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Tarleton State Faces New Mexico State for the First Time Since 1964-65

Tarleton State
Tarleton State guard Konstantin Dotsenko and the Texans host New Mexico State in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Courtesy Toby Rhodes/Tarleton State Athletics.
We are in the homestretch WAC hoops fans, as we gear up for yet another Friday/Saturday series in the Lone Star State this weekend. Newcomer Tarleton State hosts New Mexico State in the first meeting between the two schools in nearly 57 years. Last time these two teams met, New Mexico State dominated the Texans in a 74-47 win on Dec. 7, 1964. 
 
This will be a true battle of young versus old. Tarleton State is towards the end of their first year in the WAC and at the Division I level. Meanwhile, New Mexico State is by far the longest-tenured member in the conference. 
 
It’s not only a chance at conference wins but a chance at starting this head-to-head matchup off right.
 

NEW MEXICO STATE (6-6, 3-5 WAC)

Chris Jans’ squad has had some ups and downs all season. Yes, relocation and the late start included. The Aggies have split all but one of their conference series in the 2020-21 season. New Mexico State is in unfamiliar territory at 6-6, 3-5 on the season and currently sitting in 6th place.

New Mexico State heads East after splitting its series with Utah Valley at “home” last weekend. A 66-69 loss on Friday was followed up by a 67-60 win on Saturday. A series split is emblematic of the Aggies season to this point.

“You know they’re better at it on Saturday, you know because they’ve got that experience of Friday,” New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans said. “So it’s, it’s frustrating I don’t know why again I hate saying this, but it’s true it’s basic you know human nature if I knew why fix it. It’s just a it’s a weird phenomenon to me that we’re not more detail oriented on Friday on both ends of the court.”

The Aggies played some of their best defensive basketball all season against the Wolverines last week. New Mexico State clogged the paint and made it hard on Utah Valley’s bigs, leading to turnovers. The approach will be different this week as the Aggies technically have the size advantage in this one. However, NMSU must also defend methodically as the Texans thrive when they can take advantage of isolations, drive and get fouled. This happens all across the roster and must be handled carefully.

“Well, they better put their helmets on you know,” Jans said. “They’re the one of, if not the most hardest playing teams in the league. They are going to challenge you on every catch. If you don’t maintain some ball toughness about you when you’re passing and catching and handling the basketball, they’re going to expose you. They are going to fight you tooth and nail.”

TARLETON STATE (7-9, 2-6 WAC)

Billy Gillispie’s first year at the helm at Tarleton State has been about what you may expect. Due to the increase in level of competition as well as roster turnover, 2020-21 has had its ups and downs. Gillispie is also no stranger to New Mexico State as he holds a 2-2 record against the Aggies from his time in charge at UTEP back in 2002-2003.

His group this year is a tad undersized. However, it’s fearless and boasts four players that are averaging double-digits. But, the status of key rotation player, Tahj Small is still up in the air at the time of this preview. Small, a transfer from Troy is one of those double-digit scorers (10.3) but also the teams leading rebounder (6.7 RPG).

If you think the Aggies play small ball, even with Small in the lineup, the Texans may have them beat. Starting post Jonathan Jackson stands just 6-6. And the tallest player regularly seeing time on the court is 6-7, 210-pound combo forward, Konstantine Dotsenkoko. Dotsenko comes off of the bench to provide a scoring punch as the team’s second leading scorer at 11.2 PPG.

Where the Texans may find an advantage is through tough defensive efforts. They boast the nation’s best STL% (16.1 per game) and force a turnover on 23.3 percent of opponent’s possessions (good enough for 35th nationally).

If the Aggies struggle to knock down shots, as they have recently (shot 37.3% against UVU), it could be a long weekend in Stephenville. NMSU must take care of the ball, which they did against the Wolverines (21 assists to 14 turnovers).

Watch the Tarleton State Coaches Show to see what Billy Gillispie has to say about the Aggies. 

MATCHUP TO KEEP AN EYE ON: BATTLE OF THE BACKCOURTS

The depth in the backcourt and on the wing for both programs is insane. But either contest may be won on the backs of either of these two highlighted players. For the Aggies, it’s redshirt junior Jabari Rice. After missing two games earlier in the year, Rice appears fit and doesn’t appear to have any lingering effects from a recent foot injury. Rice is coming off of a 20-point, 5-rebound performance in NMSU’s win over Utah Valley on Saturday.

For the Texans, it’s junior guard Montre’ Gibson who leads the team in points (14.5 PPG) and assists (2.9 APG). The DeSoto, TX native followed Gillispie to Stephenville after spending his first two years at Ranger College. Since arriving, Gibson has been the Texans leader in their first year transitioning from Division II. Though a little nonexistent in Tarleton’s 64-48 loss to Dixie State on Saturday, Gipson looked a lot sharper in their 74-59 win on Friday, dropping 16 points on 7-13 made field goals in the big win.

With Gibson’s reputation as a bulldozing lane driver, pairing him up against NMSU’s Evan Gilyard II may prove feeble early on. Gilyard II’s performance as of late has been stellar. As the team’s best distributor, having not committed a turnover in their recent series against UVU (5 assists/0 Turnovers), Gilyard II is executing at a high level. Rice may provide a better defensive matchup. Rice has a length and size advantage to help corral Gibson beyond the arc as well. Gibson dropped 30-points, while going 11-19 from the field and 3-6 from deep against league-leading GCU last month.

WHAT’S ON THE LINE?

 
Two losses for either team hurts their momentum going into the last week of the season. And at this point of the conference season and where each team sits in the current standings, this is all about fine tuning in preparation for Las Vegas. At least for the Aggies. Tarleton State’s season ends next weekend at UTRGV. 
 
“You know, it’s not November,” Jans said. “It’s not December. It’s February. Teams are trying to play at their maximum output at this point in the season going forward and we’re no different than anybody else. And you know we’ve got to get there very, very soon. Otherwise it’s going to be the same results.”
 
He’s not wrong, and the Texans are in a transition year with a new coach and practically new roster. There is usually much more expected of the Aggies in Las Cruces. Fans are understanding but I think many back home are still hoping for this squad to figure it out and make a strong tournament run.
 

PREDICTION

KenPom has New Mexico State pulling off the sweep this weekend as five-point favorites in each contest. Given the Texans form in recent games this doesn’t seem unrealistic at all. So I think this one holds true and the Aggies get their first sweep of the season this weekend.

Game 1: New Mexico State 72, Tarleton State 70

Game 2: New Mexico State 83, Tarleton State 73

Tip off for both WAC matchups this weekend are at 6:00 PM MT and 7:00 PM CT on Friday and Saturday and can be seen on ESPN+ (FRI) and the WAC Digital Network (SAT).

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