The Aggies won only 6 games last year and return only two starters, but they should be much improved. A lot of that improvement will flow from new head coach Reggie Theus, the former Inglewood High School and NBA star who was an assistant coach at Louisville before taking the reigns in Las Cruces. The excellent Blue Ribbon College Basketball yearbook says that Theus came to New Mexico State and "cleared house," removing players from the program and bringing in a host of new players. Actually, Theus only removed one player from the program and the most significant newcomers had committed to New Mexico State before he became the coach, but certainly Theus will bring a new attitude and style to the team. In New Mexico State's two exhibition games, against D II Cal State L.A. and NAIA school St. Mary's of Texas, the Aggies held their opponents, respectively, to 32.8% and 29.4% from the field and that is certainly a big difference from last year's team. In fact, New Mexico State is playing a lot like UCLA, with full-court pressure, man defense designed to cause turnovers and push the pace of the game to get wide open looks and score easy buckets in transition.
The biggest guns for the Aggies are both transfers from other schools. Tyrone Nelson is an agile 6-9 SO forward who can hit the mid-range shot, put the ball on the floor effectively in short spurts and score very well in the post. He transferred from Prairie View, where he scored 15.2 ppg as a freshman, and he's averaged 18 ppg and 11.5 rpg in New Mexico State's two exhibition games. He should present a tough matchup for the Bruins. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute has the athleticism to defend Nelson, but may not have the height. This will certainly be Luc's toughest assignment to date, and it is hard to see Luc's to-date backups at the 4, Ced Bozeman and Lorenzo Mata, being that effective defending Nelson. Indeed, Ryan Wright might actually be more suited for this matchup.
Elijah Ingram, 6-0 SO G, a transfer from St. John's, whom he led in scoring as a freshman, made his Aggies' debut against St. Mary's (Texas) and scored 11 points coming off the bench. I expect Ingram to eventually start and score over 15 ppg for New Mexico State this season. At 190 pounds, he is more of what people call a "lead" guard rather than a point guard. His focus is scoring baskets, not setting up other players, but with his outstanding penetration skills and overall speed, strength and quickness he can break down a defense all by himself and make things happen. Again, the Bruins have not faced this type of player so far. He might be too quick for Jordan Farmar and too strong for Darren Collison. Arron Afflalo, with his combination of strength and determination, might wind up with the assignment. The one thing to keep in mind is that Ingram is coming back from an injury to his Achilles and is probably playing at only 60-70% of his game so far. That's good for UCLA, which probably wouldn't want to face this type of player at full strength.
The starting guards for the Aggies have been two JC transfers, 5-11 JR PG Shaun Davis and 6-3 JR SG Ted Knauber. Davis played his freshman ball at Pepperdine and then went to the always highly-rated College of Southern Idaho program. He is a very quick, true point guard who averaged 8.5 ppg and 3.0 apg in the two exhibition games. Knauber came in with a reputation as a very good shooter from the outside, but hit only 3-12 from 3 in the exhibition games while averaging 13 ppg. Both players know how to play the transition game, but should make for easier matchups for the Bruins' defenders. Chris Hall, 5-9 JR PG, is another quick player who adds depth at guard for the Aggies. The Aggies have another player on the roster, 6-0 SR PG/SG Mike Mitchell, who started for them last year and scored 12.3 ppg, but he didn't play in the exhibitions and I haven't been able to find out why. Maybe he'll show up for this game. Maybe not.
Nelson may be the big gun for New Mexico State along the frontline, but the big one is 7-0 265 SR C Trevor Lawrence. This man is huge. He is a returning starter from last season and rocked during the exhibition season, scoring 14.5 ppg against much smaller opponents. However, he only collected 7 rebounds in the two games combined and averaged barely 4 rebounds per game last year, so expect some lumbering and a lack of quick reactions to the ball. He could shove the Bruins around inside, but if the Bruin post players can just play solid position ball they should be able to contain Lawrence, who needs to go deep inside to score. Look for a lot of fronting by the Bruins centers, trying to deny the entry pass.
The other starter up front for the Aggies is another JC transfer, Shon Caston, 6-5 JR SF. He's a true wing who nonetheless can be aggressive taking the ball to the hole and combating for rebounds on both ends. He seems to be trying to finding himself early in the season, averaging 6.5 ppg and 5.0 rpg in the exhibitions. He was the star for his JC team and is no doubt slowly adjusting to becoming a role player at the D 1 level. Against another team, you would think that Caston is one of those guys who could have a breakout night, but UCLA is particularly tough on defense on the wings and the Aggies will undoubtedly be looking elsewhere for their points.
David Fisher is another JC transfer who wasn't recruited by Theus, and the 6-6 JR SF has been very effective coming off the bench in the exhibition season, getting 9.5 ppg and 5.0 rpg. Kevin Ford is a 6-8 FR PF who got 5 points and 11 rebounds against St. Mary's (Texas). He was not a highly-rated player in high school, I've never read a scouting report on him and I have no idea if he's ready to contribute in a big way at the D I level this season. But these two guys provide the depth for New Mexico State up front.
The Bruins had a ridiculously easy time in the exhibition season and ordinarily you wouldn't expect a team from the WAC Conference, which only won 6 games last season and returns only one starter from last year (unless Mitchell shows up), to give them much of a battle, but New Mexico State really does have a brand new team this year, with a new coach and 7 key newcomers. Nelson and Ingram are legitimate high level D I players. These JC transfers might start adjusting to college basketball and performing to the degree that Reggie Theus helps this team to a major turnaround from last season, certainly doubling their win total and possibly doing better than that.
As I said before, the Bruins will be facing a mirror of themselves at least in style of play and this game will present them with a significant opportunity to see if they can maintain the great defensive pressure and offense in transition they've demonstrated in the exhibition season. I don't see why not; Afflalo, Bozeman and Mbah A Moute are all excellent man defenders, Farmar is stronger and more experienced than he was last year and Hollins has agility and length. Darren Collison appears to be a force to be reckoned with. But for the first time, the Bruins' depth of quickness could become an issue. Mike Fey has been green-lighted for the game, at least for 10 minutes per half, and should be able to match up with Lawrence in terms of size and strength, but he won't add quickness on the defensive end of the ball. Lorenzo Mata has struggled in the exhibitions to uphold the Bruins' new style. Mike Roll lacks good quickness, but he certainly has the right attitude and knows how to play the transition game. He was able to hold his own against Carleton and CSUMB, but he will be facing a whole other magnitude of athlete against New Mexico State. Janou Rubin just got his 6th year of eligibility from the NCAA and with his size, strength and athleticism could see some key minutes against the Aggies.
With so many new players for New Mexico State, it's hard to get a feel for this game. I really wish Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya were here, but the Bruins' top 6 (you have to count Collison as a 6th starter until he proves otherwise) seem to be in great condition and barring foul trouble they will play a lot against the Aggies. Ben Howland seems committed to utilizing his bench, but it will be interesting to see how his bench performs on the defensive side of the ball against a real D I team.
I‘ve been way off on my predicted scores and I'll no doubt be way off many more times this season. If it was easy, Las Vegas wouldn't have a sports book.
UCLA 78, New Mexico State 60.