For some programs, opportunity only knocks every so often.
And for the New Mexico State basketball team – a team dominating the Western Athletic Conference over the past decade and consistently getting to the NCAA Tournament only to be slapped with double digit seeds and slim chances of advancing – their door is knocking this week in South Carolina.
The Aggies (2-0) tip off the Myrtle Beach Invitational in Conway, South Carolina, against Davidson at 10 a.m. Thursday – a hoops junkie brunch game, the only Division I game in the country at that time, airing on ESPNU. (Click here for the 2021 Myrtle_Beach_Invitational_Bracket.)
Fifth-year NMSU coach Chris Jans, whose teams went 2-1 in three previous non-conference exempt tournaments, knows the value to his program is huge.
“There will be a lot more eyeballs on us this weekend (than normal games),” said Jans. “In the end, it’s about results and about how we play and if we win or lose, etc. But at the same time, what I’ve learned is when you play well in these tournaments, it moves the needle on a national level to get people talking about you.”
After the hiccup that was the 2020-21 season, the Aggies are again trying to remind people they expect to be a regular in March – and know doing that starts in November before they enter league play in the decidedly low-profile WAC.
By chance, Davidson was also the opening-round opponent in the December 2017 Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii in Jans’ first season at NMSU. A one-point win over the Wildcats set up the Aggies for their first taste of that national attention with a huge upset over ACC’s Miami Hurricanes in the semifinals.
But, as Jans is quick to point out, the team didn’t close the deal that year, falling two days later in a down-to-the-wire championship game loss to the Pac-12’s Southern Cal.
“I would say we’ve done OK, but we haven’t won one,” Jans said. “They haven’t given us a trophy or anything like that when we’ve left these tournaments. And that certainly will be a goal this week; to win the whole darn thing.”
SO FAR, SO GOOD: The Aggies are 2-0 with home wins over a UC Irvine team that went on to beat Boise State and over rival UTEP, leaving Jans pleased overall with his team’s play, especially in integrating so many new players.
One of those new players is Nebraska transfer Teddy Allen who, along with returning star Jabari Rice, leads the team with 13.5 points per game. Allen leads the team, by a wide margin, in playing time at 36.0 minutes per game, but his 27 points through two games came on just 35.5% shooting, leading to Jans being asked about whether his high-profile transfer was struggling.
“I don’t know what people expect from him because of his reputation as a scorer, etc., but people that follow us know I’m not leaving him out there for that many minutes if he’s not doing everything else at a pretty good rate,” Jans said.
THE FIELD: The eight-team Myrtle Beach field has three top 100 teams, per KenPom.com (NMSU was 103 as of Wednesday night) and just one team rated worse than 200 (Penn at 214). Each team will get three games, with the championship being aired at 1 p.m. Sunday on ESPN2.
“There’s quality programs up and down the bracket,” Jans said. “We’ll have played three good teams regardless of who it is once we’ve completed the tournament for sure. I’m sure I have the same feeling as a lot of the coaches looking at the field going, ‘Wow.’ There’s no easy outs out there.”
The top half of the bracket includes (team, record, preseason poll prediction):
• Davidson (1-1) — 6th, Atlantic 10
• New Mexico State (2-0) — 1st, WAC
• Penn (2-2) — 4th, Ivy
• Utah State (1-1) — 5th, Mountain West
The bottom half of the bracket (NMSU could only face one of these teams and it would be on Sunday):
• Oklahoma (2-0) — 7th, Big 12
• East Carolina (3-0) — 11th, American
• Indiana State (2-1) — 9th, Missouri Valley
• Old Dominion (2-1) — 5th, Conference USA
FAMILIARITY: Davidson isn’t the only familiar foe in the field this week.
The Utah State Aggies – a potential second day opponent for New Mexico State – is a former WAC rival and now plays in the Mountain West Conference along with the New Mexico Lobos.
On the other side of the bracket, there are several UNM ties on the East Carolina roster.
Head coach Joe Dooley was a Lobos assistant under Fran Fraschilla from 1999-2002 and was one of the finalists for the UNM job in 2017 when Paul Weir left NMSU to make the move to Albuquerque.
ECU’s starting forward Vance Jackson was at UNM for three years, playing two of them. He is now playing for his fourth school in six seasons: UConn, UNM, Arkansas and ECU.
And Pirates Assistant to the Head Coach Silvey Dominguez is a Grants native, former UNM director of operations under Steve Alford for the 2007-08 season and has coached at numerous programs in the region since starting his coaching career at Western New Mexico in 1979.
Other stops for Dominguez have included UTEP, Colorado State, Wyoming, Utah and Air Force.
THURSDAY: Myrtle Beach Invitational: New Mexico State vs. Davidson, 10 a.m., ESPNU, 99.5 FM (Las Cruces)