Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Can the Aggies run the table in the WAC?

Just two schools in the history of the Western Athletic Conference have ever run the table in league play.
That fact alone should provide enough motivation for the 2013-14 Aggies, even if the other schools that now make up the league, can't.
Players and coaches alike won't touch the topic, preparing for each game as it comes.
"If we drop one or two or three, we drop but we have to take them one at a time," said Menzies, who is 65-31 (68 percent) in WAC play. "I know it's cliche, but it's so true because there is no other option. You can't speculate on the next level."
But consider Menzies' first three NCAA Tournament teams and the level of competition the Aggies faced in 2010 (70-67 loss to No. 5 Michigan State), in 2012 (79-66 loss to No. 4 Indiana) and last year (64-44 loss to No. 4 Saint Louis). By virtue of two quality wins in non-conference play, the Aggies enter WAC play with a Top 50 RPI. If the Aggies manage to go unbeaten in league play, it would keep them on the national radar with a 23-game win streak by that point. It could mean the difference between a 14 seed or possibly a No. 12 in the Big Dance.
But lose a game, and that chance would likely be wiped out as the WAC is currently ranked the No. 22 conference by RPI according to RealTimeRPI.com.
"We would like that but we look at it like one game at a time," Aggies point guard K.C. Ross-Miller said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves and skip over a team. That's how upsets happen."
There has been precendce in recent years in the WAC, although the makeup of the conference was vastly different. Utah State was an at-large selection in 2010, finishing 14-2 in the WAC regular season. Utah State won 17 straight games before losing to NMSU in the WAC Tournament championship game. Utah State did not have a quality non-conference victory in 2010, but finished with a 34 RPI and a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
A sustained win streak wouldn't be a new phenomenon for this group of Aggies, either. NMSU won 12 straight games last year in WAC play.
Putting together a win streak is no easy task considering conference play consists of two games against every team, there are six new additions to the league and road games are always a challenge regardless of the venue.

But NMSU's makeup this season seems more focused, and the level of competition is nowhere near as difficult on a nightly basis making the idea more realistic than most years.

Monday, December 30, 2013

South Alabama: Three keys unlocked

Sorry for the delayed posting from Saturday's victory, but here we go:

Keep it rolling: It was positive to see the Aggies blow out a lesser opponent at home. South Alabama closed to within 10 a couple times in the second half, but the Aggies were able to respond each time, pushing the lead out to 18 early in the second half and winning by 18 to win their fourth straight game entering WAC play. One of the question marks New Mexico State fans have endured each year it seems is wondering what the mindset of the team would be each night. I think that this year's team seems focused each night regardless of the opponent and they are deep enough to make up for it if one player is saddled by foul trouble like Bhullar was with four fouls or just has an off night, which nobody did against an inferior team, shooting 64 percent.

Rebounding: NMSU dominated on the boards on Saturday, out rebounding South Alabama 38-24 and doing it all in man to man, which is a good sign since smaller, quicker teams have hurt the Aggies on the boards this year and the WAC is full of smaller quicker team.

3-point defense: Another category where South Alabama mirrors some WAC teams. S. Alabama was 0-5 from 3 point range in the first half and finished 3-14, 21.4 percent.

"Our defense has been very strong for us and challenging the 3 will be something that we have to take a lot of pride in going into conference because that is the great neutralizer," Aggies coach Marvin Menzies said. "The one thing that got us in trouble tonight was foul trouble."

Saturday, December 28, 2013

South Alabama: Three keys and a prediction

South Alabama is one of the better teams to come to the Pan American Center the past couple years. South Alabama played the Aggies tough last year (a 58-52 Aggies win) at their place, out rebounding the Aggies 38-37.

This year's South Alabama team may be even more undersized and that has been the kind of team that seems to bother the Aggies. But NMSU is on a roll right now.

 I think the Aggies win comfortably, 77-60

Keep it rolling: NMSU should be well rested. Daniel Mullings will play tonight. Marvin Menzies said he could have played against Northern New Mexico. This could be the best team the Aggies play until March with WAC play opening next week. It's a good way to get into conference mode against a team that will mirror many of the teams in the WAC, undersized, quick with more than one guy capable of hitting shots.

