Mark Few, Bill Self, John Calipari…Chris Jans. That’s it. That’s the list of coaches with a record above .800 at their respective schools. In his fourth year as a Division I head coach, Chris Jans has won 103 games while losing just 29. Now, with the regular season wrapping up, Jans and the New Mexico State Aggies are just one win away from completing the program’s first complete sweep of the WAC.
The numbers are impressive on their own, and place Jans amongst an elite group of winning coaches. But the journey to this point has not been without its challenges. After the heartbreaking 78-77 loss to Auburn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, the Aggies had high expectations, bringing back a senior-laden squad on a mission.
Then the worst possible thing came roaring through Las Cruces. The injury-bug, in all its glory, showed absolutely no mercy on the Aggies. Senior point guard, and the lynchpin of the offense, AJ Harris had a fractured finger to start the season. Starting wing, Clayton Henry, another important part of the 2018-19 Aggies team, went down with a torn ligament in his thumb.
As if losing two key returning seniors wasn’t bad enough, transfers Wilfried Likayi and Dajour Joseph both suffered season-ending injuries before the season even began. Four players who were expected to contribute big minutes, all lost before playing a minute. Chris Jans had a crisis he had been lucky to avoid so far at New Mexico State.
The non-conference portion of New Mexico State’s schedule was brutal. Starting with a rivalry loss to a rival UTEP, followed by a blowout at Arizona and a sweep by in-state rival New Mexico, the Aggies looked vulnerable. For the first time in Jans’ tenure, the Aggies were at or under .500 multiple times throughout non-conference play. Chemistry on either side of the ball was a struggle. And, in the eyes of many, this New Mexico State team was more vulnerable than it had been for many years.
Ending the non-conference slate at 9-6, all eyes in the WAC were on New Mexico State. If another team was going to take down the perennial WAC powerhouse this seemed to finally be the year.
Enter the winning ways of the coach affectionately known in Las Cruces as Jans the Man. In his first gig as a D1 head coach at Bowling Green, Jans turned a Falcons team that had not had a winning record in over five seasons into a 21-12 contender in the MAC. At New Mexico State, Jans has records of 28-6, 30-5, and currently 24-6. On Thursday, March 5, Jans has the chance to complete his first undefeated conference season.
After avenging last season’s opener with a 15-point victory over California Baptist, the Aggies have reeled off 14 more conference wins and have not lost a regular season conference game since January 3, 2019.
Although the numbers are gaudy, the reality is that many conference games have been all out wars. On the road, Jans and the Aggie squad have squeaked away with wins at Seattle, UTRGV, and CSU-Bakersfield. At home, Utah Valley nearly did something unthinkable. However, a buzzer-beater three from redshirt sophomore Jabari Rice helped the Aggies escape with a win. Not to mention, injuries continued to plague the Aggies; taking out Trevelin Queen and Terrell Brown for a handful of games throughout conference play.
It is clear that the 2019-20 season has not necessarily gone according to plan. No one could have predicted the early season injuries or the early season slump New Mexico State found themselves in. When teams face adversity the common denominator that tends to pull them through is found in coaching. Although every win is important, not all are created equal. Some might say the tougher games that NM State has survived this year show that they are not unbeatable. Some might say winning those more difficult games is what makes New Mexico State that much better.
However, the sense of invincibility that Jans seems to instill in his team has proven to be invaluable. Not only do his teams win a lot, they feel like they can never lose. Pulling a team that was reeling from losses on the court. Managing an array of injuries to newcomers and veterans. Managing egos and building a culture of win first. These are all part of the plan for Jans in building something special in Las Cruces. It is also what makes 2019-20 special.
Chris Jans proves himself as a coach night in and night out who knows how to win. Jans has also become a proven leader. It is easy to claim that this is Jans’ best coaching job yet. The W/L record might not be what New Mexico State expects each year. However, rescuing a team from what seemed like the brink of a fall-out year, Jans has pushed the limits. And the push is paying off.
Jans was the early and consistent favorite to repeat as WAC Coach of the Year. That’s no surprise. It’s no surprise also what Jans continues to build in the desert of the Mesilla Valley.