Since joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2005, the New Mexico State men’s basketball team has a track record of success in March. Senior guard Gordo Castillo believes it can happen again.
The Aggies’ bid to become the first repeat tournament champion since Hawaii in 2001-02 begins Thursday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., when they play the winner of today’s first round game between Fresno State and Nevada.
In three of the past four years, the Aggies have reached the WAC tournament final, winning the whole thing twice.
Last year’s team entered the postseason as the No. 3 seed — the same as position as this year’s squad — and won three straight games to capture the league’s automatic NCAA bid.
The 2009-10 Aggies entered last year’s tournament on the heels of a two-game losing skid, but things seemed to come together in the do-or-die format.
“Basically it’s that time, this is the time when we really come together,” Castillo said. “I know last year we were kind of rocky. Once we got over there (Reno, Nev.) I felt like we were just a whole new team. It all clicked at once. I feel like that’s what’s going to happen again. We’re ready to play, and I think we’re the type of team that when it’s ‘win or go home,’ I think we figure that out — and we’re gonna win.”
A late-season swoon in which the Aggies lost four of their final five games cost them the No. 2 seed and the bye to the semifinals that comes with it. But a 77-68 win over Nevada in the season finale was just the elixir the team needed, according to coach Marvin Menzies.
“I know the guys are in good spirits. They seem to be pretty focused. I think winning against Nevada was not only a good thing for our mindset right now (but) also going forward,” he said. “We definitely needed the win. We talked about getting that done after having four close losses.”
Though they lack the overall firepower of last year’s group, NMSU has Castillo, Hernst Laroche, Tyrone Watson and Troy Gillenwater, who all played key roles in last season’s run.
“I think that will bode well for us,” Menzies said.
Gillenwater has battled injuries all season, but has still been productive enough to earn first-team All-WAC honors. He scored a game-high 21 points against the Wolf Pack while playing with a broken thumb on his shooting hand that doesn’t figure to heal completely until the offseason.
With no consistent perimeter threat and Hamidu Rahman still hampered by calf issues, the junior forward will have to carry the load if the Aggies are to make a run at another WAC tournament crown.
“Troy’s had an up-and-down year with the injuries, but I think for the most part he’s kept his spirits in the right place,” Menzies said. “He’s continued to learn from the bad games and continued to grow when things didn’t go his way in terms of an injury. That development over the course of the season is something we’re going to rely on heavily.”
WOMEN: The NMSU women’s basketball team opens WAC tournament play today against seventh-seeded Hawaii and former St. Pius star Megan Tinnin, with the winner to face Utah State on Thursday. The sixth-seeded Aggies split the regular-season series with the Rainbow Wahine.
Coach Darin Spence believes the draw is favorable for his team.
“I think we match up well, and I think we have good experience. We feel good about where we’re sitting in that bracket,” he said.
Capsule – Today: NMSU women vs. Hawaii, 9:30 p.m.