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Aggies hoops: Well-traveled Lofton finds home at New Mexico State

Zach Lofton hasn’t quite caught the green chile bug yet.

“Nah, man,” he said. “I can’t do that stuff. I’ve tried.”

Give it time.

Everything else the 6-foot-4 New Mexico State shooting guard has done since arriving in Las Cruces this summer has appeared to be, after five colleges in six years, the perfect fit.

When asked what led to so much bouncing around in college, Lofton said, “Nothing big,” with a smile. “Just growing up.”

The St. Paul, Minn., native played as a freshman at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas (2012-13), and at Illinois State as a sophomore (2013-14) before a coaching change led him to transfer back home to Minnesota. There, before the start of the 2014-15 season, he was dismissed for unspecified reasons. He sat out the 2015-16 season at Texas Southern, then led the team, the Tigers, in scoring last season with 16.8 points per game.

Along the way, he was named the Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and honorable mention Associated Press All-American. He also picked up a degree in communications and an OK from the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. (Players normally have five years to play four seasons.)

All that movement wasn’t an issue to first-year NMSU head coach Chris Jans after he heard from those who knew Lofton best.

“Zach’s a good kid,” Jans said. “Talking with all his coaches at his previous stops, there was never a question about what kind of kid he was and how he acted.”

As Lofton prepares for Saturday night’s Rio Grande Rivalry showdown with the UNM Lobos at the Pit, he’s feeling right at home at NMSU.

“I liked the fit here and (NMSU assistant coach Jeff Mailho)’s from Minnesota, and between that and what I know of coach Jans’ history, it was good,” said Lofton, whose mother, Tonia, apparently fell in love with the Las Cruces campus.

“Me and mom decided to take a visit here and she liked it. I liked it,” he said.

Not only did Jans have plenty of scholarships to fill after Paul Weir left for UNM, but he also needed to improve perimeter scoring after Ian Baker and Braxton Huggins left.

In Lofton, Jans knew he was getting that, and more.

“I think people mistake him as a scorer,” Jans said. “Zach’s certainly not perfect and he’s got a lot of work to do, but he’s an all-around basketball player. That’s the thing. When we had Ron Baker (at Wichita State, where Jans previously worked), a lot of people would pigeonhole him as a shooter. I would always say, ‘He’s a ballplayer.’ He’s just good at all facets of the game. Zach is similar that way.”

Weir believes in Lofton’s scoring ability, even when he’s being defended well. Lofton, who is averaging 17.6 points per game, scored 28 on the Lobos in their first meeting on Nov. 17.

“I’ve coached some really good perimeter players over the years: Jonathan Gibson, Jahmar Young — some really good scorers,” said Weir, who had spent that past decade coaching at NMSU. “There are times those guys are going to take and make bad shots. (Former Lobo) Elijah Brown was very similar. Sometimes when they get going, it’s because they’re very talented players. … We’ll have to do everything we can to try and contain him.”

Lofton has struggled with scoring in his past three games. Coinciding with a hip injury, it’s the first three in eight games with the Aggies in which he hasn’t scored in double figures. On Wednesday’s loss to San Diego, he had eight points on 2-of-12 shooting, including 0-for-6 from 3-point range.

The biggest obstacle for Lofton now, Jans said, is his ability to put a bad play behind him and not let it affect the rest of the game.

“He gets down on himself,” Jans said. “… Nobody’s ever doubted Zach’s ability and talent. It’s his approach and consistency that we’ve really tried to hone in on and talk to him about.”

Lofton, who hopes to one day play in the NBA, credits Jans’ discipline for helping him develop on the court and off it.

“I liked what coach Jans is about — discipline and stuff,” Lofton said. “I haven’t been a perfect kid, but I’m listening, doing what I’m supposed to. He’s helping me be a better man.”