New Mexico State opens the 2013-14 season with three games in five days at the Outrigger Hotels and Rainbow Classic in Hawaii.
The opening weekend features games on back-to-back nights and then a game at midnight against former Western Athletic Conference rival Hawaii at midnight Tuesday Hawaii time on ESPN2.
The Aggies open the season on Friday at 11:30 p.m. against Western Michigan. It’s the first game in a season with high expectations in Las Cruces.
Here are five storylines as Marvin Menzies begins his seventh season at NMSU:
Building a program
Marvin Menzies has already experienced success in his first six years at New Mexico State. Menzies is 126-78 with three Western Athletic Conference Tournament championships and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
As time has progressed, the NMSU program appears to be right where Menzies wants it.
“The foundation is there now to really grow it to be a Top 25 program,” Menzies said. “There are still things that we need to really elevate it, but I think the winning is the one thing that will continue to push that.”
Menzies said from a community support standpoint, fundraising is at an all-time high. From a recruiting standpoint, this year’s club is Menzies most talented from top to bottom and there are at least five players sitting out this season who could be key contributors in future seasons.
“We have good support from what we have already done,” Menzies said. “I think we have it where we want it and now we can go out and really shock the world.”
Take the next step
NMSU was a unanimous choice to win the Western Athletic Conference this season.
Winning conference titles is the only sure way to reach the NCAA Tournament and the Aggies have proven capable of that. But with a weaker conference schedule, the Aggies have several opportunities this year to mix it up with high-level programs before getting to conference play.
The last time NMSU played a quality program, the Aggies trailed Saint Louis early on and were never a threat in last year’s NCAA Tournament first round.
NMSU has four games against ranked opponents this season, the annual home-and-home against No. 23 New Mexico as well as road games at No. 6 Arizona (Dec. 11) and No. 15 Gonzaga (Dec. 7). The Aggies also play at Colorado State on Nov. 30, another team that reached the Tournament last year.
“Those area all great opportunities but that’s what they are, they aren’t the season,” Menzies said. “I think we need to be in all four of those rivalry games. It would be great to win them all and at home I think we will be fine. The road is really where you find out what you are made of. If we go out and get blasted on the road, we probably aren’t the team we think we are right now.”
While victories against these schools is the goal, NMSU needs to show the ability to compete with good teams. It’s something the Aggies could take with them into the postseason. If the wins come, all the better. It could mean a difference between a 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament to an 11 or 12 seed.
“You don’t have to win all of those games but you can’t go out and get blown out,” Menzies said. “Give yourself a chance in the last five minutes.”
Point guard play
This position has been a weak point since four-year starter Hernst Laroche graduated. Laroche wasn’t a dominant player but he was solid at the position, capable of guarding his position and running the offense.
The Aggies need the same this year.
Junior K.C. Ross-Miller and freshman Travon Landry enter the season looking like a time share at the position until one steps forward. Coaches also like freshman Ian Baker, who has been described as more of an offensive threat at the position and could join the team at some point when cleared by the NCAA.
Aggies point guards couldn’t handle pressure against good backcourts last year and it led to bad shot selection and turnovers.
NMSU needs to be better here in order to meet the expectations that fans have for the season.
Balancing the offense
We know that 7-foot-5 sophomore center Sim Bhullar and senior power forward Renaldo Dixon can score around the basket and crash the offensive glass, where the Aggies collected 12 offensive rebounds per game. The Aggies also got to the foul line 832 times (fourth in the country).
But often teams would pack the paint and force the Aggies to beat them from the perimeter.
The Aggies added DK Eldridge, who is a tremendous athlete but also appears to be more polished offensively. Senior guard Kevin Aronis and sophomore wing Matej Buovac combined for nine made 3-pointers in the Aggies exhibition win over Western New Mexico. With slashers like Eldridge and junior Daniel Mullings and willing passers out of the post like Bhullar, the Aggies hope to be able to make teams pay for packing the paint.
“We will become more balanced,” said Mullings, the WAC Preseason Player of the Year. “We have shooters who can shoot a little bit. That will benefit everyone. There will be opportunities to dump into the bigs and then you have the drive and kick from the guards to find the shooters and the big men.”
Mullings is a competitive player and in his third season is a natural leader. He will have to keep his team focused on a nightly basis when the Aggies enter league play.
Gone are established programs like Utah State. Seattle finished last in the league last year but the Redhawks were picked in the top half of the conference this season.
The team’s RPI will likely dip once the Aggies enter conference play, but the Aggies are a veteran group that should finish well clear of the rest of the league for the first outright league championship under Menzies.
“It’s about time, this is what we have been practicing all of this time for,” Mullings said. “We are ready.”