Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Breaking down the 2011-12 hoops schedule

Here are my highlights of the schedule with my predictions at the end.

At first glance, if the Aggies don't win 20 games with this schedule, I would say something is wrong and/or the Aggies have suffered another multitude of injuries. With UNC losing what they did, I think the most challenging games are the Lobos, Miners, a potential game vs. Murray State and Arizona. The Northern Colorado game will be tough just because it's the first game and it's on the road, but the Bears lost virtually everyone from the team that beat NMSU on Bracket Buster weekend. The Aggies have to at least split with the rivalry teams, not only because there are few chances for quality wins, but because of a horrendous record recently against the rivals including 0-4 last year.

While the schedule is not as challenging as last year's, it also has potential to be difficult, especially early on. I wouldn't be surprised if the Aggies started 0-2 with road games at Northern Colorado and New Mexico. I think the Aggies are due to return the favor of a Miner sweep and I like the idea of a rivalry game starting things off at home on Nov. 19 before going to Alaska. The Northern Colorado game will be tough even though they lost a lot, but it's still the Aggies first game of the year and for whatever reason, this program isn't known for getting off to fast starts. I think there will still be some time where guys are figuring out their roles, but the Aggies should have enough experience to open with a win.

The Great Alaska Shootout doesn't have any big name schools, but if things play out the right way, the Aggies can get a lot out of it. Central Michigan sophomore guard Trey Zeigler was ranked in the Top 30 guards by ESPN in high school but elected to play for his father, Ernie Zeigler at Central Michigan. Central Michigan went 10-21 last year and 7-9 in the Mid American Conference. Zeigler is their best returner in terms of offense, scoring 16.3 ppg to lead the team.

A win on Thursday would set up the first of two meetings on the season against Southern Mississippi if they beat Irvine. Southern Miss went 22-10 last year and reached the quarterfinals of the Conference USA tournament.  Southern Miss outrebounded its opponents by eight per game and held opponents to 65 ppg. They had nine players who played double digit minutes per game. Five of them were seniors. DJ Newbill was third on the team in scoring as a freshman and USC transfer Angelo Johnson was fourth and was a 41 percent 3-point shooter.

The Aggies then would hope for a matchup with either Murray State or San Francisco. Murray State vs. NMSU would be a quality game for the tournament and for the Aggies. Murray State went to the NCAA's two years ago. Murray State was 23-9 and 14-4 in the Ohio Valley Conference last year. Eight Murray State players played at least 16 minutes per game last year. Five of them return, including leading scorer Isaiah Cannan (11.7 ppg) There were five players who started at least 20 games and three of them return.  Murray State  only scored 68 points per game last year but their opponents scored 61 per game. They also appear to be a good 3-point shooting team, shooting 38 percent as a team but only Canaan (40 percent shooter) and Donte Poole (34 percent) return as players who attempted at least 65 3s.

  San Francisco would be interesting because Wendell McKines originally committed to play there but came to NMSU instead and developed into one of the better players Menzies has coached here.

Going 2-1 at least in Alaska is not only possible, but it's a must. Obviously the Aggies are capable of going 3-0. I think the tournament is a waste if they lose to Central Michigan in their opening game, then you drop down to take on Irvine and aren't getting the most of the tournament.

I have the Aggies losing to Arizona at home on Nov. 29 in the marquee home game of the non conference season. Under ideal circumstances, the Aggies would have more than two days from traveling from Alaska after three games in three days to rest and get ready for Arizona. If travel and legs were even, it would be a great matchup of a top recruiting class at Arizona vs. a seasoned NMSU team full of juniors and seniors. The Aggies could still catch the Wildcats in the midst of trying to figure things out with new players.

Outside of the rivalry games and Arizona, the Dec. 21 home game against McNeese State has me excited. McNeese went 21-12 and 11-5 in the Southland. Former Lobo Will Brown joins the team and their leading scorer Patrick Richard returns. McNeese shot a ton of 3s last year and scored 74 ppg so it could be an up and down game.

