As the college basketball season hits its stretch drive, the New Mexico State Aggies are looking good.
For starters, the Aggies are shooting the ball better — NMSU has made 14 of 24 3-point attempts in their last two meaningful games against Utah State and Drake.
The Aggies are going to try and pound teams inside — in the paint, between the blocks — regardless, but good outside shooting balances their offense and opens things up on the interior ever-so-slightly.
Can they sustain a reasonable shooting performance from long-range? That's one question. Hernst Laroche is the team's most consistent 3-point shooter, followed by Wendell McKines. Bandja Sy remains a wild card — he's a streak shooter who's hitting at a 31 percent clip from 3-point territory this season.
But NMSU's overall performance is deeper than simply shooting the ball at a better rate from deep.
This team's improved play can be traced back to the turn of the New Year, and the departure of guard Christian Kabongo.
Yes, Kabongo was a player with some talent, but his absence and the team's uptick ever since cannot be overlooked.
Simply from a chemistry standpoint, things are better — NMSU is playing more as a team — and it starts in the Aggies backcourt.
Point guard Hernst Laroche has proven just how valuable he is, playing strong the past two months.
He needs to be on the court — either with the ball in his hands to get it to an appropriate teammate, or as a 3-point threat on the perimeter.
You know, Laroche has rarely been a point guard that takes your breath away, but he's always been a steady performer for the Aggies. If he ever went down for an extended period, the team would likely go down as well.
That, and guard Daniel Mullings' minutes have skyrocketed.
The freshman is a true difference maker on defense — the entire team's performance on that end of the floor has been solid and Mullings has to be a big reason why. He's going to make up for mistakes and create turnovers with his quickness, which can ignite the Aggie attack on the other end.
We've said it before — if Mullings develops a jump shot, than he becomes a difference maker on offense as well. For now, however, that looks like a project for this offseason, and a conversation for another time.
Alas, the question now becomes, can the Aggies go to the NCAA Tournament? Any such talk must go directly to the WAC Tournament, which it would seem the Aggies still need to win in order to make the Big Dance.
First off, yes Nevada remains WAC's best team. That does not mean the Aggies cannot beat them on the third night of a three-day tournament. Not saying the Aggies are going to have an easy road to journey in the WAC Tourney — they're not — but a finals appearance still remains a strong possibility, and a few things just might work in their favor if they were to meet Nevada on the competition's final evening.
First off, both teams will be battling fatigue, although the Wolf Pack have four beastly players, and not much after that. They also rely on the 3-point shot — remember when they went 7 of 9 from downtown during the first half of the two teams' first meeting in Las Cruces? Meanwhile, the Aggies, again, are going to try and pound teams down low first and foremost. And no matter the opponent in the WAC Tourney, NMSU is a big, physical and strong team, characteristics that should be a good fit for a winner-take-all championship game in a three-game in three-days format.
The reality with the Aggies is that on any given night, anything can happen — just two weeks ago they went scoreless in the final 5 1/2 minutes in a road loss at Idaho.
And, at the same time, they are capable of beating any team on any given night as well. That is, if they're on top of their game — shooting the ball from deep at a reasonable rate and defending well, particularly at the 3-point line.
With all that being said, the Aggies can win the WAC Tournament. They just have to continue their hot play.
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