Rebounding: South Alabama's biggest player in the rotation is their leading scorer, 6-7 senior forward Augustine Rubit, who averages 18 and 10. I think the Aggies have a good chance to hit the offensive rebounds tonight.

3-point defense: Around Rubit, South Alabama has five players with at least 25 3-point attempts. South Alabama scores 41 percent of their 73 points per game from 3 point range, shooting 38 percent from long range. Guards Mychal Ammons and Antoine Allen each average about 10 points per game and both are shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range. Since South Alabama is a smaller team, I don't know how much man to man the Aggies will play, but they have been doing well defending the 3, holding teams to 34 percent for the year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

UNM: Three keys unlocked

New Mexico State gutted out a 67-61 victory at New Mexico on Tuesday, showing a toughness that I hadn't seen yet from this year's group.

NMSU did everything it needed to do, jumping out early with defense and playing inside-out and defending well enough to hang on.

Finish in the Paint: The Aggies did this very well, starting with center Chili Nephawe, who scored 14 points with six rebounds, five offensive rebounds. Nephawe and center Sim Bhullar scored 10 of the Aggies first 13 points, NMSU shot 41 percent in the paint and grabbed 14 offensive rebounds.

Hit open shots: The Aggies post game opened things up for open 3s. Kevin Aronis made 3 of 5 3s in the first half as the Aggies were an unbelievable 7-12 from 3 point range in the first half. The Aggies were 0-5 in second half but the ability to hit open shots helped establish an early lead.

Pick your poison: I thought perhaps NMSU would focus their defense on Cameron Bairstow, but it seemed like they focused more on Alex Kirk, doubling him in the post and hounded him into 4-14 from the field with two turnovers. Couple that with Kendall Williams not being aggressive offensively for some reason, and the Aggies held the Lobos supporting cast to 8 points.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

UNM Round 2: Three keys and a prediction

I think that beating Drake over the weekend and going straight to Albuquerque the past two days were important factors for New Mexico State entering tonight's contest at rival New Mexico. Had the Aggies let that game slip away for their fifth straight loss entering a game against a team that has beaten NMSU four straight times and 11 of the past 12, they would likely not be competitive.

Tonight is the Aggies last chance at a quality win in the regular season. South Alabama is a good team, but not in the Lobos class.

Getting a victory would be nice, but it's supposed to be a sellout at the Pit, which is worth anywhere from 5-8 points. Moral victories don't count, but it would be good to see the Aggies within five in the last 5 minutes, just to see them get over the hump and be competitive in the second half after playing teams like Arizona and Gonzaga tough in the first half.

Fatigue, The Pit and the losing streak are all legitimate factors to me picking the Lobos 78-71

Finish in the paint: NMSU needs an offensive post presence to help offset UNM's duo of Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. Chili Nephawe missed three gimme shots early in the Lobos 79-70 victory here in the first game. Nephawe and Sim Bhullar were both 2-8 from the field in the first game. Both players had double doubles against Drake but they have not been productive on the offensive end against quality big men with size. Bhullar was blocked three times in the first game against the Lobos. Hopefully his 22 point effort against Drake can get the big fella rolling a little bit on offense. Nephawe said he learned how to play against Cameron Bairstow in the first meeting. Aggies fans hope so because Bairstow is a handful. Bairstow can put the ball on the floor, hit the midrange jumper and get players in foul trouble. Ags need to make him play defense as well.

Hit open shots: Albuquerque Journal reporter wrote today that UNM guard Hugh Greenwood is "day to day" with a wrist injury on his shooting hand that he suffered against the Aggies. Both teams started in zone in the first game and the Lobos were the first team to hit open shots and Greenwood made two of those 3s. Greenwood is an experienced player, a great rebounder at his position and he takes care of the ball. If Cullen Neal picks up Greenwood's minutes/shots, Neal isn't strong in any of those categories and Deshawn Delaney, and Cleveland Thomas didn't look that comfortable shooting either. On the flip side, the Aggies have to make open shots. UNM didn't need to come out of their zone. Kevin Aronis and Matej Buovac each showed signs of life from long range against Drake and DK Eldridge has obviously had some big games shooting the ball although he's extremely streaky.