From what I have read, the Lobos will be one of the top teams in the Mountain West this year, maybe even more complete a team than Alford's group two years ago that went to the tournament. It's true that the Lobos haven't had to deal with Wendell McKines, but the Aggies didn't face 6-9, 245 senior Drew Gordon, who sat out last year's rivalry games after transferring from UCLA. He went on to average 14 and 12 in MWC play. Arizona State transfer Demetrius Walker joins the team this year and Phillip McDonald is a senior who has had some big games vs. NMSU.

UTEP seems to be rebuilding after having lost several players left over from the Barbee era. Tim Floyd will be good, but the Aggies will have a substantial experience advantage over the Miners. I have the Aggies sweeping the Miners for the first time since 2006. But they have to at least gain a split. A sweep in NMSU's favor is more possible this year than any since Menzies has been here.

Too many cupcakes after returning from Alaska will give the Aggies wins on their record, including two games against teams that won't even count in their RPI. You can pencil in wins against the likes of Western New Mexico, Southern, Pine Bluff, Southern Mississippi on the road, Bakersfield twice and Northern New Mexico. That's seven games where the Aggies are playing inferior competition.

I have the Aggies finishing the season 24-8 and 10-4 in WAC play.

As I've written the last few months, I have a lot of doubts about this year's NMSU team. Having said that, I think they can realistically enter WAC play 13-2. It wouldn't surprise me if they did that, but I was overly optimistic last year as well so I'm going to temper my expectations. There were three games where I thought could go either way so I have the Aggies entering WAC play at 12-3 with losses in the championship game in Alaska vs. Murray State, home loss toArizona and at New Mexico. I could also see McNeese State beating the Aggies at home but they lost a lot of experience from last year's team.

The Aggies have lost seven straight to the Lobos and haven't won in Albuquerque since 2002. The losing will continue in the Pit this year, but hopefully this experienced group won't be shaken by the Pit like the last couple of years.

The Aggies open at home with win over UTEP to move to 2-1 heading to Alaska, where they advance to the final and lose to Murray State to return home at 4-2. They hang with Arizona but lose a good game. They win road games at Southern Miss and UTEP and then have five straight home games. NMSU can and should go 5-0, getting off the losing streak vs the Lobos with a win to improve to 11-3 and get people excited hopefully even though the Lobos game occurs during the break. NMSU can enter Conference at 12-3 — an optimistic start that includes a 12-game win streak.

10-4 in league would put the Aggies in the mix for the regular season title this year. I have them losing at Nevada and Utah State to split with those schools. They normally drop one on the San Jose/Hawaii swing, I think they will lose at a good Hawaii team after beating San Jose on the way out.  I like Idaho  this year and could see the Aggies dropping the road game at Moscow this year. The Aggies have a home BracketBuster game. If they are anywhere near the win total I have projected for them, it could be a quality team (hopefully not Pacific again) I gave them the win there since they have it at home and have been good in BracketBuster games that actually matter

Friday, September 16, 2011

Looking at the NMSU bench

I am picking Nevada first and NMSU second. Nevada has four of the best 10 players in the WAC but they aren't nearly as deep as the Aggies. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

The Aggies' depth resides in their front court. NMSU has potential to drive teams crazy with length in their zone and full court trap, which could provide a lot of easy baskets. The backcourt isn't as deep as replacing Gordo Castillo could prove difficult.

Rotation guys to start season
Guards: Freshmen Terrel de Rouen and Daniel Mullings — At the time I'm writing this, KC Ross-Miller and Sim Bhullar haven't been cleared. Marvin Menzies was in Europe last week recruiting so I haven't had a chance to ask about Bhullar seeing the court this year if he was cleared. Of all the players on the roster, Bhullar is the one most likely to play in the NBA or at least get drafted. He won't be here for four years. His sister originally said he would pay his own way this year and redshirt for next year, which seems like the best plan since the Aggies do have depth in the frontcourt. Ross-Miller could likely get on the court in a back up role as well whenever he's cleared, but Terrel de Rouen could be a local player who plays a role. I don't know how much high school basketball you've watched, but I would say de Rouen was more athletic than any guard on last year's team except maybe CK. Daniel Mullings could be further ahead than Eric Weary at this point, although Weary is more of a shooter, which is a glaring weakness as the season begins.

