WAC Hoops fans will be treated to a rare morning/early in the week tip-off for a change. New Mexico State heads east to their second home, El Paso, TX for a rare Tuesday morning tip against the UTRGV Vaqueros in a make-up game treat.
It feels great to have this rescheduled contest come to fruition. So, kudos to both programs for making this work. The original series, scheduled to begin Friday, Jan. 22, and Saturday, Jan. 23, was postponed due to a COVID-19 pause by NM State.
Both programs are coming off a loss heading into Tuesday morning. So, both hope to head back home with wins as they prepare for their final conference series of the regular season beginning Friday.
NEW MEXICO STATE (7-7, 4-6 WAC)
Chris Jans’ squad is coming off of yet another WAC series split this weekend against Tarleton State. The Aggies decided to switch things up against Texans, with a win Friday and loss on Saturday. However, the Aggies yielded familiar results.
A big question for those on both benches will be the status of starting point guard Evan Gilyard II on Tuesday morning. Chris Jans has already eluded to his status as a game-time decision as we inch closer to tip off.
“If I had to bet money, I think one of them possibly could play tomorrow and one of them probably won’t,” Jans said of Gilyard and Wilfried Likayi. “But it could be 2-for-2 or 0-2 really easily.” The other person mentioned is 6-9, junior forward Wilfried Likayi who missed the series against the Texans due to concussion protocols.
Open-ended answers aside, Gilyard II is this team’s best facilitator. Without him on the court, the Aggies tend to struggle creating opportunities. This possibly leaves them in an all-out footrace with a Vaqueros team that leads the conference in field goal attempts (64.1 per game). This also leaves little rebounds for their opponents. Where the Aggies need to focus is slowing the game up and taking quality shots. They shot a very poor .327% from the field in Saturday night’s 64-55 loss to Tarleton State. That was just 24 hours removed from shooting .580% against the same team, including .591% from deep. Those Aggies need to show up in order to beat the Vaqueros.
UTRGV VAQUEROS (9-6, 2-2 WAC)
Interim head coach Jai Steadman is 1-2 since taking over the program last month. His Vaqueros are coming off a sweep at the hands of Utah Valley this past weekend. It was the program’s first conference action since mid-January, when they had a sweep of their own over Dixie State.
But the long time in between conference games and the team dealing with the passing of their head coach Lew Hill earlier in the month, has caused a fall in the conference standings from second to fourth. A win Tuesday morning would place them at 3-2 in WAC play and in third ahead of California Baptist 12-8 (5-5, WAC).
They’ll need all hands on deck to do so, as they looked a bit out of sorts on Saturday in Orem. UTRGV was out-rebounded 48-29, which may be bound to happen against a double-double machine like Fardaws Aimaq. But. UTRGV also had just eight free throw attempts (making 4). The eight free throw attempts is below their season average of 25.6 attempts a game, normally due to their bruising style of play down low.
Utah Valley was obviously a tough test to return to conference play with, especially without their star big man (keep reading). But the Aggies will be equally tough, so the Vaqueros will need to cause turnovers and challenge three point shots. It’s not New Mexico State’s strong suit (.313 3P%), but they take a lot of them (27.4 3PAs per game, leads WAC). So if they can manage to make the Aggies take contested threes and clean up on the boards, this may be too easy.
MATCHUP TO KEEP AN EYE ON: WITH SEAN RHEA IN THE PORTAL, WHO BATTLES MCCANTS
The front-court depth chart for both programs isn’t looking that great. With the Aggies potentially missing Wilfried Likayi (concussion protocols) and Donnie Tillman seeing limited action against the Texans on Saturday. Leaving Las Cruces native, senior forward Johnny McCants and redshirt sophomore William McNair as viable options. McNair comes in to mainly give his teammates a break, and his opponents a headache with his massive frame. While McCants earned a WAC player of the Week nomination for his performances against Tarleton State. Averaging 14.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.5 APG & 1.0 BPG in just 29.5 MPG. Not to mention going 3-6 from beyond the arc in both contests.
For UTRGV, leading scorer (15.2 PPG) and second leading rebounder (6.2 RPG) Sean Rhea opted to enter his name in the transfer portal last week. His absence doesn’t drastically effect the performance of several undersized options on the roster. The team’s leading rebounder (7.2 RPG) and now leading scorer (12.1 PPG) is in fact 6-4 junior guard Quinton Johnson II. But, at least as far as scoring in the paint is concerned, he will be missed.
They will instead rely on 6-7, 200-pound, combo forward Marek Nelson (8.7 PPG) to score. Nelson, alongside the WAC’s best shot blocker Jeff Otchere (2.4 BPG) needs to patrol the paint. Otchere a former American East Defensive Player of the Year got his first starts with UTRGV last week. Though he isn’t a scorer, Otchere can certainly make life difficult for New Mexico State’s bigs. Where NM State’s Johnny McCants and others might find success is taking the game outside and stretching the floor.
One thing is for sure, if the Aggies aren’t knocking down shots there is sure be a battle for second chance opportunities. This Vaqueros squad still crashes the glass with the best of them, especially on the offensive boards. Jai Steadman’s squad averages a conference leading 41.3 boards per game and 14.6 offensive rebounds per game.
WHAT’S ON THE LINE?
Repetition aside, yes, both programs could use a win on Tuesday morning. As mentioned a win for UTRGV will place them in third place heading into Friday’s series against Tarleton State at home.
A win propels the Aggies past Seattle into fifth place with a win.
Both programs are lucky this rescheduling worked out. UTRGV and NM State could use the win and we could use some WAC hoops this early in the week.
KenPom has New Mexico State as the six-point favorites in this lone game against the Vaqueros. If Rhea was still with the program I may have challenged that. But, even given the lack of depth for the Aggies down low I think they pull this one out.
It will come down to the play of each squads backcourts. And also who controls the boards, which for UTRGV could also be their backcourt. I do think it may be a little closer than six-points. And I think the Aggies figure out a way to win this home game, in El Paso.
Tuesday: New Mexico State 70, UTRGV 67
Fans can catch this rare bit of WAC action on a Tuesday can be seen on Fox Sports AZ, Comcast New Mexico, The ‘CW’ Las Cruces/El Paso, Fox Sports Go and of course on the WAC Digital Network. Tip off is scheduled for 11:00 AM MT/12:00 PM MT in the Don Haskins Center.