Pick your poison: Alex Kirk is not having a bad year, but it appears like teams have focused on him and allowed Cameron Bairstow to get rolling. I expect the Aggies to continue to pay most of their defensive attention on guard Kendall Williams and try to limit Bairstow as much as possible. I think NMSU needs to get the ball out of his hands by doubling when he gets the ball at the high post, especially if Nephawe is on him because Bairstow proved he can get by Nephawe. The ideal situation is to get one of those three in foul trouble, but that happened in the first game and the Aggies couldn't take advantage. Leaving Kirk one on one is a dangerous proposition as well. He can pull Bhullar away from the rim and is a great pick and pop player. he also drove around Bhullar a couple times off the dribble. But it's better to me than surrendering open looks for Williams and allowing Bairstow to get into the paint at will.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Arizona: Three keys unlocked

Rebound: Fairly comfortable here saying the Aggies didn't get it done. Opponents have averaged 16 offensive rebounds per game against the Aggies the past three games and Arizona had 16 offensive rebounds and 21 second chance points. As I wrote in the original blog entry, the Aggies have a hard time keeping wings off the glass because they don't have the same length they had with Bandja Sy and Tyrone Watson in the past. Rondae Jefferson had eight rebounds off the bench and he also had a dunk that ended up on SportsCenter. Arizona out rebounded NMSU 38-22 for the game as the Wildcats entered the game out rebounding teams by 14 per game.

Match up with Gordon: The Aggies mixed it up on Gordon. Daniel Mullings at 6-2 was matched up against him for stretches in man to man. All in all, the Aggies tried to make other people beat them and Arizona is a very balanced offensive team so Gordon's numbers were limited to 11 points and 4 rebounds on 5-12 shooting, but the Wildcats didn't need him on Wednesday.

Transition defense: Arizona eventually turned this game into a dunk contest but the Aggies did better in the first half, getting back, denying point guard TJ McConnell the ball. But like Arizona coach Sean Miller said postgame, the Aggies were so focused on slowing the tempo down and running the shot clock down that they weren't giving up easy baskets but they also weren't scoring easy baskets and Arizona is much more balanced offensively.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Arizona: Three keys and a prediction

I remember  a conversation with an Arizona writer that said Sean Miller would likely not return to Las Cruces after the Wildcats escaped with a victory in 2011. Miller likes playing the Aggies, but not enough to risk taking a loss. This year's Arizona is better than that team, but NMSU is receiving $95,000 for tonight's game.

It's a tough stretch for the Aggies, who between taking losses aren't able to spend much time practicing to correct whatever mistakes they are making. In games like this, mistakes loom even larger.

Wildcats win 82-67

Rebound: Normally I would consider this a strength of the Aggies, but you consider NMSU opponents have averaged 16 offensive rebounds per game that past three contests. All of the aspects that those other teams have is multiplied tonight. Arizona is out rebounding its opponents by 14 per game this season. The Wildcats have athletic big men, including a so called undersized power forward Brandon Ashley (12 and 7) and a center that can move in 7 footer Kaleb Tarczewski. Undersized post players have killed the Aggies this year. The Wildcats also have a big size advantage on the wings with 6-9 star freshman Aaron Gordon and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson off the bench, who at 6-7, is a driver slasher similar to Gonzaga's Gerard Coleman, who scored a career high 21 points against the Aggies, may coming from put backs.

Match up with Gordon: It's easier said than done, but the Aggies need to find a way to force Gordon to shoot jump shots. Part of the reason he's playing on the wing is for his development as a NBA player, but I'm not sure that's his strongest part of his game but he's still shooting 6-13. Renaldo Dixon could be an intriguing matchup on Gordon, or even Matej Buovac because of his length, but those are bench guys. I expect NMSU to play zone to keep their limited post player rotation out of foul trouble. If that's the case, Gordon has a significant height advantage over whichever wing player the Aggies put on the bottom of the zone, likely 6-2 DK Eldridge. Games like this, you realize the important that Bandja Sy and Tyrone Watson had on this team, both were big enough and strong enough to match up with mostly anyone at the 2-4 spots.

