2011-12 Aggie Men's Basketball Preview

The New Mexico State men's basketball team enters the 2011-12 season looking to erase the bad taste left by a disappointing 2010-11 season. The Aggies were beset by multiple injuries and as a result were unable to put together consistent play from night to night. The end result was a 16-17 record, the program's first losing record since the 2004-2005 season. The offseason saw junior Troy Gillenwater and his team leading 18.9 points per game depart the program in hopes of playing professionally along with the graduation of local favorite Gordo Castillo, the team's best three point shooter.

The offseason also saw a nearly unprecedented turnover in the coaching staff as all but one of the assistant coaches moved on to different opportunities. Assistant coach Paul Weir was promoted to Associate Head Coach as he enters his fifth season with the program. "Moving Weir up was a no-brainer for us," said head coach Marvin Menzies. "We had some people approach him in the offseason about interviewing. Paul is a very loyal individual and made the decision with this team coming back to stay, especially with the staff changes, and help transition." Weir has held just about every position one can hold on a basketball staff and it comes as no surprise that he was the man to fill the associate head coach position. "He's one of those guys where you know where his heart's at, you know where his passion's at," said Menzies. "He gets after it every day. He's very thorough, proactive, planning daily. Having the ability to know the program and the ins and outs and the dynamics on campus and having familiarity in one of my assistants when I have two new ones was critical. It's obviously something that's going to help us going forward with our continuity.

One of those new assistants is Kentucky legend and former NBA veteran Tony Delk. "Tony, his resume speaks for itself in terms of having instant credibility with the kids," said Menzies. "He's going to be a tremendous asset especially in the area of individual skill development and recruiting as well with his name recognition. Menzies added, "He's got a lot of relationships as well and he's earned a very positive name for himself in the NBA. Being 6'1" and being able to play 10 years in the NBA, you obviously understand what it is to grind. We're happy to have him on board as well."

Also joining the staff is coaching veteran Keith Brown, former head coach at Cal State-Bakersfield. "Keith Brown I brought in as an experienced guy that had a lot of trials as a transitioning coach moving a program from Division II to Division I so there won't be any lack of worth ethic in his game," said Menzies. "He's very well rounded, very experienced and been at the highest level in college when he was at the University of Washington. He gets it, the fact that I get to bring somebody in that's that well rounded this late is extremely rare so I'm fortunate."

The Aggies also added graduate assistant Andre Mazire who spent the previous two years with the Minnesota Timberwolves as a coaches' assistant. "I'm really happy with the new staff. I've got a nice synergy going with the staff," said Menzies. "I think there's a lot of good positive energy. A lot of times when you bring in guys late it can go the other way but we were fortunate to have guys available that are quality hires this late in the process."

Entering the season the biggest addition to the team was not that of a freshman talent but of a fifth year senior. Wendell McKines returns to the Aggies after sitting out the entire 2010-11 season due to an injury suffered in preseason practice. McKines' injury was one of the major factors in the derailment of the Aggies' season, however, he is 100 percent healthy and his return means high expectations for this Aggie squad. "Bringing Wendell back into the mix was much needed, " said Menzies. "I think that's kind of a no-brainer that when you have a guy that plays that hard and can fill the stat sheet, it's going to be a big plus for us."

In his last season of play, the 2009-2010 season, McKines averaged a double-double, the only player in the WAC to do so and as a senior, he'll be counted on even more this season to provide an improved offensive game to go along with his toughness and leadership and rebounding. "Wendell's a passionate kid. He's always been a good player since he's been here," said Menzies. "He's played a specific role as a rebounder and a glue guy and now it's his time to shine a little bit and be one of the three seniors that is able to step into the spotlight a little more and being a guy that can be leaned on a little bit more for scoring." The Aggies are hoping to rely on Wendell's improved offense as they look to replace leading scorer Troy Gillenwater and his 18.1 points per game. "He's shooting the ball more efficiently than he has in his tenure here and he's also improved in all facets of his offensive game," said Menzies. "He's handling the ball better and he's making better decisions. Once you grow into the system you understand how it's supposed to work and it makes you look better when you know what the looks are and what to look for. I think part of the experience of the retention along with his individual skill offensive development will combine to give him a very successful senior year."

Another player who was injured most of last season was center Hamidu Rahman and his return to full health along with that of McKines headlines a deep Aggie front court. "Hamidu is back at 100 percent, he played anywhere from 70 to 80 last year for the most part with his injury," said Menzies. "He's been very good in practice as of late and is looking a lot like he did as he finished his sophomore year."

Joining Rahman at the five spot is sophomore big man Tshilidzi Nephawe. "Chili is one of those guys also that I think people have a lot of high expectations for because he played a lot of minutes last year. Chili is getting better every day," said Menzies. "He injured his back at the end of last season and it really slowed his offseason progression. I thought he could have had a much better summer had he not had to sit and wait so long before he could start going hard. The majority of his improvement will come and has come over the last few weeks and I think we'll see it continue to rise throughout the season."

With Nephawe having only played a few years of organized basketball, Menzies knows that Nephawe still has much to learn on the court. "He didn't grow up playing the game so it's going to take him some time to learn the subtle nuances of the game that he needs to be good at, with his left hand, with his right hand, the versatility of reading counters offensively and being consistent in his defensive stance. Those things are things that will be developed as the season unfolds."

