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Theus the Only Star of This Aggie Squad

By Randy Harrison
Journal Staff Writer
    SPOKANE, Wash.— Justin Hawkins and Elijah Ingram were merely the warmup for the star of Thursday's press conference here at Spokane Memorial Arena. The New Mexico State standouts were dismissed from the podium a few minutes early for lack of any more questions from a largely indifferent group of 20 or so journalists.
    And those who did ask were less interested in what the duo thought about their Aggies' (25-8) chances today against Texas (24-9) than in what it's like to play for Reggie Theus.
    "We call him Hollywood," said Ingram, speaking softly into the microphone in case Theus were lurking around the corner, within earshot of an audio feed.
    "He's a pretty boy," said Ingram, laughing. "He's into himself."
    Added Hawkins, "I think sometimes coach still thinks he's on 'Hangtime' with the cameras following him around. He's always trying to look stylish. But it's all in fun. He's probably got some names for us too."
    Then when Theus came in, the queries were many and varied, and only tangentially about today's game, 13th-seeded NMSU's first NCAA Tournament appearance in eight years.
    Instead, why did he decide to take on coaching after a playing and TV career?
    Why does he walk through the student section onto the Pan Am Center court before each game when his team goes through the tunnel?
    How much attention does he pay to how he dresses and how he looks on the sideline?
    For seven teams participating here in the NCAA Tournament, the players are the stars, not the coaches.
    Rick Barnes' fourth-seeded Longhorns are thought to be ready for the Final Four, yet "rarely do people ask for my autograph," the Texas coach said.
    Then there are the Aggies, largely an unknown bunch of players with a name-brand coach who gives interviews, signs autographs and, as he puts it, "takes a bullet" with aplomb.
    Theus' name recognition is "a big reason why there were stories today in the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune," said NMSU athletic director McKinley Boston. "And to be honest, that's one of the things I thought about when I hired him. If he could put that together with his pedigree, then he could succeed here."
    There is a flip side to that, of course. With a background in acting and broadcasting, Theus doesn't fear a camera, microphone, the bright lights or a difficult question. And he is rapidly becoming a galvanizing force even as his squad has become forceful itself.
    For example, he has taken a politically unpopular stand on the longstanding tradition of playing both UTEP and New Mexico twice each year. He put Aggie haters on notice last year that they had "one year to enjoy this" before the tables turned.
    And when he called timeout with 15 seconds left at UTEP last Dec. 16, and the Aggies on verge of their first two-game sweep over the Miners in four years, he jumped up and down joyously with his team near the free-throw circle, in case anyone would miss it. The Miner fans did not, shouting at the exiting Aggies at game's end.
    When Theus talks, such as when he said "They know we're the better team," when the Aggies lost at Nevada to end the season, the voice carries.
    "I would never, ever want to muzzle Reggie," said Boston. "We talk about some of that. Reggie always wears his heart on his sleeve."
    None of the next class of players is old enough to have seen Theus play in the NBA and few who saw him act on "Hangtime," though he jokes that it's the reason why he has six Division I transfers.
    "They just wanted to come play for coach Fuller," he said, of the charcacter he played.
    At least by now, two years into the Theus era, the Aggies are used to their coach getting the press. Ingram said Hollywood has earned it.
    "It's his résumé," said Ingram. "He's been at the Final Four as a (Louisville assistant), he was an NBA all-star ... he's been there and done it. You've got to listen to his every word."
    NCAA Tournament, first round: In Spokane, Wash., New Mexico State (25-8) vs. Texas (24-9), 5:25 p.m. TV: KRQE-13 Radio: KDEF-AM (1150)