It hasn’t been the easiest fall sports season at New Mexico State University.
A change in the presidential seat took place and athletically NMSU hasn’t particularly excelled, starting with a tough 2012 football season.
Fans have been left searching for something to cheer about.
Perhaps even those on campus are seeking a morale boost.
A boost that could very well be found with the 2012-13 NMSU men’s basketball team.
I’m going to stop short of saying the Aggies must reach the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four years and for the second straight March. But a successful season for the school’s prominent athletics program could do wonders for the school’s profile.
It would also send a message to incoming WAC programs that the road to a league title comes directly through Las Cruces — especially with the departure of Utah State after this season.
Coaches and players put enough pressure on themselves as is, so such commentary might not spark any additional fire. But I also feel it’s nothing this year’s team can’t handle.
Western Athletic Conference coaches picked the Aggies to win the league. Conference media selected them second.
There are certainly a number of question marks entering the season, but there is reason to believe the Aggies are capable of returning to the NCAA Tournament while the WAC still resembles the league NMSU joined in 2005.
Despite the uncertainty of its athletic future, the WAC appears to have survived as a non-basketball league for 2013-14. Basketball players want, at the very least, to play in a league with an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Independent schools can still qualify for the Big Dance, but it’s more difficult when you consider such schools have to put together a schedule that will put them on the map from an RPI standpoint, while also winning enough of those games to gain entry.
For WAC newcomer Seattle, it’s a headache that head coach Cameron Dollar no longer has to worry about.
“I actually enjoyed the challenge of playing as an independent,” he said. “It was unique going in and out of different conferences. We handled it well for the three years. As far as the WAC, it’s great for our branding and externally it was a key step in showing the progress we made as a program.”
Seattle and Denver could develop into top-tier WAC programs in the future.
New Mexico State already is one. Aggie fans and the community need it to stay that way.
Daniel Mullings and the Aggies scrimmaged on Saturday afternoon. Photo by Niki Rhynes
Decent turnout on Saturday for the Aggies Crimson vs. White scrimmage.
One person in attendance was 2013 prospect Josh Braun, a 6-5 wing from the Phoenix area. This was Braun's first official visit with offers from NMSU San Diego, Weber State to name a few. Has taken a number of unofficial visits to Santa Barbara, Irvine, Northern Arizona. Here is a link to a ranking of Arizona prospects from January that ranks Braun No. 4 despite the fact that he suffered a torn ACL last spring. It didn't stop him from attending Westwind Prep this year, where he will return to the court after surgery on May 24. Interesting note on the ranking was that Joe Boyd, another Phoenix prospect was an Aggies commit last year but is now committed to Drake, a team NMSU handled last year.
"It's been very humbling and opens your eyes," said Braun when talking about his injury and the road to recovery.
Braun said he doesn't plan to sign early next month. He is a 4.4 GPA student who says his strength is shooting. He was a productive player at Boulder Creek High School (22 and 10 last year) the past three years but a big year at Westwind against Junior College competition and other prep schools should increase the interest in the young man.
"Menzies has recruited me since my freshman year in high school. He has always been nice toward me and my family. I have known about the program. They are always improving. The tournament is definitely a factor. As a young player, you dream about playing in the Tournament."
Onto the scrimmage itself.
The teams were mixed throughout the course of the 32 minute game but some extremely unofficial stats.
Sim Bhullar 7 points, 1-2 FT
Bandja Sy 20 points
KC Ross-Miller 5 points
Terrel de Rouen 8 points
Chili Nephawe 8 points 2-2 FT
Matej Buovac 4 points
Daniel Mullings 15 points 4-7 FT
Renaldo Dixon 13 points 4-4 FT
BJ West 9 points 2-2 FT
Tyrone Watson 6 points
Things I noticed....
Aggies hit at least 10 3s that I counted. I may have missed some from either Weary or Aronis, but the Aggies clearly have more people this year able to hit the perimeter shot. de Rouen made a 3, West made one, Dixon hit one, Sy knocked one down as well. Wouldn't say it's a strength, but outside shooting will be more of a compliment this year I feel. At least there are guys who can come in and not allow teams to pack the paint.
More room to operate could be big for this year's club as I was impressed with my first look at KC Ross Miller, who I believe may have the jump on de Rouen to start with. de Rouen certainly belongs here, but Ross Miller seemed more in control. He looks like he prefers to get into the lane and once there has impressive vision, setting up Sy on one occasion in transition.
