Saturday's BracketBuster game against Drake could be a fun game to watch. Both teams like to get up and down the court. Drake averages 67 possessions per 40 minutes. Drake makes 7 3s per game and score 28 percent of their points from 3-point range. NMSU averages 72 possessions per 40 minutes. We know the Aggies are not in Drake's class when it comes to shooting, but the Aggies obviously like to push the tempo and due to injuries throughout the season, Drake enters the game as an undersized team. Jordan Clarke is 6-8 and leads the team with 6.9 rpg. He's a good undersized player, but he appears to be the only post oriented player on the team. Drake rebounds 49 percent of available rebounds, NMSU is at 69 percent. Rebounding rate (percentage of opponents missed shots rebounded successfully) Clarke is Drake's best player at 19.98. Hamidu Rahman (18.87) and Wendell McKines (19.47) will be difficult for Drake on the boards, along with Chili Nephawe (13.69).
The long ball will be the key to this game. The Aggies are tops in the WAC in 3-point defense (29 percent). Drake shoots 38 percent. NMSU is accustomed to playing good 3-point shooting teams in the WAC. But I believe Drake's number of skilled guards are better collectively than any team in the WAC. In the past four games, Drake has started Clark, Aaron Hawley (38.2 3 pt), Jeremy Jeffers (46 3pt) leading scorer at 16.3 ppg Rayvonte Rice (24 percent) and Karl Madison at point guard (31 percent). Senior point guard Kurt Alexander (40 percent) gets starters minutes off the bench. Drake head coach Mark Phelps told me on Friday that second leading scorer at 16 ppg and a 41 percent 3-point shooter Ben Simons will not play (Mono). The Drake SID said he believes Simons is traveling with the team, but Phelps said he has yet to be cleared and "definitely not playing" Hawley is similar in body type to Simons but Drake's offense revolved around Simons. Without him in the lineup, Rice will be a key player. At 6-4, 240 pounds, Rice is built like Tyrone Watson and plays the shooting guard position. He's good at getting into the lane, leads the team with 156 free throw attempts and has hit 4 of his last 6 from downtown.
While the Aggies haven't played against a player like Rice or Simons, I think they match up well with Drake and should ultimately pull out a victory in a game in the mid-70s. Watson can guard Rice, he's guarded perimeter players before. Rice has been posting players up and that shouldn't be factor against Watson if the Aggies play man. Rahman and Nephawe should be able to wear down Clark, McKines should have his way on the offensive end against Hawley although Clarke/McKines would be a fun matchup to watch. Alexander is a senior coming off the bench for the freshman Madison. Laroche should do well against either one and Mullings is long enough to guard the 6-6 Jeffers. Jeffers is a freshman so perhaps the Aggies can also take advantage of the versatility and length of Bandja Sy as well.
Drake coach Mark Phelps:
"My first thought was that I knew New Mexico State is traditionally a powerful program and they were having a good year this year. They are very physical and athletic team. They are a big time rebounding team and McKines is a walking double double who does everything."
Phelps went on to compare NMSU to MVC power Wichita State in terms of size, which he gave the edge to NMSU in size and athletic ability. Drake is 2-2 without Simons.
“With Mono, it’s a cut-and-dry thing,” Phelps said. “He’s over the symptoms but until the spleen is down to its normal size, he won’t be cleared. Right now, it’s not. He is definitely not playing and we will keep getting him checked. ... It just took a while for us to play without him. We looked unorganized and had no rhythm on offense. He score it but it's also the type of teammate he is. He's a good passer and all of the intangibles. I feel like we have adjusted well. We have played pretty good defensively the last two games. That is what has helped us."
Drake seems like a man to man team. It will be interesting to see how many ball screens they try to free Rice up and if they front Rahman, McKines and Nephawe.
"Clarke is kind of like the bigs we went against at Southern Mississippi. They have similar games and are successful against bigger players. They are undersized kids who can really play," Marvin Menzies said. "It poses a challenge for them to guard us. We just have to do a good job spacing and getting inside outside looks like we did last game."