Transition defense: I haven't even talked about Nick Johnson yet, who happens to be the best player on Arizona's team. Johnson beat the Aggies up and down the floor in Las Cruces as a freshman. He's shooting 36 percent from 3-point range. I think the Aggies need to get back in transition because other than Johnson, the Wildcats are an average shooting team, although Gabe York comes off the bench (42 percent 3-point shooter). Point guard TJ McConnell and Johnson probably get the majority of the touches in the half court. I think those are two spots where the Aggies do match up, but they have to keep McConnell out of the paint and pick him up early.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Aggies vs. top-ranked Wildcats

From what I've been able to gather, with the help of others, is that Wednesday at Arizona will be the third time New Mexico State has played the No. 1 team in the country. 

The Aggies lost both Big West meetings to the defending national champion UNLV in 1991 where the Rebels were the preseason No. 1 and went unbeaten until the Final Four. From what I could gather, UCLA was also the No. 1 team when the Bruins beat NMSU 53-38 in the 1969 NCAA Tournament.

I don't expect an Aggies win on Wednesday. I understand the frustration from NMSU fans with the Aggies 0-3 record during this stretch, where I thought that two wins would be a success but that included a home win over the Lobos. I still think this weekend's road game at Drake is a NMSU win, but travel and the home loss to the Lobos make a win at the Pit unlikely.

I will say this however. Despite the losing, can you honestly look at this year's team and not see growth from last year. I would say every other NMSU team under Marvin Menzies would have been blown out at Colorado State and Gonzaga. I will grant you that failing to show up at home against the Lobos was a low point this season, and the Aggies certainly have their challenges. One that has surprised me has been on the boards, giving up 16 offensive rebounds per game the past three games, and the lack of a consistent backcourt scorer to help Daniel Mullings. It's too bad that the Aggies couldn't have those issues resolved by now because the WAC will offer little resistance.

I also think the fact that the Aggies have played these teams should help them once they step on the court in the NCAA Tournament. Without the hope of getting quality wins, the knowledge that they can compete with these teams could be the only positives the Aggies can take away from it. Lets hope so at least. It's a low standard, I admit. But I have a better feeling about this team than I have in years past. But I could be off.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Gonzaga: Three keys and a prediction

Three-point defense: Against the Zags, this also means transition defense. Gonzaga is the most efficient offensive team in the country with 1.28 points per possession on 69 possessions per game. The Zags score 36 percent of their 92 points per game from 3-point range. Kevin Pangos shoots 48 percent from 3-point range and is one of four players who shoot at least 47 percent from 3 with at least 20 attempts and a lot of them come in transition. When the Zags are in the half court, they spread the court similar to UNM, but they don't have a pick and pop center like the Lobos do so perhaps Sim Bhullar and Chili Nephawe can still protect the basket.

Get the big guys going: Sim Bhullar and Chili Nephawe got early touches against UNM but they were ineffective offensively against two big players. Gonzaga 7 footer Przemek Karnowski is a quality center who shoots 73 percent from the field. If NMSU struggles again to guard the four position (6-9 Sam Dower 14 ppg) hopefully the Aggies go to Renaldo Dixon more.

Give Mullings some support: I love DK Eldridge but so far he's been what you would expect from a JC guy, up and down. He seems to have been good on the road so perhaps he can match the 6 3s he made at Colorado State. Likewise, KC Ross Miller hasnt been consistent enough offensively either and teams seem to be ready when Kevin Aronis comes on. If the big guys arent productive and the perimeter guys arent, Mullings has shown he can get to rim when he needs to. He might have to do that earlier.