Hard to tell anything from a defensive standpoint from a scrimmage. Sim Bhullar blocked nearly everything close to him. You have to wonder if he can block BJ West and Chili Nephawe, how often will he be up against that kind of size in the WAC. Bhullar had a couple put backs and a 6-foot hook shot dropped for him with his right hand. He also kicked the ball out a couple times if nothing was there which is good to see from a center instead of forcing a bad shot up.
You could tell who the seniors where. Tyrone Watson and Bandja Sy were the best players on the court to me. Watson looked good either trailing from the power forward spot or directing traffic in the half court. Sy did a little big of everything, knocking down 3s and getting to the rim. Could be a dominant player in the WAC if he's motivated every night.
I think Renaldo Dixon played very well. Doesn't look lost on defense and has versatility offensively. BJ West could have a role with this team. Very energetic player. Knocked down a 3. A lot of big bodies though for playing time. Daniel Mullings was solid on Saturday. He played some point guard, made some good things happen but had some turnovers trying to force things. Like I said, Mullings didn't stand out to me but perhaps we are a bit spoiled. He was very solid on Saturday.
Junior forward Renaldo Dixon has been buried behind players like Wendell McKines and Troy Gillenwater at the power forward position. He's an intriguing talent that could get a look this year.
The Aggies have a scrimmage on Saturday at 1 p.m. According to head coach Marvin Menzies on Twitter, some players could sit early on due to learn a lesson. Other than that, here are three things I'm looking forward to.
Starting with 7-5 Sim Bhullar, I'm interested to see what the new faces could or will bring to the table. With his size, Bhullar could be a game changer at the defensive end as part of the puzzle with a ton of length on the perimeter as well with Watson, Sy and Mullings. At 7-5, you would think he will be productive offensively around the basket and on the offensive boards. I want to see how well he moves offensively and how long he can get up and down the court. Both point guards are new to the team. KC Ross-Miller sat last year out and Terrel de Rouen missed the year to injury. They are working to replace Hernst Laroche, who was underrated as a four year starter. Laroche wasn't flashy but you knew every night what he was going to do at an important position. I think Ross-Miller and de Rouen each bring different things to the table, but I think it will take time for both to get to that level. Also looking forward to see if either JC transfer Kevin Aronis or freshman Eric Weary can provide the shooting touch off the bench this team missed last year.
Returners in new roles
The Aggies will go as far as Daniel Mullings, Chili Nephawe, Tyrone Watson and Bandja Sy will take them. Mullings and Watson I think will be solid but Nephawe and Sy are players who you would like to see take another step this year. Both have been able to have big nights, but just as easily have disappeared for long stretches. Mullings is a first team preseason pick who people are excited about. He will have more expected of him this year so it will be interesting to see how he responds.
Renaldo Dixon is a player I'm hoping can play a bigger role. At 6-8, Dixon is taller than Wendell McKines, which you would think could translate to helping replace the 10 rebounds per game McKines brought every night. The question is will he get the opportunity to do that and will he take advantage of the opportunity?
Shooting and defense
I'm sure we won't get too much of an idea on the Aggies' defensive strategy until the games start. But we can still see how the big guys defend ball screens, who can guard on the ball and who can't and who can grab a rebound to put a period on the possession like Wendell McKines liked to say. Also looking forward to seeing some open shots go down from the likes of Sy, Aronis Weary and Buovac.
Wanted to get your thoughts on the WAC poll. My first thought is about Denver. I don't mind them at No. 3 but I don't understand it either. They were a mid-tier Sun Belt team last year and they don't have a lot of size. At any rate, here are the polls that were released today.
Ahead of Saturday's first look at the Aggies in their Crimson v. White scrimmage on Saturday, here is my best guess at an early depth chart with nearly 2 weeks of practice.
BJ West-Tyrone Watson
Eric Weary-Remi Barry-Matej Buovac
KC Ross-Miller-Terrel de Rouen
My understanding is that the point guard position is still up for grabs so that spot is yet to be determined. A lot of depth everywhere else, however. Looking forward to see Weary, Barry and Buovac on Saturday. I've asked about the possibility of redhirting Dixon, Sy and Buovac. Dixon is playing too well I believe to sit out. a perfect world would allow Sy to sit out a year but the Aggies need him too much this year. With Aronis arriving and the fact that Weary and Barry have each sat a year already, it will be interesting to see if the Aggies use Buovac like they did Weary last year, where he traveled with the team, practiced with the team but never saw the court.
