NMSU starts practice officially on Oct. 12.
Today I'll talk about some of the strengths that I feel this year's NMSU team has and tomorrow I'll talk about some of the concerns that at least I feel the Aggies may have this year.
Last year about this time, I talked with Wendell McKines about my concerns for the Aggies offensively. McKines said the team was going to lean on defense and rebounding. Wendell was right. NMSU started last season as a great defensive team and ended up being a very good defensive team, especially when they needed stops.
Although rebounding is one of my question marks entering this season, I think the Aggies have the pieces in place to be a very good defensive team again this year. One reason is depth. The other is size. The departure of Christian Kabongo last year and the injury to Terrel de Rouen sapped a little depth from the Aggies back court and didn't allow them to play with the same pace or intensity for 40 minutes. The Aggies were tops in the WAC last year in defending the 3-point line allowing 33 percent against them from long range. NMSU was 85th nationally in 3-point defense. A lot of that had to do with the size of the Aggies perimeter players. When you look at just the established players that the Aggies have coming back you have an All-WAC caliber defender in Daniel Mullings (6-2), Bandja Sy (6-8), Tyrone Watson (6-5) and I'll even put de Rouen (6-1) into that mix because of his size and athleticism at the point guard position. NMSU's perimeter players have a lot of length to get their hands on the ball (NMSU had 7 steals per game and return most of the same players with the exception of Hernst Laroche) and jump start the offense. There are also players whom I haven't seen such as KC Ross-Miller and Kevin Aronis who should see the court a lot but I'm not sure what they bring to the table defensively.
Hamidu Rahman averaged 1.1 blocks per game last year and the Aggies averaged 4.3 as a team. NMSU's interior is also somewhat unproved defensively, but anytime you have a 7-5 center in Sim Bhullar who one would figure could help guard the rim, along with 6-10 Chili Nephawe, who I don't think moves well defensively and fouls a lot but is still a physical presence. The Aggies also have Watson, Renaldo Dixon, perhaps BJ West who would all need to buy into defending the paint like I think they can.
This is where I have to kind of speculate, but I think the Aggies will be a better shooting team. The main reason, quite frankly the Aggies couldn't be much worse. NMSU made 5 3s per game last year, shooting 33 percent from distance. The Aggies did a good job playing to their strengths, scoring 57 percent of their offense on 2-pt field goals and 25 percent at the foul line, but it made them somewhat one dimensional. The Aggies brought in Kevin Aronis, who made over 100 3s in the California junior college league last year. Sy was hit or miss, perhaps that will even out a bit, and freshmen Eric Weary Jr. and Matej Buovac were described as shooters as they were brought into the program.
NMSU led the country last year with 1,048 attempts. NMSU didn't really take advantage as a team, shooting 66 percent at the line, but obviously Hamidu Rahman's 51 percent dragged the average down. Stepping in at center this year is Chili Nephawe, who has been a good free throw shooter here, shooting 85-114 (75 percent) at the line. If the strength of the Aggies continues to be its size, they should get to the foul line a lot this year. Who knows how well Bhullar shoots free throws, and Mullings, Watson and Sy need to improve this year, but expect that percentage to increase this season.
Finally, there is some continuity on the coaching staff entering this year. NMSU didn't make any changes among the top of its staff this year after adding two assistants last offseason. Players have been able to work with Tony Delk for an entire offseason and Keith Brown did a lot of the work in the summer workouts from my understanding. I think there is good chemistry on this staff and I believe they are currently on a coaching retreat to Louisville as you read this. I think it's that much more important now that the Aggies are not a veteran team as the players try to figure out their roles, the coaches already know their roles.