Marvin Menzies said earlier this week he’s going to rely on his seniors and enjoy the ride.
I’m joining in.
I’m picking New Mexico State to win this week’s WAC Tournament in Las Vegas, avenging two league losses to top-seeded Nevada in Saturday’s final.
The Aggies have three seniors who have done it before.
Nevada has two seniors who lost to NMSU in the WAC quarterfinals last year.
There is no doubt that Nevada has enough talent to march through this week’s tournament like the Wolf Pack marched to a 13-1 mark and the regular season title. You could argue that Nevada has four of the Top 5 players in the league. There is not much there after those four guys, however. The question with Nevada remains, will they have enough left to win three games in three days?
But NMSU’s superior depth is not why I like NMSU to advance to the Big Dance.
In defeat, I believe the Aggies have shown glimpses of what a Game 3 could look like if it comes to pass on Saturday.
Turnovers were costly in both games against the Wolf Pack. In the second game, a lack of patience on offense in the first half and a lack of offensive production for much of the second half dug a hole the Aggies still nearly overcame.
Outside of WAC Player of the Year Deonte Burton, the Wolf Pack supporting cast cannot handle the Aggies’ pressure on the perimeter. If Saturday’s final is close, the Aggies will likely take every opportunity to get the ball out of Burton’s hands late.
Offensively, the Aggies need to do a better job converting offensive rebounds into points against the Wolf Pack. NMSU collected 17 and 18 offensive boards in the two meetings against Nevada yet they weren’t converted to points on either occasion with just 11 second-chance points in the second game.
Everyone wants to see Nevada and NMSU play for a championship on Saturday, but neither team has a guaranteed road to the final.
Although NMSU’s first-round opponent, Fresno State, gave the Aggies a scare on Saturday, I think Thursday’s quarterfinal will be a more decisive NMSU victory. From a talent standpoint, Fresno State has one player who could play at NMSU — maybe. Also, the Aggies proved they could come from behind and win, yet the Fresno game provided a wake up call that although talented, the Aggies aren’t good enough to do it time after time.
Look for a more focused team this week, due to senior leadership.
Hawaii guard Zane Johnson is reportedly not traveling (illness), making Idaho’s first-round game slightly easier for the Vandals.
NMSU should advance past the Vandals for two reasons.
First, it’s Idaho.
The Aggies are 9-2 against Idaho under Menzies, including a 2008 first-round victory.
Regarding this year’s Idaho team, a quality opponent to be sure, the Vandals’ outstanding balance offensively could play against them. Unlike the other Top 4 teams in the bracket, Idaho doesn’t have that player who can get hot and score 20-25 points to carry the Vandals. Idaho’s strengths is size and 3-point shooting. NMSU’s strengths are size and 3-point defense.
Nevada will likely face No. 4 Utah State in the other semifinal.
On paper, I like Nevada.
But Nevada fans had to cringe when Stew Morrill’s club wrapped up the No. 4 seed. Utah State is not as talented as past years, but they still have the WAC’s best coach in a neutral court game. Not to mention one of the hottest offensive players in the league in guard Preston Medlin.
Last year, I wrote that the Aggies were not ready to win the title, mostly due to the absence of NMSU senior Wendell McKines.
McKines was on the bench as the Aggies were bounced in last year’s semifinals.
“It was a free trip to Vegas,” McKines said. “Just being in the environment and being able to suit up with my teammates, I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”
Jason Groves can be reached at (575) 541-5459. Follow him on Twitter @jpgroves.