Another player who greatly benefitted from the Aggies' injury issues last season was junior Tyrone Watson. "Tyrone is one of those guys that's just a do-it-all type of guys," said Menzies. "He can get the offensive rebounds, he's got a knack for the ball. He was probably our most improved player last year going into his sophomore year." Watson's high energy level made him another fan favorite but the Aggies are hoping to also get more offensive production out of him this season. "We're still working on improving his outside shot. It doesn't look great but it goes in at a great clip so as long as we can continue to develop that, he's a strong athlete that brings a lot to the table and makes good decisions."

Also hoping to have an impact on the Aggies' frontcourt is sophomore Renaldo Dixon. "Renaldo is one of those guys that's like a journeyman. He's a blue collar type guy," said Menzies. "You just know that he's going to be aggressive every day in practice, do the right things, pays a lot of attention to the things we ask him to do on the floor."

Another player who got significant minutes last season is Bandja Sy, a player who showed flashes at times but needs to become more consistent. He's done some things for us in the past sporadically and we're hoping he can gain a little more consistency with his outside shot and his ability to make plays off the dribble," said Menzies. Sy will likely see action on the wing.

Moving to the backcourt, the Aggies are led by standout point guard Hernst Laroche who has been a steady player for the team since his freshman season. "He's one of those kids that you know what you're going to get every day. He brings it every day, he's very consistent in his effort and his improvement," said Menzies. "He's shooting the ball at a much higher clip than his freshman year. In practice right now he's really effective with leading the team. He's been more vocal in practice than he's been in the past. That's probably one of the areas he's improved a lot which is necessary for a point guard."

The responsibility for backing up Laroche this season will fall to several players including 6'1" freshman guard Terrel de Rouen (Las Cruces, N.M.) "Terrel's a very tough kid, he's a gamer," said Menzies. "He really gets after it. We're playing him at the point, he's probably more of a two coming in as a freshman but we're playing him as a true combo to hopefully get him to being a point one day. His offensive and defensive rebounding are very good for a guy his size and he's also very aggressive in attacking the rim. He can score a lot of different ways."

Joining Laroche in the backcourt at the two guard position will be sophomore Christian Kabongo. The Aggies will need improved offensive contribution from Kabongo in his sophomore campaign as well as improved decision making. "CK is obviously important guy this year because of his experience last year," said Menzies. "The position he plays needs to be filled and he's the guy probably starting the season off right now that'll fill it. "

Kabongo's freshman production was very similar to a recent Aggie great, Jonathan Gibson who also played the two guard position. Kabongo will need to drastically improve his shooting percentages, particularly from the outside. Kabongo averaged 8.9 points per game last season, hit just 37.9 percent of his shots from the field and just 18.7 from three point distance. Gibson shot 33.8 percent from the field and just 28.6 percent from three point distance in his freshman year and averaged 7.3 points per game. However, if Kabongo's sophomore season mirrors Gibson's sophomore season, the Aggies will be in great shape. Gibson's sophomore year, he shot 45.4 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three point distance and went on to become one of the Aggies' deadliest three point shooters. If Kabongo makes a similar leap to GIbson's, he could very well be an 18 to 20 point per game scorer for the Aggies this season. "He's [Kabongo] matured a lot over the past season," said Menzies. "He had a lot of growing up to do over the last year and I think he's done it. I'm hopeful he has a very successful sophomore campaign."

Another addition to the backcourt this season is 6'2" freshman guard Daniel Mullings (Toronto, Ontario, Canada). "Daniel is a very talented player who I think will be able to play some minutes as a redshirt freshman because of his athleticism and his tenacity," said Menzies. "He's got a knack for scoring, he's improved his outside shot but it's something that'll happen as the season unfolds." Mullings showed that scoring ability in the Aggies' exhibition game against Eastern New Mexico as he finished with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting and added three assists, four steals, two blocks and two rebounds in 22 minutes of action.

With the graduation of hometown favorite Gordo Castillo the Aggies also lost their best three point shooter from last season. Hoping to step in and fill that void for the Aggies is 6'5" freshman guard Eric Weary (New Orleans, LA). "Eric Weary is very talented shooter who comes to us with very high accolades," said Menzies. "That's one of the reasons we brought him into the program. He's no Gordo but we hope we can get him to shoot the ball at that clip and help us in that specialist role in his freshman year."

The Aggies also have a pair of backcourters who are awaiting eligibility clearance from the NCAA. Redshirt freshman Remi Barry (Paris, France) and transfer K.C. Ross-Miller (Grand Prairie, TX). Barry's arrival on the court is nearly as anticipated as that of Wendell McKines but Menzies has cautioned fans to temper their expectations for the young freshman. "Obviously there's a lot of excitement about him. I would tell people to temper their expectations just based on the natural progression that needs to happen with players in college," said Menzies.

Ross-Miller is a point guard transfer from the University of New Orleans. Redshirting for the Aggies this season are junior forward B.J. West and 7'5" freshman center Sim Bhullar (Toronto, Ontario, Canada).

The Aggies open up with two of their first three on the road as they return last year's Bracketbusters game at Northern Colorado. The Aggies then travel north to Albuquerque to take on in-state rival New Mexico before returning home to face I-10 rival Texas-El Paso. The Aggies then travel to Anchorage, Alaska for the Great Alaska Shootout and then return home to host nationally ranked Arizona in a return game from last season. The schedule is not likely to garner them an at-large bid even with a stellar showing in the non-conference as New Mexico and Arizona are the only two teams on the schedule expected to be top 50 RPI teams throughout the season. A fast start to the season will be key for the Aggies.