2022 NCAA Tournament Preview: New Mexico State vs. UCONN

Can Johnny McCants lead New Mexico State to its first NCAA Tournament win in nearly 30 years on Thursday? Courtesy Breanna Biorato/VisuallyBreanna.

For the eighth time since 2011-12, New Mexico State is going dancing. After losing in the 2021 WAC Tournament championship game, head coach Chris Jans gave a powerful message to his team.

“As long as I’m here, I’m never going to let this happen again.”

And Jans’ words rang true on Saturday night at the Orleans Arena. Johnny McCants, Donnie Tillman and Clayton Henry got redemption as the Aggies beat ACU, 66-52, to punch their ticket to the Big Dance.

The No. 12 seed Aggies return to the big dance in Buffalo, NY on Thursday. In their Round of 64 matchup inside the KeyBank Center, they face the 5-seed UCONN Huskies.

This is the first meeting between these two programs in history. So, there was little known about each other until Sunday’s Selection show paired the two together. The road to the NCAA Tournament for both of these programs wasn’t exactly free of obstacles. Both teams are hungry and have worked all season to make it to this point. It’s March, so teams still playing in any postseason tournament know only one thing, survive and advance.

Yes, it’s the official motto of March Madness and yes it’s a great documentary every college basketball fan should watch. But the pressure is real, and plenty of teams succumb to it every year. Plenty of eyes will be glued to the screen for this one. These are two quality teams. Both of which are capable of deep runs with big time players.

UCONN 23-9 (13-6, 3rd in the Big East)

The Huskies enter the big dance ranked 21st in the country and with their highest seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2011 (No. 3). UCONN has won this tournament four times in program history and have won as a lower seed than fifth before. So, the Big East returnees are always a dangerous draw for any team this time of year.

This is the second straight year head coach Dan Hurley has led his team to the NCAA Tournament. Prior to that, the program was in limbo and experiencing a four-year drought from the big dance. Hurley took over the program in 2018. And similarly to his other coaching stops at Wagner and Rhode Island, took a few seasons getting familiar and comfortable before logging 20+ win seasons and making consecutive appearances to the tourney.

The Huskies ended the season 3rd in the Big East standings, in a very competitive year. The Big East had six teams announced on Selection Sunday. UCONN secured wins over nationally ranked Auburn, Marquette and Villanova during the regular season to add to their tournament resume. Although most recently in the Big Apple, UCONN fell to top seeded Villanova 63-60, in a hard fought Big East semifinal game in Madison Square Garden.

Last Time Out

This time last year, the Huskies made an early exit from the Tournament. With a 63-54 loss to Maryland in the first round of the East Region in West Lafayette, IN. UCONN couldn’t stop Eric Ayala, who dropped 23 points to lead all scorers. Of the five starters who appeared in that game for Hurley, only future NBA Draft lottery pick James Bouknight reached double digit points (15). The other four (all returned this season), went 12-37 from the field (32.7%).

Teddy ‘Buckets’ is going to have knock down shots if 5-seed New Mexico State hopes to pull off the upset on Thursday. Courtesy Breanna Biorato/VisuallyBreanna

Players to Watch:

Gr. G-R.J. Cole

The former MEAC Player of the Year headed north to Storrs, CT to join the UCONN program in 2019. After sitting out last year in the American Athletic Conference, Cole has been a key part of the program’s first two successful seasons as reintroduced members of their former home. His team leading 15.7 PPG & 4.1 APG led to his First Team All-Big East selection. Cole is a very capable scorer and facilitator, but makes most of his money inside the arc.

Shooting just 33.9% from deep, the 6-1 guard takes 7.6 2-point field goals a game. Cole is shooting 85% from the free throw line, even though he averages just 3.8 attempts a game. In short, Cole’s primary duty is distributing the basketball, with an assist to turnover ratio of 2.16. He just happens to lead the team in scoring in between assists. Aggies Clayton Henry and Jabari Rice have their work cut out for them with Cole on the perimeter

So. F-Adama Sanogo

Sophomore Malian big man Adamants Sanogo is the anchor of the UCONN front court. The 6-9 forward earned First Team All-Big East honors with his 14.9 PPG, 8.9 RPG & 2.0 BPG. He has the size, mobility and ball handling skills to score from multiple positions on the court. New Mexico State’s Johnny McCants may be a perfect defensive opponent for Sanogo. As an All-WAC Defensive Team selection, the lengthy big who can move his feet could make things difficult for the squad’s second leading scorer.

