New Mexico State opens Western Athletic Conference Tournament play against seventh-seeded Seattle on Thursday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev.
The Aggies, seeded second, could become the first team to win three straight WAC Tournament titles and head coach Marvin Menzies could become the first NMSU coach to make three consectuvie NCAA Tournament appearances since Neil McCarthy made five straight trips from 1990-94.
Following are five keys for the Aggies to accomplish their threepeat:
Start strong >> New Mexico State is 0-6 in games they trailed at halftime. The Aggies are 3-6 this season in games decided by six points or less. In WAC games, the Aggies trailed 37-28 at Missouri-Kansas City at the half, stormed back to tie the game in the final minute before a Daniel Mullings foul and an Aggies turnover led to a 68-66 loss. The Aggies were tied at Chicago State at halftime, but Chicago State got hot from 3-point range, hitting 7 of 8 from 3-point range to beat NMSU 86-81. The Aggies were tied at Texas-Pan American before pulling away and outscoring UTPA 45-28 in the second half. NMSU also lost two games in WAC play where the Aggies held halftime leads, at Idaho and at Utah Valley. NMSU led by seven with three minutes left at Utah Valley, but a 15-for-30 effort at the foul line doomed NMSU in a 66-61 overtime loss.
Previous NMSU teams have closed out games well. This year's club seems to prosper when they start fast but the Aggies should expect at least one tight game in Las Vegas, where the Aggies have been dominant for the most part, winning their six WAC Tournament games the past two years by an average of 14.3 points per game — 17 points per game in the championship contests, with an NCAA Tournament berth on the line.
Keep the POY out of foul trouble >> NMSU junior guard Daniel Mullings was named the WAC Player of the Year on Sunday, becoming the first Aggies player to do so since the school joined the WAC. With the extended suspension of point guard K.C. Ross-Miller, Mullings has added point guard to his countless responsibilities. On the defensive end, Mullings will either guard the opposing point guard or the team's best perimeter scorer. Freshmen Travon Landry and Ian Baker have played well in recent extended minutes, but head coach Marvin Menzies needs Mullings on the court as much as possible.
Play through the bigs >> Sim Bhullar was named last year's WAC Tournament Most Valuable Player and Aggies junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe has had a career year, earning second-team all-WAC honors this season. Bhullar has registered three consecutive double-doubles and has averaged 15 points and 12.7 rebounds the past three games on 57 percent shooting. Seattle and No. 3 Chicago State, a likely round 2 opponent, both play an undisciplined style of basketball. The Aggies need to avoid getting involved in a street ball contest and focus on getting the big men established early and often.
Lean on defense, rebounding >> While the Orleans Arena is considered a neutral court game, NMSU can control its effort on the defensive end and on the glass, two areas the Aggies normally excel in. NMSU finished the regular season second in scoring defense in WAC play, first in defensive field goal percentage, fifth in 3-point field goal percentage defense and first in rebounding margin. The Aggies can avoid an upset this week if they win in all of the above categories, even if they have an off night on the offensive end.
Business trip >> In their 12 WAC victories, NMSU won by an average of 18 points per game and only two of those victories were by fewer than 10 points. This year's team has been dominant at times, but their four league losses leave them open to doubters. WAC coaches and media picked the Aggies to win the regular season. They didn't. NMSU can now do what they were supposed to do in the regular season.