COMMENTARY: Defense, experience will lift Aggies to back-to-back WAC titles
There hasn’t been a back-to-back Western Athletic Conference Tournament champion since Hawaii did it in 2000-02.
It’s a different league now and it will be vastly different next year, but New Mexico State’s experience and commitment to defense will carry them through the conference tournament this week at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
The Aggies will open the tournament against an Idaho team on Thursday that is 1-7 in the WAC Tournament with head coach Don Verlin still looking for a victory. NMSU beat the Vandals twice in the regular season by a combined three points thanks to some late Daniel Mullings free throws in each game.
Conventional wisdom says that it’s hard to beat a team three times. History says it’s easy to beat Idaho in the WAC Tournament.
Thursday won’t be a cakewalk. Idaho has the WAC’s best player in center Kyle Barone and capable shooters, but the Aggies will advance to face No. 2 Denver in Friday’s 7 p.m., semifinal.
The Aggies are the only team to beat both top-seeded Louisiana Tech and the Pioneers this season. NMSU handled the Pioneers quite easily in Las Cruces and Denver returned the favor in Colorado two weeks ago. Denver enters the postseason on a 10-game win streak with the last three coming at home. Denver is first in WAC play in 3s made and 3-point percentage (39.8) and fourth in 3s attempted. If the Pioneers are off, which they were in Las Cruces, the Aggies use their size and physicality to eliminate the Pioneers. NMSU played well enough to win at Denver, but 18 turnovers cost the Aggies any chance and Denver eventually picked the Aggies apart. We have seen the Aggies shut down each of the top two seeds offensively, and in a tournament setting, NMSU does it again to advance to the final, where head coach Marvin Menzies is 2-1 in WAC title games.
Louisiana Tech was the No. 5 seed last year and reached the final. I’m going with this year’s No. 5 seed to also reach the final.
Utah State was swept by both Louisiana Tech and No. 4 Texas-Arlington this year but the Utah State Aggies were not healthy in both games against Arlington. I suppose my Utah State pick is predicated more in a lack of confidence in Louisiana Tech than belief that Utah State is the second best team in the conference. First Utah State needs to get past a good Arlington team in what is perhaps the most intriguing WAC quarterfinal on Thursday. If Utah State does advance, can the new kid on the block Bulldogs take down a WAC heavyweight? I’m not so sure considering the Bulldogs coming back down to earth over the weekend with convincing losses at NMSU and Denver. The Bulldogs are a good team, but a team that relies on jump shots falling — not a tried and true recipe for postseason success.
Perhaps it’s the fact that I picked NMSU and Utah State atop the league standings in the preseason or the idea of the two rivals meeting one last time for an automatic bid on the line. I know it’s the final I want to see.
I think NMSU wins rather easily given Utah State’s lack of depth after back-to-back games against pressing teams.
NMSU’s road through the WAC won’t be easy. I believe the Aggies could just as easily be eliminated on Thursday night. If they face Denver, it’s the true WAC championship game to me. NMSU has played defense each night this year with few exceptions.
Defense, in this case, wins championships.