I also learned that Remi Barry has been working at the four spot this year. There was hope that perhaps Bandja Sy could play more there, but now he can stay on the perimeter. We still don't know what Barry is capable of, but it sounds like he is competing with Renaldo Dixon for time at the 4 behind Tyrone Watson. I'm curious to see what Dixon brings to the table as well. He hasn't gotten a chance for one reason or another, but he has more a different skill set than Wendell McKines brought to the table and more size at 6-8, 6-9. Barry showed the ability to hit the outside shot last year, so he's obviously versatile enough to play on the wing as well. Could be one of many positions worth paying attention to during Saturday's Crimon v White scrimmage.
Which brings us to the point guard spot, which Menzies said neither sophomore transfer KC Ross Miller nor freshman Terrel de Rouen has pulled away in practice after a week. Since I saw the last half of de Rouen's high school career, I hope he does well and I was glad to see him land at NMSU. Very athletic and explosive player. Ross-Miller has been described to me as more of a cerebral player. Menzies said as the season goes on, he may have to rein one player in (de Rouen) and push the other. de Rouen was starting to scratch out minutes and a role last year before his season ended with an ACL tear on his right knee Dec. 21. He had surgery Jan. 4. Following are some quotes from both on Friday with a story coming early next week. Ross-Miller is 21 years old after sitting out last year at NMSU after a long journey where the only college basketball he played was 13 games at New Orleans two years ago. Whether one player stands out or the Aggies use multiple point guards, both players step into some big shoes, replacing Hernst Laroche, a player that started every game for the past four seasons.
Terrel de Rouen
"I started rehabbing before surgery. But it took me about six months to start playing again and maybe 6.5 to 7 to really get up and down the court a bunch of times. ... It's devastating but I learned a lot. I sat behind the bench and learn what my coach is like and learn my teammates. I just had to keep my head straight and just be hungry. ... We are both pretty good players all around. Ross-Miller is a really good passer. I think I have to work on that a little more. We both have good defense. We are both solid point guards. ... (laroche) was an awesome guy. He's cool to work with. We talked about the offense and what we want to see. ... We all battle every day against each other. We leave everything on the court but you have to work hard if you want to win a championship. ... Just get to keep playing ball. I just have to learn more about the game every day. ... You have to pay your dues, especially when you are backing up a veteran guy like Laroche you are backing up. He taught me a lot. You are moving up a level. It's like moving from middle school to high school. I paid my dues last year and was starting to get some minutes and then I hurt my knee but everything happens for a reason. ... I would say we are fine at the PG spot. Me and Ross-Miller have to keep learning more and more. People are always going to say something. You just have to keep working hard and listening to your coaches."
"It was a long situation but it is working out for the best. It's been a challenging experience. I learned a lot just sitting out. I got a head start as far as what to expect. I got stronger in the weight room. ... I couldn't practice. Everything I did was on my own. I was in the gym a lot and the weight room getting stronger. NMSU is different but I got used to it. I didn't know what to expect. It was tough watching people play. I just got used to it and knew after a year I would be able to play again. ... I learned from Laroche. We worked out together. ... Strengths depend on what game it is. If I need to score I can score. I get in the lane and create for others. ... Practice has been cool. We push each other. We are up against each other every day. We know the point guard opportunity is open. ... Basically you look for the big man first, try to get in the lane and make a defender commit."
First a couple of notes. Remember this name for 2013, Rene Esparza, a 6-3 combo guard from Faith Christian in El Paso. Esparza was in Las Cruces this week, but hasn't been offered and the visit wasn't official. He reportedly has interest from Idaho State and Texas-Arlington.
From Rivals "From out West, is 6-foot-3 wing, Rene Esparza (El Paso Faith Christian). Esparza is a versatile player that handles the ball in pressure situations. He has good court vision, nice passing ability, and is skilled on the perimeter."