Keys to the Husky Win: Attack the glass, Defend the Perimeter & Spread the offensive love

UCONN is the 6th ranked best rebounding team in the nation, averaging 40.8 RPG. An amazing portion of that total comes on the offensive glass, with 14.0 a game(3rd in the country). They have to use that and their supreme shot blocking ability (6.5 BPG, 2nd in the nation) to neutralize the Aggies scorers while getting the ball to one of their three scorers averaging 13.7 PPG or higher.

New Mexico State 26-6 (14-4, 1st in the WAC)

The Aggies head back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2018-2019 season. New Mexico State had some early hiccups against region rivals New Mexico and UTEP. This before finding an unforgiving WAC late in the season that caused them to lose their outright regular season title to a three-way tie with Seattle and Stephen. F. Austin.

The Aggies punched their ticket with wins over Grand Canyon (75-70) and Abilene Christian (66-52) in the 2022 WAC Tournament in Las Vegas last week. This New Mexico State team garnered a lot of national attention this past offseason. With a very exciting recruiting period with competitive transfers from all levels and plenty of fire power returning. With that, the Aggies will certainly be on many folks bracket busters lists going into the Round of 64. Folks around the country have come to know and respect the mid-major program built by Marvin Menzies in the 2010s and taken to another level by Chris Jans in recent years.

New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans took over the Aggies program in a bit of an uncertain transitional period five seasons ago.  And has now taken this program to three out of five NCAA Tournaments, even with the 2019-2020 affair canceled due to the covid-19 pandemic.

Last Time Out

The Aggies nearly ended Auburn’s Final Four run back in 2019 in the Round of 64 in Salt Lake City, also as a No. 12 seed. The Tigers were taken down to the wire and escaped with a 78-77 win in the closing seconds. The only remaining Aggies who appeared in that game are Clayton Henry who only logged 8 minutes as a starter. And Johnny McCants who led New Mexico State with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks in 31 minutes off of the bench.

Mike Peake and the New Mexico State bench will play a key role if the Aggies are to pull off an upset Thursday afternoon. Courtesy Breanna Biorato/VisuallyBreanna.

Players to Watch:

R-Jr. G-Teddy Allen

“Teddy Buckets” has hit the New Mexico State scoring lists with force this season. Transferring from the Big Ten ranks at Nebraska to win WAC Player of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, All-WAC First Team & All-WAC Newcomer Team honors in his lone season as an Aggie. External hype around the 6-6 wing was big coming into the season, and clearly Allen didn’t disappoint. Flat out, his scoring ability is a problem for UCONN. With his track record scoring at the highest level in college hoops, Allen is going to be a key piece to Dan Hurley’s scouting report.

R-Jr. G-Sir’Jabari Rice

Aside from a great name, Rice has done a tremendous job going from underrated prospect to the leader of a top mid-major program during his time in Las Cruces. The Houston, TX native whose natural position may be on the wing has done an excellent job running the show for Jans this season. His 12.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG & 3.2 APG earned him Second-Team All-WAC honors. Lastly, the 6-4 lengthy and often position-less Rice can make his impact all over the floor. Also if needed, he scores from a little bit of everywhere, too. So, UCONN defense beware.

Keys to the Aggie Win: A well-fed Teddy Allen, Crash the boards & knock down the three

New Mexico State pulls off this highly anticipated upset with three things in mind. Getting Allen open and quality looks for at least a 20+ point performance. Trying to out-rebound one of the best rebounding teams in the country, both offensively and defensively. And lastly, either knocking down 3-pointers or free throws. Which may be unlikely as the Aggies shoot 32.6% as a team from deep and 69.8% from the charity stripe.

Prediction

KenPom ($) has UCONN as the six-point favorites over New Mexico State. Understandably so given the higher level of competition the Huskies play in year round and their current top-25 national ranking. The Huskies will likely be the biggest and most athletic team the Aggies have faced all season.

I have all of the faith in the world in the Aggies Cinderella capabilities. And even though Chris Jans’ public displeasure for his program’s No. 12 seed is well known. Historically No. 12 seeds have “upset” No. 5 seeds at a very promising rate. With an all-time record of 51-93 since the Tournament’s expansion in 1985. Along with at least one No. 12 over No. 5 seed upset every year since 2016 (except 2018 actually). The busting bracket hopes of Aggie fans everywhere are alive and justified. But given the matchup I say the Huskies may win a close one in Buffalo Thursday night.

UCONN 74, New Mexico State 72

Next Up

Tip-off for the Aggies Round of 64 matchup against UCONN is set for 4:50 MT/6:50 ET and will air on TNT. The winner of Thursday night’s game will advance to the Round of 32 to face the winner of No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 13 Vermont. That game will tip-off after the Aggies game concludes at  7:20 MT/8:20 CT, also on TNT.

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