Marvin Menzies has New Mexico State on its way to becoming something of a mid-major dynasty. The seventh-year head coach has led the Aggies to no worse than a third-place finish in the Western Athletic Conference every season, and he coached his team to the NCAA Tournament three of the last four seasons.
New Mexico State enters WAC play this season as the big favorite after earning a NCAA Tournament bid last year and finishing 11-5 in non-conference play during the last two months. The Aggies lived up to their preseason billing with a big-time win at New Mexico and only one bad loss coming to Western Michigan, a MAC title contender.
The Aggies have the talent and depth to win a title in any mid-major league, but they are an especially large favorite in the WAC due to the consequences of realignment. The WAC was one of the top mid-major leagues last season with Louisiana Tech, Denver, and New Mexico State leading the way.
But Louisiana Tech and Denver departed, as did Utah State, one of the most successful mid-major programs which won 21 games a season ago.
Now, the Aggies main competition for the league title will be Seattle, Cal State Bakersfield, and Idaho. On Kenpom, Seattle ranks as the second-best team in the league at No. 204 overall.
New Mexico State is No. 59.
But Menzies is not letting the drop in competition get to his head.
“There’s challenging road games on the schedule for sure,” Menzies said. “At the end of the day, you’ve still got to play games and you’ve still got to beat people, and there’s nothing written in ink here. … The conference is going to exceed expectations as it goes forward.”
Rarely do teams finish conference play, regardless of the level of competition, unscathed. Somewhere along the way, they will have an off night while the underdog plays out of its mind.
For a recent example, look to Murray State in 2011-12; the Racers finished the regular season at 28-1, and the lone loss came in conference play at Tennessee State.
“Even teams that have won national championships get a couple of losses — you’re bound to drop one in conference if you’re getting everybody’s best every night,” Menzies said. “The goal is to win every game — but that’s every team’s goal in conference, to go 16-0. So that’s not something we think about. We’re just concentrating on Grand Canyon right now, and concentrating on how we can be our best for that game. And then we move on to the next game. That’s no secret to the formula. You can’t win them all unless you win the next one.”
But if anyone in college basketball posts an undefeated conference record, New Mexico State is the smart pick.
The Aggies have a high-level guard in junior Daniel Mullings, and they will overmatch every WAC team in the frontcourt with 7’5″ sophomore Sim Bhullar and 6’10” junior Tshilidzi Nephawe.
Mullings leads New Mexico State and is No. 3 in the WAC with 16.7 points per game. The junior has been the Aggies’ go-to scorer, notching double figures in all but two games this season, and he is also No. 5 in the WAC with 3.5 assists per contest.
“Daniel has been consistently our guy that brings us opportunities,” Menzies said.
If Mullings can rediscover his three-point shot, he will become even more dangerous. Though he did not shoot often as a sophomore, he made 20 of 54 (37%). In 15 games, that number has dipped to 24.1%.
Starting alongside Mullings in the backcourt are DK Eldridge and K.C. Ross-Miller.
Eldridge, a junior college transfer, has had an immediate impact on Menzies’ squad, averaging 10.8 points and shooting 45.7% on three-pointers. He, along with reserve guard Kevin Aronis, and the team’s two main threats from beyond the arc.
Ross-Miller is No. 3 in the WAC with 3.9 assists per game, and he leads the conference at 89.7% from the foul line.
Bhullar imposes a mismatch on any team the Aggies schedule. At 7’5″, he has size that even nationally ranked, high-major teams do not possess. Sometimes he struggles to run his 360-pound body up and down the floor, but he still gives New Mexico State 26.5 valuable minutes per game.
In that time, he averages 9.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks while shooting 67% from the field.
“He’s a great kid, he’s fun to coach,” Menzies said of Bhullar. “I just think he really creates challenges for the other team. I think that gives us a distinct advantage.”
Nephawe gets overshadowed, both literally and figuratively, by the gigantic Bhullar, but the junior’s skill set is more polished. The South Africa native has been very productive after medically redshirting last season, averaging 9.9 points on 53.5% field-goal shooting to go along with 6.9 rebounds per game.
Drake coach Ray Giacoletti, whose Bulldogs lost in overtime to New Mexico State on Dec. 14, called Nephawe the “better post-up player” of the Aggies’ starting frontcourt. Giacoletti said you have to pick your poison when choosing which player to assign your top post defender.
Between the two of them, no WAC team even comes close to matching New Mexico State’s frontcourt firepower.
The Aggies also utilize 6’10” senior Renaldo Dixon as a reserve forward. Dixon is averaging career-highs of 6.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game off the bench.
The WAC season begins for New Mexico State when they travel to Grand Canyon on Saturday night.
Though Grand Canyon is a newcomer to Division I and the WAC, Menzies is not sleeping on them. The Antelopes are already 1-0 after beating Texas-Pan American on Thursday night.
“There’s a lot of energy and excitement around their program,” Menzies said. “They have the ability to really push the ball in transition and score in a lot of different ways. They’ve got a couple of guys who can really score inside, and they’re really agile in terms of their mobility in terms of scoring inside. There are some challenges there.”
The Aggies’ quest for a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance will tip off at 9 p.m. ET Saturday.