Southern Miss was successful against the Aggies on the offensive boards in two of the Aggies 8 losses. Although the Aggies are the No. 3 rebounding team in the country, Menzies said the Aggies haven't been as sharp.
"I don't think we have been," Menzies said. "It's one of the things we have to do a better job of. But we have to whether in man or zone. We have a tendency to be a little more concerned with offensive transition and not securing the ball first. It's a common mistake when guys are a little more concerned with their offense."
Drake is a quality team in a quality league (MVC currently sporting a No. 8 RPI ranking). Drake is a little desperate as well,tied for fourth and trying to avoid a first-day game in the MVC tournament , where they have played the past three years. For the Aggies, Drake is a good transition back into conference play with games against good shooting teams fresno, Nevada, Hawaii and the WAC tourney.
"It's very similar to a lot of the WAC teams," Menzies said. "They put up a lot of 3-pointers and get most of their scoring from their guards. That part of the preparation will be good for us, especially going into the last few games. We have some teams we have to defend the 3 point line on in Nevada, Fresno and Hawaii."
Here is my preview story on the game and following are some additional comments from Thursday.
Mark Phelps on the BracketBuster
"I think it's a good concept, especially for us to step outside of conference, just for freshness against another opponent. It's matchups we wouldn't otherwise schedule."
"Every year when the schedule comes out, you know about the BracketBuster game. You kind of look forward to it at this point. Its something different, going against a quality opponent at this time of year. I look forward to it. ... They can shoot it one through four. Its not going to be hard for us to prepare for this type of team. Just have to put the proper amount of focus into this team and this game and just try to have fun. It’s a bracket buster game on ESPNU. ... You get up for every game. This is what pays for our scholarship. But I would be lying if I said the ESPN games isn’t more fun. Its more fun knowing your family is watching and the whole city of Las Cruces is watching if it’s a road game. ... For the most part they are undersized. A lot of teams we play are undersized so our focus remains the same. Get it inside, crash the glass and cut down on the turnovers. That’s a formula for success for us.
On the prospect of reaching 20 wins
"For the most part, every thing above .500 is a success and 20 wins, that body of work speaks for itself. ... For us, it’s a little different. I don’t know if chasing down Nevada is a focus as much as after this game we have two more games in the Pan Am so we better win them. That’s more our focus right now. After that, it is going to be easier for us to shift our focus to that. ... My journey here has been a little different. To see it start to wind down, it’s funny a little bit. But we are on to the next game and we have to focus on the next game but at the same it, this journey is almost over. Sprinters, I’m pretty sure they know they are on their last lap. I better go harder. You start to appreciate everything day by day."
On sitting out against Northern New Mexico on Thursday
"It was great. I enjoyed cheering on my teammates and watching us get the victory and not having to get treatment after the game on my back and worrying about my foot. It was good to get that rest and get prepared for this final stretch. It was a mutual decision between me and the coaching staff to shut me down. They say I have a motor so I guess I needed a tuneup."
On that crazy sequence where he got tripped, rolled, blocked a 3-point attempt by Utah State's Preston Medlin and got the lay up at the other end.
"It was just survival mode just kicked in. I fell. You just have to get up. I switched on the shooting guard. I got screened from the back and didn’t see it. I was trying to get over it. I tripped and I tripped like a cart wheel. While I was falling, I saw him getting ready to shoot. I just blocked it with the momentum. That was from the back so I just wanted to tip it."
On his career winding down
"I focus on every game. Every game is the last for me. I’m more about senior night will be senior night."
"Anytime you get chance to play a new opponent you should be excited about that. I think it adds a different flavor to get the guys a little pick me up. Now you look at the potential benefits of winning this game and what that might add at the end of the season. ... I think the fact that we once competed in that league and there is some familiarity with the conference. They are currently in fourth place. It’s a very good conference with potential to put multiple teams in the tournament. Not just playing a new opponent but a very good opponent is critical as well."