LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (KTSM) – On March 5, 2020, New Mexico State men’s basketball defeated Cal Baptist on Senior Day at the Pan American Center, 83-50, and set its sights on winning the WAC Tournament, then heading back to March Madness.
The Aggies never got that chance; the world shut down less than a week later due to COVID-19 and New Mexico State’s men’s and women’s basketball teams spent the entire 2020-21 season playing games outside of the Land of Enchantment due to COVID restrictions in the state of New Mexico.
That long and winding road has all led to Tuesday, Nov. 9, at the Pan Am, where, for the first time in 615 days, New Mexico State will host basketball games, with fans in attendance. The Aggie women tip off the fun at 4 p.m. as they host Western New Mexico, then the men play a marquee season opener vs. perennial Big West Conference power, UC-Irvine.
“It was a whole season of watching on TV or listening on the radio,” said NMSU men’s basketball coach Chris Jans on the eve of the season. “We’re hopeful we get a great crowd and the students rally behind us, everyone wants that sixth man. Regardless of how big the crowd is, I think it’ll be really good. There will be an excitement.”
Despite the difficult nature of the 2020-21 season, New Mexico State’s men still managed to go 12-8 a season ago, advancing to the WAC Tournament championship game where they finally ran out of gas in a loss to Grand Canyon.
Eight months after that defeat, the Aggies will look completely different when they take the court on Tuesday night vs. the Anteaters. 13 new players will flank five important returners, including potential WAC Player of the Year Jabari Rice; veterans Clayton Henry, Johnny McCants and Donnie Tillman; and redshirt sophomore center Will McNair.
Jans said at his weekly Monday press conference that this could be the deepest bench he’s had in five seasons at the helm in Las Cruces, including the 2018-19 team that saw 13 players average at least 10 minutes per game. The preseason WAC favorites could be absolutely loaded.
“We’ve been at our best when we have deep teams and competition on the daily,” Jans said. “A lot of programs do it differently, they want to know who their top 7-8 guys are and who’s going to play every night. That’s not really our style. We want guys to compete every day and have someone nipping at their heels so they can’t take days off. We have that this year when we’re healthy.”
The Aggies brought in arguably the top offseason addition of any program in the WAC by getting Nebraska transfer Teddy Allen to come to Las Cruces. Playing at his fourth school in five seasons, Allen is a proven scorer at the collegiate level, averaging 16.5 points per game for the Cornhuskers in 2019-20. If he’s locked in, the 1-2 punch of Allen and Rice could be formidable.
Beyond the returnees and Allen, fellow transfers Mario McKinney, Mike Peake, Yuat Alok, Virshon Cotton and Marsei Caston could all be a part of the rotation, as could freshman Jorge Moreno.
Jans’ biggest task early in the season will be putting the pieces of the puzzle together and managing a very talented team. Buy-in from everyone appears to be coming along now, but with so many new players, the Aggies could use the fact that they’re a bit unknown to opponents to their advantage early in the season.
“In the last two weeks, they’ve rallied around each other, the talk has been good,” said Jans. “Some of the older guys have stepped up and they understand what’s ahead of them. They’ve played meaningful college basketball. You can see some individuals making strides and as a team we’re seeing that as well. The advantage we have is the unknown. We certainly have a bit of a surprise tactic, but that goes out the window early.”
Injuries might affect NMSU early. Henry is again out with a foot injury, while Washington transfer Nate Pryor hasn’t been able to practice with a knee problem. McKinney, who is expected to start at point guard, has missed time in the preseason with a sprained ankle. He could play Tuesday vs. UC Irvine.
The Anteaters are part of a difficult start to the season for New Mexico State. After opening with UC-Irvine, the Aggies will host UTEP and first-year head coach Joe Golding in the Battle of I-10 on Saturday. Then, it’s off to the Myrtle Beach Invitational Nov. 18-21 in South Carolina.
UC-Irvine is a perennial threat to win the Big West and won an NCAA Tournament game in 2019 as a 13-seed, upsetting Kansas State. Russell Turner’s squad lost in the conference tournament championship game last March, much like the Aggies.
Irvine will be led by big man Collin Welp, a preseason all-Big West selection after averaging 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game a year ago. Two other starters return in guards Dawson Baker and Isaiah Lee, as do four key reserves like DJ Davis (9.1 ppg). It’s an experienced UC-Irvine squad picked to finish second in the Big West. Jans knows it’ll be a difficult test to open the season.
“It’s not ideal to play such an experienced team so early in the season with as many newcomers as we have,” said Jans. “They’re a great defensive and rebounding team and they have role identification, which is great, especially when you have so many guys back.”
UC-Irvine-NMSU will be one of the marquee mid-major games on the slate on opening night in college basketball, up there with Oral Roberts-Colorado State and Belmont-Ohio. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m. at the Pan Am, following the NMSU women’s game at 4 p.m. vs. Western New Mexico.