I think the UNM game was the best I've seen the Lobos play and probably the worst the Aggies have played. But I don't know if the Aggies can score at the same kind of clip. Gonzaga wins 87-75

Friday, December 6, 2013

Should Tanveer redshirt? Other notes

I'm having a tough time on this one, but it's an obvious question after Remi Barry's knee injury and how tired the Aggies bigs appeared in Wednesday's loss to UNM.

NMSU wanted to sit Tanveer Bhullar this season, and I believe it's still the best option. I think the one reason Tanveer should join his brother in the frontcourt rotation would be for his personal development. I disagree with most that adding another center isn't what the Aggies need since undersized post players have had big games against the Aggies (Colorado State, W. Mich., UNM)  so far this year, and that other than UNM, the Aggies remaining schedule consists of undersized post players. Although Tanveer showed a different skillset than his brother, adding another slow player doesn't make sense to me.

In the past, the individual player has had some say in this type of situation. Renaldo Dixon should have sat out the 2010-11 season, but he opted to get some limited playing time after Wendell McKines, Troy Gillenwater and Hamidu Rahman were all injured in the same season. I guess we will see what Tanveer Bhullar wants to do if he suits up this weekend.

I spoke with Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos and Canada and Portland Trailblazer assistant coach Jay Triano about Mullings playing with Pangos over the summer. Pangos played on an Ontario all star team with one of Danile Mullings, younger brothers, Jermaine Mullings. Jermaine Mullings will play at a college in Montreal in January, while 18 year old Tevoun Jacksonhas graduated from high school and is taking a fifth year of high school education/basketball, which is an option in Canada.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

UNM: Three keys (and 1) unlocked

The Lobos won their sixth straight game in Las Cruces, 79-70 on Wednesday at the Pan American Center.

The Aggies were surprisingly not ready to play. I would say that's the first time this season, but in a big game it was kind of a letdown and Marvin Menzies certainly was not pleased.

"We had too many mental breakdowns and didn't handle the pressures of this game, the magnitude and what it means for the city and the college," Menzies said.

It certainly doesn't get any easier. The Aggies play at Gonzaga this weekend followed by a mid week game at Arizona, which will likely be ranked No. 1 in the country after North Carolina's victory over Michigan State tonight.

I know that Aggies coaches didn't overlook any of the Lobos players, but I certainly was surprised by Cameron Bairstow. He is a handful for NMSU, and without Remi Barry in the rotation, Renaldo Dixon called for post players to, " focus on getting in shape so we can play more minutes with Remi out. We try to attack the bigs and get them in foul trouble and get into their bench."

Onto the keys

Transition defense: Sim Bhullar and Tshilidzi were gassed out there tonight. I think Remi Barry's absence will be felt in certain matchups but few teams will have the physical presence the Lobos have with Bairstow and Kirk.

Offensive rebounding: The boards were also basically a wash. NMSU out rebounded UNM 37-36. The Lobos did have 12 offensive rebounds but the Aggies had 15. Both teams scored 11 second chance points.

Go inside early and often: The Aggies did this, getting Alex Kirk in early foul trouble with two fouls. Kirk only played six minutes in the first half, problem was Chili Nephawe missed his first three shots, all from close range. NMSU went inside but Nephawe (1-6 first half) and Sim Bhullar (1-3 first half)

Three point line: A big win for the Lobos here. Marvin Menzies talked about it postgame, but the Aggies 0-5 effort in the first half and  and 4-19 (21 percent) never forced UNM to come out of its 2-3 zone to start the game. With an ineffective post game, Daniel Mullings was the only player capable of mounting any offense. UNM shot the Aggies out of their zone by making their first four 3s (6-12 for the game) allowing Kendall Williams to get into the lane and the foul line (12-15) and forced the Aggies to try to guard Cameron Bairstow man to man, which did not go well.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

UNM: Three keys (and 1) and a prediction

I asked Craig Neal what he thought about the NMSU/UNM rivalry as the now head coach. He said all the right things, but I thought it was interesting that when he came with Steve Alford from Iowa, they were already used to having rivalry games placed on the schedule every year.