Wings: Freshman Remi Barry and junior Bandja Sy — Menzies can ride whichever French player has the hot hand. At least early on, that’s how I see this position playing out. Sy is a bench player who the Aggies needed in the starting lineup after Wendell McKines got hurt. He started 20 games last year, averaging 17 minutes per game. The minutes dried up as the season went on but he did show amazing improvement from year 1 to year 2. It seemed like he got lost a lot defensively. I think one way he can find the court consistently is if he improves on last year's 19-of-70 (27 percent) shooting from long range. Perhaps a year under his belt will help his confidence.
I’m just as intrigued as Aggies fans are about Remi Barry. Afterall, a player who was apparently considering St. Johns, Arizona State and UCLA must be worth the wait right?  He hasn’t played competitive basketball, at least by my estimation, since his junior year in high school at American Heritage in Florida. He transferred to a high school in California but couldn’t play his senior year and he sat out at NMSU last year. I think the jury is still out on  him but at 6-7, I’m sure he has the physical tools to contribute at some point. But I don’t think coaches consider him a savior or are putting additional pressure on him.

Frontcourt: Sophomore Tshilidzi Nephawe, Sophomore Renaldo Dixon and junior BJ West — The Aggies are loaded in the frontcourt. Along with Christian Kabongo, Renaldo Dixon and BJ West are the two other players I’m looking forward to seeing. I think Dixon may be a starter as a junior and West is a great energy player coming off the bench. West only averaged 9 minutes per game last year but he had 22 blocks (third on the team) and pulled down 3.3 rebounds per game.  I think Dixon may be the better offensive threat, which could give him an edge at the outset, but both can play multiple positions and back up Rahman, Nephawe and McKines with confidence.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

First look at NMSU roster

While practice doesn't begin for another month, today was the first time teams can use some of their allotted court time as a complete team practice rather than groups of four.

This is how the roster looks to me so far, although it will probably change before the season and then even into the season as younger players start to feel more comfortable.

Starting five
C — Hamidu Rahman
PF — Wendell McKines
SF — Tyrone Watson
SG — Christian Kabongo
PG — Hernst Laroche

The way I think about the makeup of this team is three or possibly four guys have to play great every night for the Aggies to have a chance to win the league. Those three are obviously seniors Wendell McKines, Hernst Laroche and Hamidu Rahman. I'll throw in Tshilidzi Nephawe as well. As I've written before, I'm not sold on the team's ability to score, but I think they have the players who are capable of defending. Whether or not they can focus on that end and rebounding for an entire season remains to be seen. It didn't happen last year, as the Aggies had the same size they have now and were even  in rebounding margin for the season. That should change with the return of McKines, who if he would have played to his average of 8.4 boards per game last year, he would have led the team by almost two rebounds per game. They are going to need McKines to score however. I could see him get into the 15-18 ppg realm. His career high is 22 and he's a career 9.5 ppg player shooting 50 percent from the floor. But with the absence of a dominant scorer on the team, perhaps McKines' focus to score will take him away from the other things he does well ie, rebounding and making players around him better by doing all of the little things.

Last year was a wasted season for Hamidu Rahman due to a calf injury that he never recovered from. Rahman averaged 10 ppg and 8 rebounds per game as a sophomore. Nephawe didn't prove to be much of a rebounder as a freshman at 4.4 per game. His fitness level never got to a point to dominate a game. He could have played all the minutes he could handle with Rahman's injury, but still averaged just 18 minutes per game. Still though, any combination of Rahman and Nephawe could yield 15 plus points combined and 10-15 rebounds per game. Perhaps Nephawe will start and finish games since he was a 76 percent free throw shooter last year. Or Rahman could start as a senior with Nephawe finishing games. It doesn't matter. The Aggies need production from this position and it doesn't seem like the WAC is loaded with frontcourt talent so it should be possible.