The Aggies have their super duper secret scrimmage at Utah Valley University on Saturday. This is the second straight year the teams have scrimmaged as the future WAC member came to Las Cruces last year. Here is Utah Valley's roster. UVU went 19-13 last year and 9-1 in its third year in the Great West. They have a number of players returning from last year, including leading scorer, senior guard Isiah Williams. Coach Dick Hunsaker has built the team as it went from JC to Independent to Great West and now into the WAC.
Preseason polls for the WAC will be released on Wednesday. This is what I went with. What do you think? I feel good about the top 6, but it gets sketchy after that.
1. Utah State (I don't think this is a slam dunk pick. I look at Utah State and I have some of the same questions I have about the Aggies. They have two projected big men including transfer Jarred Shaw (Oklahoma State), who if he is productive would certainly be an upgrade from the five spot. But like NMSU's bigs, we don't know what to expect when the lights come on. Utah State also has always had a point guard that ran the show. This year it could be a freshman by the end of the season in Utah product Marcel Davis. The Aggies also have JC transfer TeNale Roland.
2. New Mexico State
3. Idaho (This pick hinges on center Kyle Barone, who is currently suspended after a DUI last week)
4. Denver (Most talked about newcomer but they went 11-5 in the Sun Belt last year.)
5. Louisiana Tech (I love this team's guards, but they rely heavily on the long ball)
6. Texas - Arlington (Arlington would have been a tournament team last year after going 15-1 in the Southland, if not for getting tripped up in the conference tourney.
7. Texas-San Antonio
8. San Jose State
10. Texas State
Preseason Player of the Year — Preston Medlin, Utah State
Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State
Raheem Appleby, Louisiana Tech
Kyle Barone, Idaho
Chris Udofia, Denver
Newcomer of the Year — Sim Bhullar, New Mexico State
Some of you may have seen this sent out this morning. NMSU issued a short survey to NMSU hoops fans. Here are some of the questions. How would you answer, or how did you answer? Some of the questions show that at least NMSU is considering the fact that perhaps live television broadcasts, along with later start times, outside of ESPN of course, could be earlier in a retirement community.
How would you best classify yourself as it refers to NM State men's basketball?
Season ticket holder
Mini Plan Holder
Purchase tickets to more than three games per year
Purchase tickets to 1-3 games per season
NM State Student
Do not attend
What is your preferred start time for weekday (Mon-Thursday) NM State men's basketball games?
What is your preferred start time for Weekend (Friday-Saturday) for men's basketball games?
Early afternoon (noon-3 p.m.)
Afternoon (3-5 p.m.)
Later than 8 p.m.
What is your favorite thing or things about NM State men's basketball home games?
Please rate the atmosphere at NM State men's basketball games
Well above average
Please let us know what would make NM State men's basketball games better
If the game is available on live, local television, does that have any influence on your decision to attend the game in person
I prefer to watch games on TV so I definitely stay home to watch
I am more likely to stay at home to watch on TV
It has no influence on my decision to attend
Is there anything else you would like to add about your experience around NM State home men's basketball games?
I spoke with Tyrone Watson before the Aggies practiced for the first time on Friday. To me, nobody on the roster is accomplished enough, or has the personality to be a better leader than the 6-5 Toronto native. Watson has been on two NCAA Tournament teams and has started 68 of 69 games the past two years. Watson's versatility overshadows his weaknesses as a shooter or a scorer, but he's a playmaker with size who can defend at least four positions, perhaps even five when the Aggies play smaller teams.
Here is an interview with Watson, who talks about what expectations the team has and what newcomers he believes will contribute. I will post more from practice late tonight as I have to make an appearance at the Las Cruces/Oñate prep football game so check back tonight or in the morning.
believe this was the first year since I've covered the team than no player was
missing due to grades, injuries or social misconduct issues. That's an important note as Marvin Menzies begins his sixth season at NMSU with an experienced core, but several new faces who will need to be productive.
"You expect to be healthy. I'm thankful we are in a position where we can start the first day of practice with no outside distractions in the way of grades, social misconduct or anything. It's how you want to start the season and how you want to finish the season," Menzies said.
Because there are newcomers on this year's club, the offseason was especially important. Menzies, Watson and Chili Nephawe each indicated in different ways that this year's team is eager to prove themselves.
