By Albert Luna
Covering NMSU basketball this past season was a rollercoaster. Many fans can agree the Aggies had a bit of a letdown season after failing to make the NCAA Tournament a record-tying fifth consecutive time. Despite all the success the Aggies were having on the court this season, it always felt that it would all be for nothing, and that the “upset” they suffered in Las Vegas at the WAC Tournament Championship game to Cal State Bakersfield was expected.
The Aggies could not get over the hump. That was the feeling I got when I was covering games this year—that for every quality home win against an inferior opponent, there was an impending road loss to another team that was “good.”
For every win against UTEP or Grand Canyon at home, there was a close loss to Long Beach State or Air Force. By February and March, it was clear that, even if NMSU was to win their automatic bid conference tournament, a likely 15-seed and first-round exit was the same as missing the tournament altogether.
Then, when the Aggies did lose that conference tournament and the subsequent NIT first-round exit (which should not rest on Braxton Huggins as he played his best basketball in March), it made many fans cherish their 15 minutes of fame on national TV and the past four NCAA appearances that much more.
When news broke last week that Marvin Menzies was being interviewed for the UNLV coaching position, it really came as a shock to no one: he had been long linked to it for months on end. It was during these days that there was uncertainty as to who would be coaching the team in the fall, and this validated something I had suspected for a while: the fans have it all wrong. On multiple occasions, I’ve had fans and spectators come up or write to me that Menzies is not a good coach.
To that I say to NMSU fans, shame on you. Some common things I have heard about Coach Menzies are things that almost have nothing to do with basketball.
“He’s not as active as previous coaches are, he doesn’t care,” I have heard once. “He can’t make in-game adjustments,” was another.
Some things are not his fault, such as the lack of competition that is coming in, which is another big complaint. The WAC is currently depleted of talent, which NMSU has not seen in a long time. That has served as a positive, as well as the killer for Aggie basketball. It makes winning easier when you play schools that were formerly in Division II just a few years ago, as opposed to Utah State or Nevada that the WAC was housing less than a decade ago.
With no surprise, this is why attendance is down at games: no one wants to see a good team beat a bad team by 20, as is the case in about 75 percent of NMSU home games.
However, when Menzies later informed Mark Rudi of the Las Cruces Sun-News of his intentions to stay, and sign a multiyear contract extension, not a peep of negativity was said.
Menzies is the best we can get. No better coach, at least not willing, is still in the WAC, nor will any be fleeing from a respectable conference school to come coach here without being fired and having no other options. The rumors of if Menzies knew he was not going to get the UNLV job are meaningless at this point too: he could have still tried his luck with opening this summer or even next year.
This extension shows he’s committed. The product on the floor is also only going to get better. He lost basically three of his best five players and still was able to coach guys through the pressure of being full-time starts and contributors, something that will never be easy to do with college kids.
To bring a team like NMSU had this year (no seniors) to within a bucket of five-straight tournament appearances? It was nothing short of brilliant. The players never showed a sign of disbelief, but rather knew their individual games and what they could do. It felt, for many that I have talked to, that this team was not the NMSU basketball teams of the past.
We saw talented young men improve their individual games in front of our eyes this season, but the only thing many people focus on is the final result, did we make it to the tournament?
Looking ahead, if Pascal Siakam stays an Aggie one more year, NMSU will more than likely have a season like they did this past year, but obviously no one can predict the final results in terms of NCAA berths or not this early.
If NMSU is a first-round out the next three seasons in a row or barely misses the NCAA tourney, why can’t fans simply regroup and come back in better numbers the next year? The quality of play is still going to be there, and whether a player believes it or not, seats filled in their arena make them perform at higher levels.
Shouldn’t that be what people are supporting? Not a coach, but the program.
So before fans start deciding that NMSU basketball is stuck in this never-ending cycle of mediocrity and think a new coach is the answer to breaking out, think again, and next year, go to the games.
Albert Luna may be reached at ALuna32@NMSU.edu
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