Laroche has started every game since he's been here. To think that Ross-Miller would unseat him is ridiculous, but he certainly needs a backup, whether it's Ross-Miller if and when he's cleared, or freshman Terell de Rouen. Laroche is at his best with weapons around him. He was asked to score last year and didn't seem up to it. His numbers were good, shooting 44 and 34 percent from 3-point range but  his career scoring season of 11 ppg wasn't good enough and it won't be good enough this year. Unless a young player emerges in the backcourt as a perimeter threat, I think Laroche needs to be in the 15 ppg realm this year.

CK is one player who should, and who needs to, provide perimeter scoring. CK was the only player capable of getting into the lane and creating for teammates, but he was terrible from the field (19 percent from 3-point range) and committed a turnover (82) for every assist he had (82). The thing I liked last year about CK and hope he carried into his sophomore year, is his willingness to play defense. I thought he did a good job on Randy Culpepper. With CK and Laroche at the top of the zone to begin games and pestering teams in the backcourt of their trap could be pretty good. You would think that a college player would put the time in the gym addressing a 19 percent effort from 3-point range. If so, I think CK could be between 10-13 ppg.

Tyrone Watson does everything for this team. He was playing way out of position last year at the four spot and was still fifth in scoring (7.6), second in steals (39), third in assists (71) and third in rebounding (4.9 rpg). McKines' return means Watson can move to his natural position on the wing. I think Watson is capable of getting to the 8-10 ppg mark.

If you look at the high end of my estimate, the Aggies starting five is capable of putting up 71 points per game. Not a bad output but that's based on every player increasing his production significantly over  a period of time.

Even if they fall short of offensive production, all five starters do have the ability to defend their position. If they rebound, they could cut down on the 44 percent opponents shot against them last year. Not bad, but the Aggies also shot 44 percent, which I believe shows they were happy to exchange baskets. Added up to a .500 season.

I'll look at the bench in a blog entry on Friday.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Troy Gillenwater

Here is my story on Troy Gillenwater, who signed a contract earlier this week with Cyprus League team Apollon Limassol.

I have found myself in the minority about Gillenwater and what effect it will have on the Aggies this season. He was a Top 10 talent in the WAC throughout the past four years I've been covering NMSU.

Time for a random Top 15 list. Top 15 WAC players I've seen in person. (Last four seasons)

1. Luke Babbitt, Nevada (Lottery pick who didn't crack a rotation.
2. Jaycee Carroll, Utah State (If he was three inches taller.....)
3. Paul George, Fresno State (I wasn't impressed with George in college, but he was the best player on the court when he tried and ended up starting for a playoff team)
4. Justin Hawkins, NMSU (Hawkins had everything you could ask for, post offense and defense, rebounding and got better from the perimeter as his senior season went on)
5. Troy Gillenwater, NMSU (Gillenwater came off the bench as a sophomore. With Young and Wendell on last year's team, he could have been better. Wasn't well suited for the toll of being the man every night)
6. Armon Johnson, Nevada (Surprise when he was drafted but his size was the difference. But he was a great defensive player and got wherever he needed to go on the court)
7. Adrian Oliver, San Jose State (better getting to the basket than JY, often played the point)
8. Marcelus Kemp, Nevada
9. Reggie Larry, Boise State
10. Wendell McKines, NMSU (Doesn't have the perimeter skills that Kemp and Larry did, both of whom were around his size)
11. Jahmar Young, NMSU
12. Gary Wilkinson, Utah State
13. Tai Wesley, Utah State
14. Greg Smith, Fresno State
15. Jonathan Gibson, NMSU