"I think the older guys are experienced guys. To a man we just have great teammates," Menzies said. "They all have an attitude right now that they know they haven't done anything yet so they have to prove some things but they have confidence in their abilities. We have had a couple abbreviated practices with the rules and you could see the development but you could also see the distance we had to go to be an elite team."
Tyrone Watson on new players:
"With the new guys, I’m not expecting too much but just to follow the upper classmen’s lead. Anything extra they have to offer is great. We like it and we need it but I’m not expecting too much. Just to ride along and learn from the upperclassmen."
Watson on fellow senior Bandja Sy:
is a more quiet personality but he has his moments when he takes leadership. I think both of us work great together because we are both unselfish
players that play the game for each other and for the team. We are all about
the team concept. We know it's our senior year but the individual stuff doesn't
mean nothing if you dont win at the end of the day."
Watson on if the Aggies will be more conventional offensively because of two big men:
"I feel like it's going to be a different style of play but not so much. I think everyone just needs to pick it up If everyone chips in 10, 15 points it all
adds up. Identity is really run. We are going to be a really fast team. We have
fast guys coming off the bench. I think we have more of a defensive
Watson on if the Aggies have play slower because of the bigs:
yet to be discovered. I wonder how that’s going to work when that actually
happens. In practice we do slow it down a bit. I feel like in the game we are
going to get it and go. We are going to have to wait for the bigs to come, but
for the most part the bigs are in pretty good shape."
Watson on his ideal position:
"If we were to start the game rght now, I would be at the four, possibliy the three based on
matchups. From there I just fill in. We are looking to run some more sets with me
bringing the ball up the floor. I’m looking forwrad to that. I have a knack
for anticipating plays and finiding other guys. I’m looking forward to that if
they give me that responsibilty. The way the team was structored last year, around three
players, this year it's more structured around everybody."
On Chili Nephawe and Sim Bhullar:
"Chili has kind of been waiting to star. I think these next two years he is going to
explode. We actually look to give him the ball. That’s actually our offense is to post feed. He is going to get his touches. Sim is going to learn from Chili. It's scary going to the net. I don't like going to the basket because if those
guys hit you you are out."
Chili Nephawe on the first practice:
"I can see a different focus. Everybody is excited about today. I think it's really important that everyone is healthy. We have good competition because everyone
is here and everyone can go hard in practice."
Nephawe revealed that for the second straight year, he had to rehab his back. He took two weeks off this summer to rehab in California.
"My last two seasons, I was just a backup most of the time. Me and Hamidu go at each
other all the time. Now I feel I’m a better player. I think Sim is going to be a really good player and will help us a lot. People are
excited about him. We are excited about Sim. He’s still a freshman so I think I need to be a good role model for him because Hamidu was a role model for me."
Nephawe needs to increase his numbers across the board, while cutting down on his fouls that limited him to about 20 minutes per game last year.
my main focus right now. I'm not worried if i’m going to be productive. I know I will be productive. The only thing I'm worried about is fouls. I think I will be able to
take care of that. I will still be aggressive on defense, just less using my hands and more
making people make plays over me instead of trying to block every shot. I have good height to be able to defend somebody wthout blocking the shot."
Junior center Chili Nephawe is one of four returners from last year's NCAA Tournament team the Aggies will lean on to replace Hernst Laroche, Wendell McKines and Hamidu Rahman. Photo courtesy of NMSU
NMSU opens practice officially on Friday.
The Aggies return two seniors, a highly regarded and rather large incoming freshman and a sophomore guard that is likely an all-Western Athletic Conference talent.
How it all fits together will take some time but should be interesting to watch.
Here are five storylines to follow entering the season, which begins on Nov. 11 at Oregon State:
Replacing the Big 3
Each team has its own personality and identity. For the better part of the last four years, the personality of the team centered around Wendell McKines, Hamidu Rahman and Hernst Laroche.
All three played on two NCAA Tournament teams and finished their careers in the top 21 on the all-time scoring list. McKines left as the second leading rebounder and was one of two players to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. Rahman was No. 2 all-time in blocked shots and Laroche was second in assists and first steals.
Tyrone Watson and Bandja Sy have been role players up to this point in their careers. As the lone seniors on this year’s team, an increased level of production would be welcomed in addition to the on-court experience and leadership they provide. Sophomore guard Daniel Mullings and junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe also were key contributors to last year’s WAC Tournament championship team.
