Commentary: Congratulations, Aggie Basketball!
Before the Hawaii tournament, NMSU swept UTEP and UNM, and beat Illinois in Chicago.
Hawaii was a revelation. First a dramatic one-point win over Davidson, a theoretically superior team. Swarming defense had the national TV commentators raving that Davidson averages 8.8 turnovers per game, but had turned it over ten times in the first half. With eleven seconds left, down one,, Jemerrio Jones leapt toward the hoop to push home a teammate's missed shot. Then he dove to knock the ball away from a Davidson player. The inbounds play left Davidson's star shooting from several feet beyond the three-point line. He missed.
Next, Miami, undefeated and ranked 6th. From the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference. (The Aggies, not even ranked among the top 100 college teams, win their conference most years.) We hoped NMSU wouldn't get embarrassed. Anyone who claims to have predicted an Aggie victory is lying. Early, Miami led 13-6 and appeared on course for a big win. But the Aggies got ahead and maintained a small lead. Miami came within a point of NMSU twice in the last two minutes, but the Aggies kept their poise and won!
Pausing to savor that moment, let's note that this is a fast-moving team sport and these Aggies haven't played together that long and had to learn new ways under coach Chris Jans. Top scorer Zach Lofton, is also new, a graduate student from elsewhere who had a year of eligibility left. Point guard A.J. Harris was out all last year. Las Cruces native Johnny McCants is a redshirt freshman playing his first NCAA games. They also hail from several countries – and many of them lack height.
They're still improving. As they play together more, they'll develop that sixth sense of what each teammate can and will do in each moment.
They're not the Golden State Warriors – whom I'd call poetry in motion if that phrase hadn't been used in a sappy pop song from my youth. But in their team play, which looks relatively unselfish, they're getting there. Like the Warriors, they appear to have bought into what Coach is selling – and into the concept, easy to say but sometimes hard to remember under pressure, that the team comes first. (They also seem to block a lot of shots, as the Warriors have done this year; but I haven't looked up stats.)
In the Final in Hawaii they played a great game against USC, another major conference team. They entered the final minute tied, but couldn't pull it out. If they had, it'd be one of the big college basketball stories of the 2017 season. It would also have enhanced what these games have done for them.
If NMSU wins its conference tournament, the guys seeding the NCAA Tournament might give the Aggies a competitive first-round matchup. And the Aggies might just be battle-hardened, unselfish, and quick enough to take advantage. (Hawaii moved them into the top-100 at 79 in one ranking system.)
These gifts can keep on giving. High school hoopsters who'd never heard of NMSU watched those games. They saw a gutsy, fun team playing the right way. The kind of team they could imagine making even stronger by joining it – a good team, but one on which they could earn playing time.
Maybe they were impressed. We are.
Here's wishing the team – and you – a Happy New Year!
[It was a good weekend for NSMU sports. I wrote the column before getting to watch the Aggies' football team win (in O.T.) its first bowl game since 1960 -- before most parents of current Aggie football players were born. I've never met coach Doug Martin; but I did wonder about the wisdom of NMSU administrators letting the guy hang without a contract extension into recruiting period.
That is, I can't say how good a coach he is. Haven't worked with him. But one basic fact is that it'd be tough for any coach to make NMSU a good team. Facilities and funding aren't what they might be, what they probably have to be for reasonable success. We're also a little off-the-beaten-track -- and we're not often on TV. Further, when you're a kid who can play ball, the key variable in deciding where to go isn't geography, loyalty, or the weather. It's the coaching staff. They'll be making all the decisions that affect your life for perhaps four years, from the food on the training table to the offensive or defensive scheme the team will run, which may or may not fit your personal strengths. Even though you know everything, being 17 or so, they ware the mentors who will (or won't) get you onto a solid path toward maximizing your skills and success. They're the ones who'll recruit you and look you in the eye and promise you a fair shot at playing team as a freshman or that the "open competition" for your position next year will really be "open." If they can't even promise to BE there next year, how can you buy into whatever they promise about their plans? Martin shouldn't have been left hanging so long. (Whether or not that has affected this year's recruiting class I can't say. He was, after all, extended, just a little tardily.)
Now the Aggies finish the season 7-6 -- their first winning season in many years.
As I recall, they're still without a conference. It'll be tough to make next year "successful," partly for off-the-field reasons like that.
A friend commented on Facebook regarding the bowl game, "Where are the faculty raises from the football program?" A serious columnist might have confronted the familiar question of whether or not, and on what terms, a football team should be attached to a university. We're long past the initial amateurism, where some college gentlemen sought to excel on the playing fields as well as in scholarship. For most in the rotation on the basketball team, this is a minor league from which they hope to make it to the NBA -- and most do make it to pro leagues somewhere in the world. Most football players dream of the NFL. They're awarded scholarships to strengthen the team, not for they're scholarship. The University makes a business decision that spending a bundle on football pays off indirectly, either in putting the NMSU name out there or in enhancing alumni loyalty (and giving). Wishing the Aggies well and enjoying their success doesn't mean I buy into the wisdom of that business decision, or signal how I'd spend the money if I were in Hadley Hall. Sorry if I'm inconsistent, Lucas. But I am. Nor am I particularly embarrassed about it.]