The Daily Aggie :: 12/11/13 :: Arizona Preview

When the New Mexico State men’s basketball team takes on top ranked Arizona today it will be just the third time in program history that the Aggies have faced off against a No. 1 ranked team. The Aggies’ three previous meetings came in the 1968-69 season when the Aggies lost to eventual NCAA Champion UCLA in the NCAA Tournament and then during the 1990-91 season when the Aggies faced off twice with No. 1 UNLV, both losses.

“When we scheduled the game we had no idea they’d be number one in the country,” said head coach Marvin Menzies. “We knew they’d be ranked and we knew they’d be in upper echelon for sure but it’s really fortunate for us because of the extra notoriety and PR that you get [playing the No. 1 team].”

In addition to the rare opportunity the Aggies have in front of them in playing the top ranked team in the country, they’re also looking to notch a signature victory in non-conference play and also and perhaps just as importantly, end a three-game losing streak that was most recently added to after a loss on the road at Gonzaga, albeit one that saw them compete well, particularly in the first half. Menzies is hopeful that the positive showing against the Zags will carry over into this showdown. “I think the guys have a little bit more belief and swagger in playing a certain way,” said Menzies. “You get more and more respect and trust as [as a player] when you see the evidence after the games of what the coaches are telling you. If anything it’s evident that they’re following more intently.”

Arizona is no stranger to the Aggies as the two teams have a long history dating back to their days in the Border Conference. Arizona leads the series 59-38 and the series’ more recent history has been owned by Arizona including the last three meetings between the teams in Tucson. You have to go back to December 11, 1968 to find the last Aggie win in Tucson, a 78-72 victory.

In the past two trips to the McKale Center, the Aggies have been seemingly out of the game before they could get themselves into the game. The first ten and a half minutes have proven disastrous for the Aggies. In 2006 the Aggies, then coached by Reggie Theus, saw Arizona jump out to a 32-8 lead with 9:28 left in the first half while a similar situation unfolded in 2010 as the Aggies, coached by Menzies, fell behind 21-9.

When asked about how to avoid digging themselves an early hole Menzies said, “We’ll probably try to control the pace of play a little bit more. Because of our bigs we have the ability to be a little bit more smash mouth than we have in the past and try to balance it a little bit more.” He added that controlling the pace didn’t necessarily mean the Aggies would be taking the air out of the ball. “That doesn’t necessarily mean slowing it down but nine or ten games into the season we have an understanding of rhythm and tempo and pace of play. Hopefully something like that will bode well for us.”

Perhaps one thing that will aid the Aggies is the fact that they have faced the Sean Miller led Wildcats twice in the past three seasons and there is some familiarity with the Wildcats’ style of play. “I think any time you have a little familiarity with a coach and program and how he coaches, that helps you,” said head coach Marvin Menzies though he added, “At the end of the day it’s the players who go out and make the difference. It’s probably not as much the coaches as people think.”

One aspect may also help the Aggies in facing a top ranked opponent is that the matchup comes a bit later in the non-conference schedule. The Aggies have already played 11 games, nine of them in the month of November. When asked about the benefits the matchup coming later in the non-conference schedule Menzies said, “We’re more familiar with our system, we have more games on them that we were able to scout and see what they do. Hopefully we can get some type of an advantage to make it a competitive game based off our scout as well.”

Matchup-wise the Aggies will have to find a way to control the trio of 6’9” freshman forward Aaron Gordon (brother of former UNM standout Drew Gordon) and junior guards Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell. McConnell, who is a transfer from Duquesne, has given the Wildcats a true point guard for the first time in the Miller era at Arizona and Nick Johnson has proven one of the top players in the country averaging 16.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Johnson wreaked havoc on the Aggies two years ago as a freshman scoring 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting which helped lead the Wildcats to an 83-76 victory over the Aggies in Las Cruces, the last time these two teams faced each other. Johnson is also the lone holdover from that team the Aggies faced two years ago.

For the Aggies it will be about getting Daniel Mullings, Sim Bhullar and the rest of the Aggies going. Mullings’ athleticism and Bhullar’s size are two areas that the Aggies’ need to take advantage of. “We have some guys, specifically Sim and Daniel as well, that can pose problems for guys too,” said Menzies. “They [Arizona] definitely have a strength in Aaron and Aaron is obviously a big time player but he’s a freshman and he’s got a lot of talented guys around him. The challenge is the whole team and not just the individual.” Who the Aggies have guarding Gordon is yet to be determined but whoever it ends up being will have their hands full.

When asked about the first four minutes of the game for the Aggies, Coach Menzies responded, “The first four I want us to be smart in terms of the defensive scouting report and paying attention to detail in how we’re going to guard the different players on their team.” He added, “How we guard the shooters, how we guard the guy’s right hand, left hand, specifics of what the scouting report says. I want to see the guys pay attention to detail.”

Should the Aggies pull off the upset it would obviously be a monumental victory for the program but Coach Menzies knows that even a competitive game against the nation’s top ranked team can also provide the program with some benefit. “For us to be fortunate enough to play in this game, it gives us a chance to really represent our brand and go out and show how we play and who we are and the progress we’ve made as a program. It’s definitely a win-win.” Of course the Aggies are looking for more than just public relations victories, they’re looking for scoreboard victories.