Conference play in the WAC started last weekend, and the race appears to be wide open. Before the season, WAC coaches picked Nevada to win, followed by New Mexico State and Utah State. WAC media (I believe the WAC is the only conference that conducts two separate preseason polls) picked Utah State, followed by Nevada and New Mexico State. In the last week of December, stat guru Ken Pomeroy did simulations of the likelihood of each Division I team to win its conference; the WAC was projected to be the closest of all the conference races with New Mexico State winning 32% of the time, Utah State 29%, and Nevada 22%.
The first weekend of WAC action bolstered Nevada's chances to emerge as champions as they won twice on the road, at both Idaho and Utah State; the Utah State loss was the blue Aggies' first home conference loss in four years. Both Idaho and Utah State won their other home games against Fresno State. The other pairs of traveling partners only played one game each on the opening weekend, New Mexico State winning at Louisiana Tech and Hawai'i besting San Jose State on the islands.
Tonight's game between New Mexico State and Utah State in Las Cruces was important for each team. Utah State would fall significantly behind the other leading WAC contenders by losing to each of them in the first three games. For the New Mexico State Aggies, protecting the home court was a primary aim; winning all the home games and splitting the road ones is a good formula for winning the regular season championship. There is some significant history between the schools: Utah State had won 35 of 62 prior meetings in total, but only 10 of 28 in Las Cruces. Aggie center Hamidu Rahman was quoted in today's Las Cruces Sun News, "I think it's a big rivalry game because every time we play them, it's so intense. We just don't like them, so we do get up for that game."
For me, the evening got off to a good start when Lou and Mary Henson arrived for the game. Lou, who has won 779 games as a Division I coach, was both an Aggie player and a coach in two separate NMSU stints sandwiched around his time at Illinois. The Hensons, whose seats are across the aisle from mine, had been traveling for several weeks, winding up that trip with a visit to Champaign to celebrate Lou's 80th birthday watching Illinois upset Ohio State earlier this week. Before the game and during the play, lots of fans and former players of Lou's, both at NMSU and at Las Cruces High before that, stopped to wish him the best. Many of them stopped to discuss "which Aggie team" they believed would show up tonight, the one that beat the New Mexico Lobos convincingly in November, or the one that was trounced by them in December.
The hanging mascot ritual, such a success (not!) before the New Mexico game last month, was attempted again, with the Utah State Aggie cow mascot piñata in the rafters. This happened very early; I was there about 45 minutes before the tip, and Big Blue was already up there, and almost the only occupant of the arena. By the time a Las Cruces police officer sang the national anthem on "Guns and Hoses Night" (all first responders got discounted admission), a crowd of over 5,000 was present.
The first half of the game was close throughout. NMSU played an intense man-to-man defense for much of the half, and Utah State played a zone, since the NMSU Aggies had a significant size advantage and had not demonstrated much of a perimeter game. Each team had short runs and no lead was greater than five. Utah State had a small field goal percentage advantage, and a bigger free throw advantage (they were 10-10, while NMSU missed six first half throws). NMSU had a small rebounding advantage. Utah State played consistently in the "system" installed by long-time, successful coach Stew Morrill, and it kept them even with the larger NMSU Aggies; the half ended with the teams tied at 34.
"Guns and Hoses" continued at halftime, with a pretty well-played five minute basketball game between city police and firefighters. The "Guns" led most of the game, but the "Hoses" got a couple of #superhoops late to get the two point victory.
During halftime, both coaches made defensive adjustments: USU went to using a man-to-man on most possessions, and NMSU used a matchup zone most of the second half. The officials let the teams play for the most part, and that resulted in some raw emotions at a couple of points, and two technical fouls on NMSU players, one for a "physical technical foul" on center Tshilidzi Nephawe and one on a showboating dunk by forward Bandja Sy. NMSU's Aggies gradually increased their lead starting at about the 15 minute mark by toughening their defense, giving USU very few second shots, and utilizing their superior size by taking the ball into the lane and either making short shots, including a few dunks, or drawing USU fouls. Two USU centers, Morgan Grim and Ben Clifford, fouled out of the contest.
New Mexico State continues to lead the country in free throw rate (FTA/FGA), and in the second half of this game, made a much better percentage of them than they had in the first. Balanced NMSU scoring was also important; all seven players scored at least eight points each, led by freshman guard Daniel Mullings, whose 17 points included two impressive second-half dunks. USU's junior forward Kyisean Reed played well and is learning Morrill's system well; he and senior point guard Brokeith Pane led USU in scoring with 18 and 16, respectively. It was clear that injured senior forward Brady Jardine's leadership is very much missed by his team.
The NMSU lead grew from three with twelve minutes to play, to nine with eight minutes to go, to thirteen with three minutes left, and to twenty as the horn sounded. It was fun for NMSU fans to give, and probably unpleasant for the USU team to hear, the "Winning Team, Losing Team" chant regularly delivered by the student section at the Spectrum in Logan. The NMSU victory leaves them 2-0 in WAC play with Idaho coming to Las Cruces on Saturday night. Utah State's road swing continues to Louisiana Tech on Saturday, a non-conference game at Seattle next Thursday, and a road game at Idaho next Saturday; some wins in those will be important to how they will finish the regular season. After Saturday's Idaho game, NMSU also goes on the road, heading to San Jose and Hawai'i next weekend.
at NEW MEXICO STATE 80, UTAH STATE 60 01/12/2012
UTAH STATE 9-8 (1-2) -- J. Baker 6-16 1-1 14; P. Medlin 3-10 1-2 9; B. Pane 7-12 1-2 16; K. Reed 6-8 6-9 18; M. Grim 2-3 4-6 8; D. Berger 0-5 0-0 0; M. Bruneel 0-2 1-2 1; J. Stone 1-1 0-2 2; E. Farris 0-3 4-4 4; B. Clifford 0-1 0-0 0; A. Thoseby 1-5 0-0 2; I. Premasunac 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 17-27 60. NEW MEXICO STATE 12-5 (2-0) -- H. Laroche 4-8 1-4 10; D. Mullings 8-10 1-3 17; W. McKines 4-10 3-5 13; T. Watson 3-3 3-5 9; B. Sy 3-11 2-3 8; T. Nephawe 4-8 4-4 12; H. Rahman 4-11 3-5 11. Totals 30-61 17-29 80.
Three-point goals: USU 3-16 (B. Pane 1-4; P. Medlin 2-5; E. Farris 0-1; D. Berger 0-2; M. Bruneel 0-1; A. Thoseby 0-3), NMSU 3-12 (W. McKines 2-4; H. Laroche 1-3; B. Sy 0-4; D. Mullings 0-1); Rebounds: USU 28 (K. Reed 6), NMSU 39 (W. McKines 11); Assists: USU 8 (B. Pane 3), NMSU 14 (H. Laroche 6); Total Fouls -- USU 25, NMSU 19; Fouled Out: USU-M. Grim; NMSU-T. Nephawe.