By: Joseph Fullbright
February is almost over and the New Mexico State men’s basketball team is 22-4 on the season. This past week, the Aggies dropped back-to-back road games at CSU-Bakersfield and at Grand Canyon. Prior to those defeats, they were riding a 20-game winning streak. First year head coach Paul Weir has been everything that the university has hoped for replacing Marvin Menzies. He has had to deal with the loss of a first round draft pick in Pascal Siakam to the NBA and a roster with only one senior. Yet, with the two recent tough losses, there seems to be a little bit of uneasiness in Las Cruces.
Each loss had it’s own sort of painful toll. NM State fell 72-53 to CSU-Bakersfield, the team that ended their quest for five consecutive WAC titles last March. The Aggies could not buy a basket, hitting only 17 of 58 shots (29.3%) from the field, including 3-26 from behind the three-point line (11.5%). Senior Ian Baker was among the players who had a hard time getting anything to fall, finishing with 19 points, but missed 16 shot attempts. A positive note from the blowout, however, was Jemerrio Jones, who had 11 points and 16 rebounds.
There are the losses where a team is completely dominated from start to finish by another; and then there are ones where a team is in complete control of the game, but cannot finish and blow the lead. The latter is tougher.
Last Saturday at Grand Canyon, the Aggies found themselves trailing by eleven towards the end of the first half. They then went on a 13-0 run to get back into the game, and were only down two entering halftime. That momentum seemed to carry through into the second half as the Aggies were clearly the better team and took a commanding 62-52 lead with 11:02 left in the game. They could not be stopped- the big men were dominating the post, the defense was lock down, and the imposing crowd was put to silence. What happened next was a total meltdown. The Antelopes went on to close the game out on an insane 31-9 run that included an Aggies scoring drought of over seven minutes. Nobody really knows what happened to NMSU; possibly fatigue, bigheadedness, questionable coaching decisions- they’ve all been hypothesized and evaluated. At the end of the day, Grand Canyon won.
To make matters worse, with CSU-Bakersfield handling UT-Rio Grand Valley, the Aggies have fallen into second place in the WAC. Yes, you read that correctly. A team that is 22-4 on the season is in second place in their respective conference. The Runners are 17-7 overall on the year, but are 8-1 in WAC play and control their own destiny as far as clinching the #1 overall seed in next month’s WAC Tournament goes. With the two losses, the Aggies are 8-2 in WAC play, which means they are in sole possession of second place. In order to retake first place, they would have not only win, but hope Bakersfield drops one (or more) of their remaining conference games (@UVU, @SEA, vs. UMKC, vs. CHST, vs. GCU). With Grand Canyon serving it’s final year of postseason ineligibility, the WAC sends seven teams to the WAC Tournament. Whoever finishes the regular season in first place gets the elusive first round bye, which is an automatic berth in the tournament semifinals.
But the thing is, in sports, losing can sometimes be a blessing in disguise. The Aggies, before the road trip, were 22-2, riding a 20-game winning streak, and had not tasted losing since falling to UNM all the day back on November 18. The team is super young and were no doubt feeling like they were at the top of the world. These losses may just be what Paul Weir and the Aggies needed to kick it into an even higher gear. Look for the team to come out and finish out their final three games of the season in dominating fashion. We, as citizens of Las Cruces, have been extreme
ly spoiled with coach Weir’s team this season. So much so, that we forgot that even the great teams like Duke and Kentucky lose sometimes. And don’t give me the “we play in a weak conference” argument- it’s HARD to run the table in any conference, regardless of teams. Sure, this isn’t the mid-2000’s WAC with Boise State, Nevada, and Utah State, but it does have well-coached Bakersfield, on-the-rise Grand Canyon, juggernaut NMSU, and a plethora of mediocre teams that can put up an upset any given game.
The Aggies are by far the most talented team in the WAC. So, Aggie Nation, take a deep breath and relax, because I can promise you that there is something different and special about this team than in years passed. They close out the season with three home games: 2/23 vs. Utah Valley, 2/25 vs. Seattle, and 3/4 vs. UTRGV.