LAS CRUCES – The New Mexico State men’s basketball team is all set for its first Division I matchup of the season.
After earning a pair of wins over NAIA teams, the Aggies now have a date with Santa Clara on Saturday at 3 p.m. MT in Santa Cruz, California. The Broncos enter the matchup with an unblemished 4-0 record, and they’re hoping to snap New Mexico State’s 21-game win streak.
Here’s everything you need to know about the matchup.
How to follow
There are two ways to follow Saturday’s action.
For television, the game can be watched on the WCC Network. For radio, Jack Nixon has the call on Zia Country 99.5 FM in Las Cruces, 1150 AM in Albuquerque.
New Mexico State isn’t entering Saturday’s contest at full strength.
The Aggies announced on Wednesday that redshirt junior Jabari Rice is out for six-to-eight weeks with a foot injury, which he suffered in Sunday’s season opener against Arizona Christian.
Rice still suited up in Tuesday’s game against Benedictine Mesa, but he received X-rays the following day and was ruled out. The Houston native entered the campaign as the preseason WAC Player of the Year, and he led the team in minutes per game (31.5) before getting hurt.
The Aggies’ backcourt becomes even more shallow with Rice’s injury. Kalen Williams is out for all of non-conference play with a broken fifth metatarsal in his foot, and Jason King is on a game-by-game basis with a high ankle sprain.
It isn’t all bad news in the backcourt, though.
Senior point guard Evan Gilyard II shined in the team’s 92-54 win over Benedictine Mesa on Tuesday. The 5-foot-10 floor general racked up game highs of 17 points, seven assists and two steals in the victory.
Donnie Tillman also recorded 17 points in his second game as an Aggie. The UNLV transfer leads New Mexico State in points per game (16) through the first two contests.
Meanwhile, Johnny McCants racked up 11 points and a game-high 12 boards against the Redhawks. The redshirt senior bounced back from a quiet night against Arizona Christian, and he even knocked down his first 3-pointer of the season.
All five of New Mexico State’s starters scored double-digit points in the victory, but the team also needs its bench to deliver now that the rotation is shorter.
C.J. Roberts fouled out in three minutes against the Redhawks, and Wilfried Likayi tallied two points in 16 minutes. Both players should see a considerable boost in playing time moving forward.
Santa Clara is 4-0 so far this season after going 20-13 last year.
The Broncos are led by Josip Vrankic, a 6-foot-9 senior who’s averaging a team-high 18.8 points per game to go along with 7.3 boards and 2.5 assists per contest.
The veteran can put the ball on the deck, box out well down low and find the open man if doubled. He also shot 34.7 percent from distance last season.
Meanwhile, Jalen Williams anchors the team’s backcourt. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard is averaging 9.3 points per game, and he’s a two-way threat. Williams regularly guards the other team’s best player, and he’s averaging a team-high 1.5 steals per contest.
Williams is a tough matchup at the two spot because of his size, but that’s the case with every player on the Broncos’ first unit. Their shortest starter is 6-foot-5 point guard Christian Carlyle, and they have 6-foot-10 sophomore Jaden Bediako at center.
This size is a big reason why team’s struggle to generate much offense against Santa Clara.
Opposing teams are shooting just 26.2 percent from behind the arc against the Broncos, which ranks 54th in the country. Opponents are also only shooting 35.1 percent from inside the arc, which ranks ninth in the country.
Keys to success
The offensive key to a New Mexico State win this one is to take care of the basketball.
The Broncos force an average of 15.5 turnovers per game, and the Aggies can’t afford to make careless mistakes in a game where points will already be hard to come across.
Meanwhile, the defensive key is to force the Broncos to shoot it from deep.
Santa Clara has the size advantage down low, but the team is only shooting 21.4 percent from behind the arc this season. The Broncos don’t lean on their 3-point shot and would much rather enforce their will down low, so keeping them out of the paint is going to be crucial for New Mexico State.
Who will win?
This isn’t an ideal scenario for New Mexico State.
The Aggies are still trying to find their rhythm after showing some rust against two NAIA squads, and their recent wave of injuries leaves them dangerously low on bodies in the backcourt.
Now New Mexico State’s first game against a Division I foe is on the road against a Santa Clara team with plenty of momentum and a considerable size advantage.
This would probably be a different story if both teams were at full strength, but the Broncos are the safer bet on Saturday.
Prediction: Santa Clara 67, New Mexico State 63