New Mexico State Could Wind Up a Scary #16 Seed in March

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on January 29th, 2015

To call New Mexico State the class of the WAC would probably be an understatement; Marvin Menzies’ team ranks 162 spots higher in KenPom than its next best colleague and possesses visibly superior size and athleticism. In 2013-14, the Aggies demonstrated their ability to essentially sleepwalk through conference play and then out-talent the rest of the league (a shell of its former self) when it matters most, in March. In fact, they have now reached the NCAA Tournament three seasons in a row — last year taking San Diego State to overtime in the Round of 64 — and the story should be much the same this time around. That is, except for one major difference – whereas New Mexico State did enough to earn a #13 seed in the three years prior, it’s in no such position this season. With several key players just getting healthy and virtually zero opportunities left to build on an empty resume, the Aggies could wind up an intriguing case on Selection Sunday: an uncommonly tall, uncommonly talented #16 seed.

New Mexico State would be a unique #16-seed. [Getty Images]

New Mexico State could end up a unique 16-seed on Selection Sunday. (Getty Images)

The beginning of December was not kind to New Mexico State. In a matter of a couple days, the Aggies lost preseason all-conference forward Tshilidzi Nephawe for one month with a foot injury, reigning WAC Player of the Year Daniel Mullings for eight weeks with a broken finger, and learned 7’3’’ center Tanveer Bhullar – who hurt his ankle before the season started – would miss an additional six weeks of action. The team went on to lose six of its next eight contests (four without Mullings and all without Nephawe) to fall to 5-9 overall. And while several of the losses were surprisingly competitive – and none really all that bad – the overall dearth of quality wins has left Menzies’ team with little to hang its hat on; currently the Aggies have zero wins against teams ranked within the RPI top-100. As a result – unlike last year, when it could point to a road triumph at New Mexico – its own RPI (currently 176th) has suffered irreparable damage. Since no other WAC team has an RPI better than #242, and half the league sits below #300, the Aggies’ chance of significantly improving their number is slim. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm currently projects the Aggies as a #16 seed in one of the First Four play-in games, a position that could improve depending on what happens in other leagues, but one that could also get worse; with several guys still finding their legs and a recent loss to Seattle already on the books, there is no guarantee New Mexico State wins out.

The Aggies have a low ceiling when it comes to NCAA Tournament seeding, and that’s an immutable fact. Their ceiling on the court, however, is only getting higher. Nephawe – an athletic 6’10” big man who led the team in rebounding last year – returned to action on January 15. Mullings, their most dynamic player, scored 17 in his return last Thursday. New Mexico State has since won back-to-back games by 22 points and 25 points, respectively. And the good news doesn’t end there. When Nephawe and Mullings were out, young and inexperienced guys stepped up and blossomed in their absences. Cameroonian freshman Pascal Siakam (12.7 RPG, 7.7.) has been one of the best forwards in the WAC, currently ranked by KenPom as the conference’s top player. Likewise, senior Remi Barry – whose 2013-14 campaign was derailed by injury – has thrived at small forward, leading the team in scoring (13.8 PPG) and shooting 51 percent from deep. Ian Baker, another freshman, did a good job filling in at point guard during Mullings’ absence, while 6’10’’ newcomer Jonathan Wilkins has performed admirably down low. Those increased minutes could pay off down the road. Finally, there’s this: Bhullar, the freshman brother of former Aggie, Sim, has been cleared to practice and could return soon. If and when he joins the rotation, that would give Menzies a frontcourt consisting of five players standing 6’8’’ or taller, including two 6’10’’ forwards and one giant 7’3’’ center.

New Mexico State is currently the 40th-tallest team in college basketball (in terms of effective height) and should only continue ‘growing’ as Nephawe and Bhullar log increased minutes going forward. Only two of the 30 #16 seeds over the past five years – 2010 Winthrop and 2014 Weber State – ranked among the top-100 tallest units in college basketball, and neither of those teams possessed near the talent or balance of the Aggies. Mullings is a premier defender and high-level athlete, adept at getting to the rim. Nephawe would be considered ‘physically imposing’ by nearly any standard. Guard D.K. Eldridge has proven himself against good competition. As a team, NMSU ranks within the top 140 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and should be a top-100 KenPom team by season’s end. Teams of that caliber rarely – if ever – enter the Big Dance as a #16 seed. So even though a lot still has to shake out – the Aggies could wind up a #15 seed, or miss the NCAA Tournament altogether – the prospect of that happening is pretty exciting. You never know… maybe this is the year when a #1 seed finally tumbles.

Tommy Lemoine (250 Posts)

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *