Fourth year head coach Marvin Menzies is poised to improve drastically on the 16-17 record his team posted in 2010-11, as his Aggies have been projected to finish second by the coaches in the Western Athletic Conference for the 2011-12 season. NMSU is off to a 5-1 start, including a road win over in-state rival and Mountain West favorite New Mexico.
Menzies' team will be out for revenge after Arizona embarrassed the Aggies by a score of 83-57 at McKale Center last year. NMSU returns three starters from that team, and has a team that is very lengthy, featuring five players that are 6-foot-10 or taller. That includes 7-foot-5, 360-pound freshman Sim Bhullar, who has yet to appear in six contests this season.
The Aggies have a roster loaded with talented foreign players, as seven of the nine players featured in the team's rotation are internationally born, including five players from Ontario, Canada.
After missing the 2010-11 season with a foot injury, the return of Wendell McKines to the team gives NMSU a big boost. A Honorable Mention WAC selection in 2009-10 after averaging 10.7 points and a team-leading 9.8 rebounds per game, McKines is a First Team All-WAC preseason selection heading into his fifth season with the program.
Through six games, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound forward is the team's leader in minutes, rebounding, and scoring, putting up 17 points and 9.5 rebounds in 32 minutes per contest. While he does have the ability to step out to the three-point line and hit shots, McKines does most of his damage in the midrange game and near the rim and will be a handful for whichever Arizona defender is asked to slow him down.
Alongside McKines in the frontcourt, the Aggies have an experienced center in 6-foot-11, 245-pound senior Hamidu Rahman. He averaged 7.2 points and five rebounds as a junior, and while his scoring is down to 6.8 points, he's upped his rebounding average to 6.8 rebounds per game, a number that is good for second on the team.
In the backcourt, Menzies starts a Canadian trio that really makes things goes for New Mexico State. The group is lead by 6-foot-4, 199-pound sophomore Christian Kabongo.
Kabongo is the second-leading scorer for NMSU with 15.5 points per game, and most of his damage comes from attempts from inside the three-point line and from the free-throw line, where he's shooting 92 percent. He averages 3.5 assists per outing, but has struggled with turnovers, giving up the ball about four times per game.
Hernst Laroche will handle the point guard duties, and the 6-foot-1, 170-pound senior will be making his 106th straight start when he takes the floor on Tuesday. A Second Team All-WAC preseason selection, Laroche is the team's fourth leading scorer at 10.7 points per game. He's been excellent handling the ball this season, averaging nearly five assists per contest and a 2.5:1 assist to turnover ratio.
Having a point guard like Laroche makes things run much more smoothly for the Aggies, who have a player that is able to distribute and pass to the open man and make the defense pay when given an opportunity. Josiah Turner and Jordin Mayes will need to keep their hands up on defense in the passing lanes and prevent Laroche from getting into the lane.
The fifth and final starter for New Mexico State is guard/forward Tyrone Watson, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound junior. After posting 7.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in 27.5 as a sophomore, he's seen his production slip a bit this season to 5.8 points and three rebounds in 23.8 minutes per game.
Off the bench, the Aggies have a capable scorer in 6-foot-8, 214-pound junior Bandja Sy. A native of France, Sy had perhaps the best game of any returner from last year's team at McKale Center with 10 points in 22 minutes. Despite playing just 22.7 minutes off the bench, Sy is the team's third leading scorer at 11.3 points per game. He's been highly effective in getting his baskets, hitting 55.1 percent of his field goal attempts, including five of his nine tries from behind the arc. Sy is the team's third leading rebounder at 3.7 boards per contest, and as the team's sixth man, he'll play a big role in Tuesday night's contest.
After averaging 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds as a freshman, 6-foot-10, 268-pound sophomore Tshilidzi Nephawe has taken a step back in his second season with the program. In 13.2 minutes per game, the South African big man is putting up just five points and 2.8 minutes, and is shooting just 33.3 percent from the field.
To complete his rotation, Menzies will use a pair of underclassmen but does not rely on them for big production. Daniel Mullings, a 6-foot-2, 170-pound true freshman is averaging 20.2 minutes, but is putting up just 4.7 points on about three shots in his appearances.
Sophomore Renaldo Dixon, a 6-foot-10, 210-pound sophomore is still looking to carve out a more defined role on the team. The Canadian big man is averaging just 5.3 minutes, and has only put up five attempts from the field all season.
The Aggies are one of the biggest teams Arizona will face this season, but Sean Miller's team can ill-afford to sleep on the guard play. NMSU will be looking to return the favor after being embarrassed at McKale Center a season ago, and as winners of five of its first six, NMSU is playing confidently enough to pull off the upset.
Menzies' team will challenge for the automatic bid in the WAC, and an early season test against Arizona will give him an idea of where his team is at this point in the year. For UA, it call ill-afford to drop a third game in a row with road games against top 25 teams Florida and Gonzaga on the horizon.
New Mexico State is the first true road game of the season for Arizona, and it will certainly be a challenge for the Wildcats, who need a boost of confidence heading into a challenging month of December.