It will be difficult to match the 26 wins NMSU compiled last year, but surpassing 20 wins and defending a conference championship are certainly realistic goals. There are new faces playing key positions and the Aggies upgraded their nonconference schedule significantly.
NMSU should still challenge for a WAC title. Utah State has similar question marks with talented newcomers and a void of experience at point guard. Denver seems like a quality addition to the WAC and Idaho should improve.
The Aggies don’t have a premier name — such as Arizona last year — on the schedule, but Southern Mississippi, Bucknell and Missouri State are quality mid-major programs. New Mexico is coming off an NCAA Tournament season and UTEP should be better in Tim Floyd’s third year.
Running the show
Laroche started every game at the point guard position the past four years.
Sophomore transfer KC Ross-Miller and Oñate High product Terrel de Rouen have yet to start a Division I game at point guard. Watson was second on the team last year with 113 assists and also is capable of running the offense. Mullings could also step in to play the position.
Depth makes versatility possible
The Aggies were the 11th highest scoring team in the country last year at 78.1 points per game.
NMSU added 7-foot-5 Xavier transfer Sim Bhullar, who should split time with Nephawe at center this season. If each player can somehow manage to get up and down the court for 20 minutes a game, NMSU shouldn’t miss a beat. Fortunately NMSU has players with size in Renaldo Dixon and B.J. West to fill in the gaps.
NMSU’s backcourt is just as deep with Mullings at the forefront. Mullings is among the best guards in the WAC and has upside off the charts if he develops offensively to add to the intangibles and athletic ability he brings every night.
Can they shoot?
Despite being a bad 3-point shooting team, the Aggies played to their strengths and still found ways to score last year. The Aggies shot 33 percent from 3-point range and Sy showed the ability to knock down the long range shot last year. The Aggies added Croatian international Matej Buovac and junior college transfer Kevin Aronis, who made 99 3s last year at Santa Rosa Junior College. Freshman Eric Weary Jr., joined the program prior to last year as a player who could shoot the ball.
NMSU proved last year it was possible to win games without the 3, but the Aggies appear better equipped to spread the court this year.
Yesterday I wrote that I believed New Mexico State has pieces in place to be very good defensively this season.
While I think the Aggies will wind up in the top 2 or 3 of the WAC this year, I do have some concerns with practice officially a week away.
If in fact the Aggies are good defensively, they can create scoring chances off their defense. They need to be good on the defensive end because they lost 40.5 points per game from last year's team that averaged 78.1 ppg. You can add 14.6 ppg from Christian Kabongo after he left, but it opened the door for Daniel Mullings, who averaged 10.4 ppg in the WAC. It will be interesting to see how he addresses hit perimeter (22 percent 3-pt) and free throw (62 percent) shooting in the offseason. Of course it would be nice to become Jahmar Young in the offseason from long range, but at the very least, the free throw percentage needs to be better because he's proved the ability to get to the lane. If the Aggies shoot the ball better, I think it takes the pressure off the big men and makes life easier.
Point guard play
Hernst Laroche started every game for the Aggies the past four games. Neither sophomore KC Ross-Miller nor freshman Terrel de Rouen has started a game at point guard. It's hard to predict for me what Ross-Miller will be like, but I've heard he's a different type of point guard than Laroche, but not necessarily a scorer. That could be a good thing if the players around him take advantage of opportunities he sets up.
Point guard play could have a direct impact on turnovers, but the entire team turned the ball over last year. NMSU committed 533 turnovers last year, nine more than their opponents. NMSU had 498 assists. Of the players who were in the rotation last year, only two, Laroche and Tyrone Watson had more assists than turnovers. Laroche had 136 assists and 81 turnovers and Watson had 113 assists and 78 turnovers. Mullings wasn't bad at 69 assists to 76 turnovers. Chili Nephawe had 14 assists and 32 turnovers in 17 minutes per game and Bandja Sy had 38 assists and 55 turnovers. Whoever runs the point doesn't really matter to me. I think the Aggies need to run the offense through Watson whenever they can.
