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What to watch as Aggies seek WAC tourney 3-peat

LAS CRUCES – The New Mexico State men’s basketball team is looking for its third straight Western Athletic Conference tournament title beginning Thursday at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., against Chicago State.

Here are some story lines to watch:

CAN JANS CONTINUE TO PULL THE STRINGS? New Mexico State head coach Chris Jans was named the WAC Coach of the Year for the second straight season. And with good reason, as he has simply dominated the conference, going 27-3 in the conference regular season and winning the league title this season at 15-1.

Jans has gone about winning this season in a different manner. The Aggies do not have an elite scorer such as Zach Lofton last season. They also struggled on the defensive end compared to last season, yet Jans and his staff have consistently made the right call throughout the season in terms of rotation.

The Aggies have certainly peaked at the right time, entering the tournament on a 16-game win streak, but Jans hesitated when comparing this year’s team to last year’s club.

“We are a more offensive-minded team. We are playing a lot more players and not relying on one or two guys on any given night to lead us in scoring and rebounding,” he said. “That is how it played out. We were just trying to put our team in position to be our best.”

WHICH TEAM OR TEAMS ARE CAPABLE OF BEATING THE AGGIES? After sweeping the season series with every team in the WAC tournament (California Baptist is not eligible in its transition from NCAA Division II), the Aggies are overwhelming favorites this weekend.

Assuming the 27-4 Aggies beat 3-28 Chicago State in the first round today, they would play No. 4 Texas Rio Grande Valley or No. 5 Bakersfield in the semifinals.

Bakersfield has won five straight games, No. 6 Seattle has won six straight games and No. 2 Utah Valley enters the weekend with three straight wins.

“I think besides us, the two teams that are peaking at the right time are Seattle and Utah Valley,” Jans said. “Seattle has had a lot of injuries, but now they have their guys back and they are working out their kinks I think. They are a very dangerous seed.

“Utah Valley has won five or six in a row and their margin of victory has been decidedly in their favor. … ”

No. 3 Grand Canyon on the other hand, is trending downward with two straight losses, although GCU played NMSU extremely tough in both regular-season meetings.

CAN AGGIES CONTINUE TO DOMINATE THE BACKBOARD, PLAY INSIDE OUT AND TAKE CARE OF THE BALL? As long as the Aggies play to their strengths, they should cut down the nets Saturday night.

Those strengths have been rebounding on both ends and playing through post players Eli Chuha and Ivan Aurrecoechea. Chuha was a second-team All-WAC selection and Aurrecoechea has some high-scoring games in WAC play.

“Eli is a smart player and a good passer and Ivan has come a long way in that department,” Jans said. “I think it helps in so many areas. In-and-out 3s are some of the best you are going to get and you usually draw more fouls and it keeps everyone happy.”

The Aggies are No. 6 in the country in offensive rebound percentage at 37.1 percent. They are No. 10 in defensive rebounding, allowing only an offensive rebound 23 percent of the time.

“It is going to be a key to beating us and neutralizing us on the backboards,” Jans said. “We have to understand that and play even harder in that area.”

The Aggies have had high turnover games, which has led to some close outcomes in league play.

ARE THE AGGIES AT-LARGE WORTHY? While the ultimate goal remains securing the WAC’s automatic bid, have the Aggies done enough to enter the bubble and at-large conversation should they lose in Saturday’s championship game?

If the Aggies lost in the championship game, it would mean NMSU has 29 wins and had a recent 18-game win streak.

The Aggies are also among bubble teams in NET Rankings at No. 46.

What the Aggies don’t have is a number of impressive wins. They don’t have a Quadrant 1 win, losing to their lone Quadrant 1 opponent at Kansas. The Aggies have two Quadrant 2 wins on the road at Utah Valley and Grand Canyon. New Mexico State’s best non-conference win was against Colorado State (12-19, 173 in KenPom).

The last time the WAC had an at-large selection was Utah State in 2010. Utah State was 27-7 after losing to New Mexico State in the WAC tournament championship and No. 23 in KenPom. But USU also had a home win over BYU (KenPom No. 10)

While the WAC has improved in overall rating to No. 14 according to KenPom, it’s unlikely that will help an automatic qualifier. What it could do, should the Aggies win the tournament, is perhaps move the Aggies up a line or two. NMSU was a No. 12 seed last year after the WAC finished the season ranked No. 18.

The Aggies also have to hope that there is not much bid-stealing by lower-seeded teams throughout the next week of conference tournaments. The West Coast Conference championship game win by Saint Mary’s over No. 1 Gonzaga on Tuesday night wasn’t good for NMSU and several other teams.

The Journal contributed to this report.

WAC men’s tournament:

No. 8 Chicago State

vs. No. 1 New Mexico State

Thursday, 1 p.m., WAC tourney, Orleans Arena, Las Vegas, Nev. Radio: 99.5 FM (Las Cruces), 1150 AM (ABQ).

Online: ESPN+

(Streaming service; No TV.)

RECORDS: No. 8 seed Chicago State (3-28, 0-16), No. 1 New Mexico State (27-4, 15-1)

BOTTOM LINE: New Mexico State swept the two-game regular season series. The teams last went at it on March 2, when the Aggies outshot Chicago State 53.3 percent to 40 percent and made five more 3-pointers en route to a 34-point victory.

OFFENSIVE THREAT: Rob Shaw has made or assisted on 41 percent of all Chicago State field goals over the last three games. The senior guard has accounted for 14 field goals and 14 assists in those games.

WINLESS WHEN: Chicago State is 0-28 when scoring fewer than 77 points and 3-0 when scoring at least 77.

FLOOR SPACING: Chicago State’s Travon Bell has attempted 173 3-pointers and has hit on 35.8 percent of them.

DID YOU KNOW: The New Mexico State defense has allowed only 64.6 points per game to opponents this season, ranking the Aggies 28th among Division I teams. The Chicago State offense has averaged 62 points through 31 games (ranked 312th, nationally).

— Associated Press