The New Mexico State Aggies are rollin’ at the moment. 3-0 and momentum on their side as they embark on a championship run at the 2021 Myrtle Beach Invitational.
Friday morning should be no different, especially with their opponent being former longtime conference rivals, Utah State. These two were conference mates in the WAC from 2005-2013 and years before that as members of the Big West from 1988-2000 and before that in the now defunct Pacific Coast Athletic Association. In short, this matchup goes back decades, with Utah State holding the all-time series lead 36-30. The last time these Aggies played though was all the way back in 2013, when Utah State broke a three-game losing streak to New Mexico State in a 73-69 win at home.
Obviously this isn’t a battle for the top of the WAC, and the players and coaching staffs on each sideline weren’t a part of those battles either. That won’t matter on Friday morning, when two teams with the same mascot name, and a long multi-conference history take the floor.
NEW MEXICO STATE (3-0, 0-0 WAC)
Chris Jans’ squad is getting better after every contest. This team’s talent is undeniable. But still a young team as far as chemistry and experience as a whole goes. They continue to face every challenge straight on and take home the W.
The Aggies had all eyes of those who could tune into the early morning (10:00 am MT) showdown against the always tough Davidson Wildcats on Thursday. A red hot second-half saw New Mexico State climb from a 33-28 halftime deficit and cruise to a 12-point win after outscoring longtime head coach Bob McKillop’s squad 48-31 in the last twenty minutes.
Their next task will be no easier as they take on 1st-year head coach Ryan Odom’s Utah State squad in the semifinals. At first glance, New Mexico State appears to be deeper and maybe slightly more talented than their mascot name doppelgangers. But those qualities aren’t what always win basketball games. And after tough first days, both teams know there is no room for error if they wish to advance. Teddy Allen and Jabari Rice continue to lead the Aggie attack each game. The duo combined for 39 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists in the win over Davidson. As a, team New Mexico State committed 15 fouls and nearly as many turnovers as they logged assists. They can’t afford any sloppy play if they hope to “upset” Utah State in Charleston.
Utah State Aggies (2-1, 0-0 MWC)
The Aggies are thriving in the shadow of Craig Smith’s tenure in Logan. The now Utah Ute head coach’s impact at Utah State will go down in school history. But now it’s Ryan Odom’s turn and he is continuing right where this program left off this past spring.
Yes, there are many key faces gone from the Aggie sideline, aside from just their head coach. 7-foot Portuguese big man Neemias Queta is playing for the Sacramento Kings G-League affiliate, the Stockton Kings, after being selected in the 2nd round of this past summer’s NBA Draft. Other key names decided to follow Smith to Salt Lake City or find new horizons. Still, there is still plenty to worry about in regards to these new look Aggies and it starts with 6-7 senior forward Justin Bean literally everywhere.
Bean is averaging 26.3 PPG, 14.3 RPG & 2.0 SPG in 41.0 MPG (2OT against Penn) through three games. He led the Aggies with 33 points, 16 points, 4 assists, 4 steals in their 87-79 double-overtime win over Penn in their first game of the ESPN event. There is plenty to keep Chris Jans and his staff up late before Friday morning’s early tip-off aside from Bean, and I’m sure he’s well aware.
What else can we say about @justinbean34?
— USU Men's Hoops (@USUBasketball) November 18, 2021
MATCHUP TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Johnny McCants vs. Justin Bean
At the moment, the scoring prowess for both squads lies in different parts of the floor. The Aggies are led by their potent backcourt duo of Jabari Rice (18.0 PPG) and Teddy Allen (17.3 PPG). While Utah State’s Aggies are finding their production in the aforementioned Justin Bean and graduate transfer Brandon Horvath (14.3 PPG).
While Rice and Allen focus on their defensive assignments and scoring the basketball, versatile front court players like McCants, Donnie Tillman and Yout Alok could focus on the interior. Keeping Bean off the boards and away from the free-throw line is essential for New Mexico State. Easier said than done. The 6-7 forward will be going for his fourth straight double-double of the season on Friday morning. But McCants plays a similar high-motor game with great length and bounce. And that high-motor might be enough to make a huge difference no the box score defensively.
The X-Factor: Quality Defense
This is a tough matchup for New Mexico State. One could simply say neutralize Justin Bean and a win should come easy. But that’s not the case. The Aggies of Utah State have several capable scorers in the lineup. Not to mention, Bean looks a little too hot to become a non-factor overnight, despite the double-overtime game less than 24 hours prior. So that begs the question, what will be the x-factor?
At quick glance, the athleticism and length of the New Mexico State perimeter could be the difference maker in this one. Utah State went to the charity stripe 19 times total on Thursday morning, and converted on 89.5% of those attempts. In a tight game like that, a clutch performance at the free throw line could be all the difference. Another interesting stat is the Aggies 3-point shooting. Utah State shot 42.1% on the day while going a 8-19 from deep. If New Mexico State can keep the referee’s whistle silent and takeaway the three from Utah State, this might be their 4th win of the season.
KenPom has Utah State as 1-point favorites in this one, and though I agree it is going to be close, my vote for victor swings in New Mexico State’s direction. Bean is a heck of a player, with what appears to be a non-stop motor on most nights. But the physical demand of yesterday’s 2OT thriller coupled with New Mexico State’s size, athleticism and depth in their frontcourt alone could prove too much.
This will definitely be a close one, but the Aggies of New Mexico State are getting better each game. And a run to the championship game in Charleston could have them receiving top-25 votes by the end of the week. I think New Mexico State shows up.
New Mexico State 75, Utah State 70
Tip off for this series in St. George will be at 7:00 PM MT on both Friday and Saturday. And as of course can be seen on the WAC Digital Network.