Wendell McKines is the No. 2 rebounder in NMSU history. NMSU was third in the country in rebounding margin at plus 8.5. You don't find guys like that very often. This year's team won't be that good, but it would be hard to equal that. But I don't see a rebounder on this team with the hunger or motor to rebound the basketball. Watson is too small to be a dominant rebounder but I think he will improve on his 4 rpg last year. Obviously Sim Bhullar is 7-5 and one would hope he's capable of rebounding the basketball but we don't know yet. The ball has to fall into Nephawe's hands for him to rebound. At 6-10, Nephawe has to be better than the 3.7 rpg last year. Rebounding rate measures percentage of opponents shots that are rebounded successfully. Nephawe was fourth on the team last year at 13.96. McKines was first at 19.78. Hamidu Rahman was second at 17.76 percent. Can Chili match that? No. Can he better? If he can stay on the floor (he fouled out seven times last year) I think so. It's not all on Chili. NMSU has size across the roster to be an effective rebounding team.
Today I'll talk about some of the strengths that I feel this year's NMSU team has and tomorrow I'll talk about some of the concerns that at least I feel the Aggies may have this year.
Last year about this time, I talked with Wendell McKines about my concerns for the Aggies offensively. McKines said the team was going to lean on defense and rebounding. Wendell was right. NMSU started last season as a great defensive team and ended up being a very good defensive team, especially when they needed stops.
Although rebounding is one of my question marks entering this season, I think the Aggies have the pieces in place to be a very good defensive team again this year. One reason is depth. The other is size. The departure of Christian Kabongo last year and the injury to Terrel de Rouen sapped a little depth from the Aggies back court and didn't allow them to play with the same pace or intensity for 40 minutes. The Aggies were tops in the WAC last year in defending the 3-point line allowing 33 percent against them from long range. NMSU was 85th nationally in 3-point defense. A lot of that had to do with the size of the Aggies perimeter players. When you look at just the established players that the Aggies have coming back you have an All-WAC caliber defender in Daniel Mullings (6-2), Bandja Sy (6-8), Tyrone Watson (6-5) and I'll even put de Rouen (6-1) into that mix because of his size and athleticism at the point guard position. NMSU's perimeter players have a lot of length to get their hands on the ball (NMSU had 7 steals per game and return most of the same players with the exception of Hernst Laroche) and jump start the offense. There are also players whom I haven't seen such as KC Ross-Miller and Kevin Aronis who should see the court a lot but I'm not sure what they bring to the table defensively.
Hamidu Rahman averaged 1.1 blocks per game last year and the Aggies averaged 4.3 as a team. NMSU's interior is also somewhat unproved defensively, but anytime you have a 7-5 center in Sim Bhullar who one would figure could help guard the rim, along with 6-10 Chili Nephawe, who I don't think moves well defensively and fouls a lot but is still a physical presence. The Aggies also have Watson, Renaldo Dixon, perhaps BJ West who would all need to buy into defending the paint like I think they can.
This is where I have to kind of speculate, but I think the Aggies will be a better shooting team. The main reason, quite frankly the Aggies couldn't be much worse. NMSU made 5 3s per game last year, shooting 33 percent from distance. The Aggies did a good job playing to their strengths, scoring 57 percent of their offense on 2-pt field goals and 25 percent at the foul line, but it made them somewhat one dimensional. The Aggies brought in Kevin Aronis, who made over 100 3s in the California junior college league last year. Sy was hit or miss, perhaps that will even out a bit, and freshmen Eric Weary Jr. and Matej Buovac were described as shooters as they were brought into the program.
NMSU led the country last year with 1,048 attempts. NMSU didn't really take advantage as a team, shooting 66 percent at the line, but obviously Hamidu Rahman's 51 percent dragged the average down. Stepping in at center this year is Chili Nephawe, who has been a good free throw shooter here, shooting 85-114 (75 percent) at the line. If the strength of the Aggies continues to be its size, they should get to the foul line a lot this year. Who knows how well Bhullar shoots free throws, and Mullings, Watson and Sy need to improve this year, but expect that percentage to increase this season.
Finally, there is some continuity on the coaching staff entering this year. NMSU didn't make any changes among the top of its staff this year after adding two assistants last offseason. Players have been able to work with Tony Delk for an entire offseason and Keith Brown did a lot of the work in the summer workouts from my understanding. I think there is good chemistry on this staff and I believe they are currently on a coaching retreat to Louisville as you read this. I think it's that much more important now that the Aggies are not a veteran team as the players try to figure out their roles, the coaches already know their roles.