SALT LAKE CITY – All the pieces – well almost all – were in place when the New Mexico State Aggies took the court at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
The pep band played throughout, the cheerleaders were just off courtside, and the NMSU men’s basketball team went through its paces in a practice session for an NCAA Tournament first-round game.
The only thing missing, aside from a scattered group of NMSU fans, was a very big crowd.
Oh yeah, and the Auburn Tigers.
Auburn, seeded fifth in the Midwest region, will take on New Mexico State at 11:30 a.m. Thursday for the first time ever, and Aggies coach Chris Jans knows that no amount of game-atmosphere replication will completely prepare his team for what’s coming at tipoff.
“They have plenty of size and athletes and that’s something we’re not used to,” said Jans of the SEC champion Tigers. “We don’t play against that type of athlete on a nightly basis. We do randomly in the fall with our schedule, but we don’t do it night in, night out. That is my biggest concern.
“It is going to be like walking out in the cold for the first time in the winter and just trying to adjust,” Jans added. “We will have to adjust to the athleticism and quickness once the ball is jumped.”
Auburn (26-9), a 5½-point favorite today, comes into the contest as the tournament champ of a league that had two teams (Kentucky, Tennessee) get No. 2 seeds and another (LSU) receive a 3 seed for the NCAA draw.
Auburn beat Tennessee 84-64 in the SEC championship game and have won their last eight games.
Bruce Pearl, the Tigers’ coach, gave a nod to the Aggies by calling his team “the New Mexico State of the SEC.” He said preparing for the Aggies presents its own challenges.
“Thirteen deep. You have to know all the personnel. (A.J.) Harris and (Terrell) Brown will be key matchups,” said Pearl of the Aggies. “When you get guys that didn’t play against Kansas (early in the year) and later leads them in scoring – you have to know them all.”
Like Auburn, albeit in a conference not as highly regarded, New Mexico State (30-4) is streaking into NCAA Tournament play. The Aggies have won their last 19 contests since an unexpected loss to Western Athletic Conference newcomer California Baptist on Jan. 3.
After a lopsided 89-57 win over Grand Canyon in the WAC tourney finale on Saturday in Las Vegas, Nev., junior guard Shunn Buchanan said that the team tried to stay on a normal routine – as best as it could.
“We kind of had a regular routine when we got back from Vegas. We really didn’t dwell on Las Vegas We got into our own endgame plan – just practice hard,” Buchanan said.
“We don’t have some guys that play a lot of minutes, so we are barely tired,” he added. “The coach has pushed us, and we come to do what he asks us to do every day.”
Following the public practice session at Vivint Arena on Wednesday, the Aggies headed to the University of Utah for another workout, minus the cheerleaders, band and assorted onlookers.
“I have been an assistant and played in a number of NCAA Tournament games,” said Jans, whose team lost 79-68 to Clemson in the first round of last year’s tourney. “The lights are brighter and it feels different, even for me.
“I’ve talked to our team about it. Winning the WAC championship was fun. It was awesome.
“But it felt different. It wasn’t as euphoric as it was last year being my first time, and my first time at New Mexico State,” he added.
“We talked about how different it is. How getting up on this podium and walking out for the open practice and the media interviews and when the ball is tipped – it feels different.”
The Game Day from Thursday’s Journal: