void of experience at point guard. Denver seems like a quality addition to the WAC and Idaho should improve.
The Aggies don’t have a premier name — such as Arizona last year — on the schedule, but Southern Mississippi, Bucknell and Missouri State are quality mid-major programs. New Mexico is coming off an NCAA Tournament season and UTEP should be better in Tim Floyd’s third year.
Running the show
Laroche started every game at the point guard position the past four years.
Sophomore transfer KC Ross-Miller and Oñate High product Terrel de Rouen have yet to start a Division I game at point guard. Watson was second on the team last year with 113 assists and also is capable of running the offense. Mullings could also step in to play the position.
Depth makes versatility possible
The Aggies were the 11th highest scoring team in the country last year at 78.1 points per game.
NMSU added 7-foot-5 Xavier transfer Sim Bhullar, who should split time with Nephawe at center this season. If each player can somehow manage to get up and down the court for 20 minutes a game, NMSU shouldn’t miss a beat. Fortunately NMSU has players with size in Renaldo Dixon and B.J. West to fill in the gaps.
NMSU’s backcourt is just as deep with Mullings at the forefront. Mullings is among the best guards in the WAC and has upside off the charts if he develops offensively to add to the intangibles and athletic ability he brings every night.
Can they shoot?
Despite being a bad 3-point shooting team, the Aggies played to their strengths and still found ways to score last year. The Aggies shot 33 percent from 3-point range and Sy showed the ability to knock down the long range shot last year. The Aggies added Croatian international Matej Buovac and junior college transfer Kevin Aronis, who made 99 3s last year at Santa Rosa Junior College. Freshman Eric Weary Jr., joined the program prior to last year as a player who could shoot the ball.
NMSU proved last year it was possible to win games without the 3, but the Aggies appear better equipped to spread the court this year.