How does one describe New Mexico State's 64-44 loss to Saint Louis in the NCAA Tournament Thursday? Well, incredibly disappointing would be one way.
The Aggies didn't show up, and were outplayed and outmatched on the day. Granted, No. 4-seeded Saint Louis is a good team. But the Aggies were also exposed for what they were: A mediocre one from a bad Western Athletic Conference.
Check that, because the Aggie defense wasn't terrible. Saint Louis, after all, was held to 64 points on the day. And it could have been worse.
But it was the NMSU offense that just looked inadequate. The team had nine first-half turnovers and just 16 points total at intermission. All season the Aggies' halfcourt offense has been poor schematically — one man dribbling, another setting a screen and three others standing around. An offense without a true, quality point guard, and based off dribbling, not movement away from the ball and ball movement itself. And, while such a system may have worked against the Seattle's and Texas-Arlington's of the world, it didn't work Thursday.
The issue against Saint Louis was NMSU needed quality possessions and, in turn, as many good shot attempts as possible. But with nine turnovers in the first half, it takes away any chance a team has on either front.
The Aggies trailed 29-16 at halftime, but got within single digits, 37-28, early in the second half. Saint Louis called timeout, and what was likely said? Well, NMSU got back into the contest by forcing turnovers, and Saint Louis must have also known if they protect the basketball on its end, the Aggies wouldn't be able to sustain their scoring success. After a Remi Barry 3-pointer shortly thereafter, to cut the deficit to six, a 22-8 Saint Louis run followed over the next seven minutes, as the Billikens took a 59-39 lead.
Going to the tournament is a good accomplishment, and the Aggies should go back again next season, with the WAC getting increasingly worse by the year. It can't hurt in exposure, or recruiting, or from an experience standpoint. Again, at least for one week, it provided an emotional lift locally. But it was also apparent on Thursday, the Aggies weren't ready for such a stage.
This is the next step for the program — winning once they get there. NMSU's best postseason performance under head coach Marvin Menzies came when they nearly upset Michigan State in 2010 — a Michigan State team that eventually wound up in the Final Four that season. In many ways, even in a loss, that was one of the program's finest, and most surprising games in recent memory. But last year they were handled by Indiana, and this year the Billikens beat them thoroughly.
Can the Aggies take it to the next level? Again, one would think they'll be back in 2014. At the very least, playing adequately would be a good place to start.
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