By: Derek Gonzales
What a difference a year makes.
Through 19 games last season, the New Mexico State Aggies men’s basketball team was 11-8, having lost to UNM twice, Air Force, Wyoming, and UC-Irvine among others.
In comes new head coach Paul Weir and with a majority of last year’s core still intact (minus the loss of NBA first-round pick Pascal Siakam), the Aggies have won 17 of their first 19 games of the season, including wins over New Mexico, Air Force, Arizona State, and a sweep of UTEP.
The winners of 15 straight games are receiving votes in the USA Today coaches’ poll, and are already a game and a half ahead of second place Cal-State Bakersfield in the WAC standings. NMSU has won 21 straight home games overall and 37 straight conference games inside the Pan American Center (last home conference loss was to Nevada in 2012).
Junior Braxton Huggins leads the Aggies in scoring with 15.1 points per game this season, including four games of 25 or more points and a career-high 31 at UMKC on January 5. Five different Aggies are averaging double figures (Huggins, Ian Baker, Sidy N’Dir, Eli Chuha, and Jemerrio Jones), and the team continues to excel on the defensive end, only allowing 65.8 points per game, which is second in the conference.
This past weekend, the Aggies welcomed in the two teams that beat them in conference play last year, as the Grand Canyon ‘Lopes (defeated NMSU 79-75) and Cal-State Bakersfield (defeated NMSU 57-54 on Dedrick Basille buzzer-beater in last year’s WAC Tournament Championship) invaded the Pan American Center.
Former NBA All-Star and GCU head coach Dan Majerle and the ‘Lopes came to Las Cruces on January 12. Close losses to Louisville, Penn State, and Arizona shows the process Majerle and the program have made since beginning the transition for Division-II to Division-I in 2013, but the team had not won a game in Las Cruces since its first visit in 2013.
NMSU held preseason WAC first-teamer Joshua Braun to 5-of-13 shooting from the field in the game, and GCU missed 14 free throws (14-of-28), all while allowing 16 second-chance points. NMSU led by 13 at the half and withstood a hot start out of the break by the ‘Lopes in an 81-69 win. The Aggies had six different players in double digits for the first time this season.
“We have a lot of different options, so we never know who we are going to get it (scoring) from,” freshman guard Jermaine Haley (15 points, six rebounds) said. “We are really deep, we have a lot of players and we trust each other. That is why the offense is flowing so well.”
Haley is amongst the three newcomers in the rotation (Jones and Las Cruces native Joe Garza) that have helped the Aggies get off to one of their best starts in program history. For Coach Weir, it was just a matter of time before the redshirt freshman from Burnaby, British Columbia got going.
“He was probably just sick of not playing well, but he is a proud kid and a really good player,” Weir said. “We as coaches and players have been pushing him to be more aggressive, and he attacked and got in the paint and made some lay-ups and that is what we need out of him. He is such a gifted player and we need more out of him. Tonight was good for him going forward.”
Revenge was next for the Aggies, as the team that ended its bid for a fifth-straight WAC Tournament title last year was in town on Saturday, Jan. 14.
Cal-State Bakersfield led by seven at the half and forced NMSU into an 8-for-27 performance from the field. The Aggies only made one of the eight 3s they attempted and had ten turnovers that led to 12 Roadrunner points.
NMSU would not be denied. A 16-6 run spanning over five minutes late in the second half turned a five-point deficit into five-point lead with 1:23 left in the game.
The Aggies never looked back. They won the game 63-58 in the fourth consecutive game with CSUB that was decided by five points or less.
NMSU now sits at 17-2, 4-0 in WAC play and will take the court again on Thursday at Seattle U at 8 p.m. and Saturday against Utah Valley at 7 p.m.