This year’s Aggies lived up to lofty expectations that in reality shouldn’t have been as high as they were.
Aggies fans knew that last year’s team would reach the postseason. This year, not so much.
Considering New Mexico State was replacing three of the most productive four-year players in program history, winning a conference championship and reaching a second straight NCAA Tournament is a significant achievement.
The Aggies were picked to win the Western Athletic Conference. They didn’t, instead winning the third Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship under head coach Marvin Menzies.
How the Aggies got to their second straight conference championship was anything but smooth.
Here are a few highlights and lowlights from NMSU’s 2013 basketball season:
NMSU didn’t exactly get off to a start worthy of a NCAA Tournament team.
NMSU entered conference play 5-8 against Division I opponents, including going 0-3 to start against regional rivals New Mexico and UTEP.
It’s a trend that has developed at NMSU under Menzies. The Lobos turned out to have a nice little year for themselves, but NMSU could have won the game in Las Cruces. The Aggies should have won the first meeting against UTEP in El Paso, losing a two-possession lead in the final minute.
The slow start continued into WAC play with the Aggies losing road games at Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech to open conference play. It was starting to near panic mode, but the Aggies proved to be a WAC contender after all.
If there was a turning point to the season, it may well have been NMSU’s early January road sweep at Seattle and Idaho. Bandja Sy hit a 3-pointer with seven seconds left to send the Aggies into overtime and ultimately a win. Two nights later, Daniel Mullings knocked down two free throws in the final seconds to escape Idaho with a win.
Seattle and Idaho were two of a season-long 12-game win streak that propelled the Aggies to the conversation for a league title. It was the school’s longest streak since the 2006-07 season.
Dealing with injury and distractions
Two Aggies basketball players have pending felony charges. Walk-on guard Emory Coleman was arrested in January for homicide by vehicle a year after a fatal accident that killed an Alamogordo man. Coleman’s situation was overshadowed by a felony battery charge against three-year starter Tyrone Watson. Watson has pleaded not guilty after his involvement in an incident at a house party in February where a fellow student was beaten. Watson missed seven games due to suspension and returned on March 2 against Denver.
Watson played two games after his suspension was lifted, but went down in the second game with a high ankle sprain against Louisiana Tech that ultimately ended his career.
Watson did play seven minutes against Saint Louis, but he wasn’t the only Aggies player to go down to injury. Junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe played nine games before undergoing season ending injury to repair torn ligaments in his hand. Point guard K.C. Ross-Miller also missed games this year due to injury.
Watson and Sy enjoyed productive careers at NMSU. Both were on three NCAA Tournament teams. Watson was an all-around player for the Aggies and Sy was a highlight dunk waiting to happen. Sy ended his career perfectly with a game-winner against UTA at home on Feb. 23 and was the only Aggies player to register double figures on Thursday.
Eyes to the future
The injuries and suspension opened the door for role players to develop into future starters. Sim Bhullar put the Aggies on his 7-foot-5 frame and carried NMSU to a conference title in Las Vegas, earning Tournament MVP honors in his first season on the basketball court in nearly two years. With another off season to continue to develop his fitness and skill level, Bhullar should be a preseason WAC Player of the Year candidate, as will Mullings as a junior. Mullings improved at the foul line and the field while continuing to defend and rebound at an elite level. Juniors Renaldo Dixon and Remi Barry will replace Watson at the four next year to form a strong nucleus.
The Aggies need to find consistency at the point guard position, but with the state of the WAC next year, the Aggies should be runaway favorites next year where the expectations should have high expectations to match their experience and talent level.
Jason Groves can be reached at (575) 541-5459. Follow him on Twitter @jpgroves.