"I think the programs have both been in good shape the past six years," Neal said. "It's two really hard games every year against an in state rival so it hasn't really bothered me. When we were at Illinois, we had three rivalry games every year against Iowa State, Northern Illinois and Drake and it would rotate where we played them."

From a series standpoint, the fact that New Mexico has won five straight at the Pan Am sticks out to me more than the three straight Lobos victories or 10 of the last 11. The lone Aggie win was an impressive victory at The Pit in 2011.

I think with the makeup of the two teams this particular season, the Aggies have a better chance than recent years of  catching the Lobos before they really get rolling.

It's going to be tough, but the Aggies win 86-83

Transition defense: NMSU is an excellent defensive team, but the Aggies simply aren't a great transition team simply because opposing teams try to beat Sim Bhullar and Chili Nephawe up and down the court. The Lobos have big men capable of outrunning the Aggies with Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. Kendall Williams also doesn't mind leaking out and getting the Lobos fastbreak going. It's an approach that Neal brought with him when he took over. He said he hopes for between 70-75 possessions per game.
"We haven't changed much defensively, we still have the same principles but there are more possessions in a game so we are giving up more possessions," Neal said. "We are giving up 8-10 more foul shots this year so we are trying to work on that. I just think that last year, we had droughts where we wouldn't score a field goal for seven minutes. We wanted to free guys up and with guys we had coming back, we trust that they would make good decisions."
It makes it more important for the Aggies guards to not take bad shots or turn the ball over, something they did 21 times on Saturday at Colorado State.

Offensive rebounding: The Aggies are giving up 12 offensive rebounds per game and 17 per game the last two games,. taking away from the advantage that NMSU's 12 offensive rebounds should create. The Lobos average 14 offensive rebounds per game. Aggies lose their advantages as a good defensive and rebounding team when the other team gets that many more field goal attempts off misses.

Go inside early and often: The Lobos are the only team that they play this year where neither team will adjust their lineups. Both teams have two post players who occupy the paint. I have a feeling that either Nephawe or Bairstow foul out of this game, but it wouldnt hurt for Bhullar to be aggressive early on against Kirk in the post because Kirk causes so many problems as a shooter from 3 and around the basket. Bairstow is also aggressive offensively putting the ball on the ground or shooting the mid range jumper but he is prone to foul trouble.

Three point line: I expect both teams to play some zone defense tonight to protect their post players from getting into foul trouble. UNM shoots 6-20 from 3-point range but they are giving up 8 3s per game. Making another 10 3s like they did against Colorado State is asking a lot, but NMSU should be fine if they match their 4 3s per game and keep the Lobos around four or five.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Remi Barry could be done for year

Marvin Menzies said Tuesday before practice the outlook moving forward for New Mexico State junior forward Remi Barry, "Doesn't look good," after Barry suffered a left knee injury on Saturday at Colorado State.
Menzies said he was waiting on final word from doctors prior to practice Tuesday as the Aggies prepare for Wednesday's home game against New Mexico.
"It doesn't look good just from the way he is feeling," Menzies said.
Without Barry, the Aggies lose an experienced player in the interior, an expected strength of the team entering the season. Barry was part of the post rotation with sophomore center Sim Bhullar, junior center Tshilidzi Nephawe and senior forward Renaldo Dixon.
"We had four posts and now we have three," said Menzies when asked what players may have to fill larger roles moving forward. "It just depends at this point. We haven't thought about it too much because we still have those three guys."
Barry averaged six points and three rebounds in 12 minutes a game off the bench. Barry scored a career-high 18 points in a 95-88 victory at Hawaii on Nov. 12. Barry went down holding his knee on Saturday after challenging for a rebound in the first half and did not return.
"It's one of those deals where he was really starting to produce," Menzies said.
Barry is in a different position than Nephawe found himself in last season when he played the first nine games before missing the rest of the season with a hand injury.
Since Barry sat out a year, NMSU would have to seek a sixth year through the NCAA. NMSU went through the Western Athletic Conference for Nephawe's hardship waiver or "medical redshirt."
It's a process that likely wouldn't begin until after next season if Barry does not return this season.