The Aggies sort of dropped off the national scene when they suffered a three game losing streak in early December last season, but they ended up plowing through conference play and the WAC Tournament all the way to the NCAA Tournament. What happened in those three months when most people didn't hear about the Aggies?
Well, the three game losing streak was partly due to playing some good competition, Arizona, Southern Miss (an NCAA tourney team) and I-10 rival UTEP on their home floor. That was combined with some chemistry issues with now-departed guard Christian Kabongo (he transferred mid-season last year). Kabongo was what you would call a bit of a black-hole, the ball movement completely stopped when the ball got to him. After he left, the team started to flourish and then-freshman Daniel Mullings got more playing time and showed some tremendous potential, including a triple-double against Hawai'i. The team gelled, the players' roles were solidified and the Aggies did what they've become known for doing, winning when it matters -- in March.
While any team coming off a trip to the big dance should be feared, New Mexico State hasn't received a ton of respect coming into the season due to the loss of its top four scorers. Why should the rest of the nation pay attention to this team?
They actually only lost their top three scorers as Kabongo transferred midseason last year. But the loss of the other three players, Wendell McKines, four-year starter at point guard Hernst Laroche and senior big man Hamidu Rahman, all three members of the 1,000 point club, are the biggest reason the Aggies aren't getting any attention on a national level. Another reason is that the rivals to the north, UNM, play in a better conference (the Mountain West) and are perceived to have a better team and that has a tendency to take a bit of the spotlight off the Aggies as well. However, two of the biggest reasons to keep an eye on the Aggies this season are the aforementioned Daniel Mullings. The sophomore will be one of the featured players in the offense this year and how he handles that pressure will go a long way to determining how successful the Aggies are this season. The second biggest reason to watch the Aggies this year is literally a big reason -- 7'5" freshman center Sim Bhullar will make his collegiate debut against Oregon State. Bhullar had originally committed to Xavier but backed out and came to New Mexico State when he found out he would be a non-qualifier at Xavier. He redshirted last season, has lost weight and by all accounts should have a big impact for the Aggies as a freshman.
Is Kevin Aronis the newcomer to watch, or is there someone off he radar Beaver fans should be scared of?
I think a combination of Aronis and Bhullar. It's a classic inside-outside situation. Aronis is the first JUCO player that head coach Marvin Menzies has ever brought into the program under his tenure but it was a necessity to find a good three point shooter. Last season the Aggies struggled a bit to shoot the three ball connecting on 33 percent of their tries. That allowed defenses to pack the paint on them. The addition of Aronis as well as redshirt freshman Eric Weary Jr. should help unclog the lane for not only the Aggie bigs but also the penetrating players like Daniel Mullings and point guard K.C. Ross-Miller.
The Aggies have done well in recent history on the road. Does Marvin Menzies have any secret to this success?
We asked Coach Menzies about this in our interview today and he said it's mainly a byproduct of having good balance in the classes in terms of number of seniors, juniors, sophomores, freshmen and also having guys who have been through the wars and have a established a good road routine. I think the other big key is Coach Menzies himself. Generally he's a pretty even-keeled coach, sure he gets upset at bad calls (or non-calls) just like any other coach does but he is a very upbeat guy and I think that the team kind of feeds off of that, particularly when they're on the road.
It's no secret Craig Robinson and the Beavers have struggled against lesser non-conference opponents inside Gill Coliseum. There's been losses to Idaho, George Washington, and Utah Valley in the last couple of years, and Hell, we can't forget the 51-point massacre at the hands of Seattle U in 2009-10. The common denominator with all of these teams is a player or two that can kill the discipline-lacking Beavers from behind the arc. Who's that guy for New Mexico State?
That's the big question mark for the Aggies this season. Last year they didn't have that killer three point shooter. With the additions of Aronis and Weary Jr., hopefully the Aggies have a couple players who can make defenses pay from behind the arc. Another player to keep an eye on is senior Bandja Sy. He's kind of an x-factor type player for the Aggies when his offense shows up. He hasn't shown much in the midrange game but he can hit the three and absolutely loves to throw down on breakaway dunks. He generally has at least one or two massive, jaw-dropping dunks per game and he's not shy about trying to get to the basket.
On the defensive end of the court, will we see Menzies deploy a mixture of zones or a man-to-man defense to stop Ahmad Starks and Devon Collier?
I think you'll see a little bit of everything although you may see the Aggies start out in a man-to-man defense.
How do you think Aggie fans will travel for the season opener? Will we see a little red in Gill Coliseum?
That's a good question. There has been pretty good representation from Aggie fans when the team has been sent to the Pacific Northwest (three different times for NCAA tournaments, Spokane twice and Portland this year). There may be a smattering of crimson in the stands but I wouldn't expect a huge traveling party.
Your prediction for tonight, and the season in general?
As much as I'd love to predict a victory for the Aggies, I think that Oregon State will come away with the 'W' in this one. I think the combination of the Beavers playing on Friday giving them an opportunity to shake off some of the early-season jitters, playing at home and also the Aggies breaking in a bunch of new players in particular at the point guard position gives Oregon State just enough of an advantage to pull out a win. That being said, if the Aggies are able to keep their turnover number around 10 or 11, dominate on the boards and can hit make a few threes, they could definitely win the game.
Thanks, Sam! Looking forward to an interesting weekend at Gill!