It only seems fitting to open my first edition of ‘Method to the Madness’ covering the 2017-18 NCAA men’s college basketball season with a mid-major program. And since my college football coverage concluded in 2017 with a thrilling 26-20 walk-off, overtime Arizona Bowl victory by the New Mexico State Aggies over the Utah State Aggies, let me introduce you to the NMSU basketball team.
Representing the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) with an overall record of 17-3 and a perfect 5-0 mark in the conference thus far, these Aggies from Las Cruces, NM are a Cinderella threat come March Madness time. They have the ability to not only punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, but to be giant-killers upon arrival. Head coach Chris Jans, a 25-year veteran in just his first season at the helm, takes over an Aggie squad that owned the nation’s third-longest winning streak during the 2016-17 season. Heck, this team quietly won 20-straight games a year ago to finish 28-6 with a dominant 16-1 mark at home in the oh so friendly confines of the Pan American Center in Las Cruces. NMSU gobbled-up a No.14 seed in last season’s NCAA Tourney, drawing an extremely athletic and gifted No. 3-seeded Baylor Bears squad from the Big 12 conference in the First Round.
New Mexico State lost the contest, 91-73, but they headed into the locker room at the the half with a 40-38 edge. Baylor’s talent ended up being too much in the end; however, you can’t say that the Aggies didn’t make the Bears sweat a little bit.
On the floor with the orange this season, senior shooting guard Zach Lofton is the tone setter. Listed at 6-foot-4 and a feathery 180 pounds, the 25-year-old graduate transfer from Texas Southern leads NMSU in scoring — an impressive stat-line of 19.7 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game, and 1.4 assists per game. At Texas Southern a season ago, Mr. Lofton won Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Player of the Year honors. Even though I believe he’s feathery at 180-pounds, that doesn’t matter much when you can flat ball. . . Length, pure stroke, efficiency, leader! These best describe this kid. Did I forget to mention confidence? Yes. Well, this young man certainly has it — when you don jersey No. 23, you do it for a reason.
Speaking of efficiency, Coach Jans spoke to the Las Cruces Sun-News about just that.
“That’s the best thing he has going for him is his efficiency,” Jans said. “He’s doing it in the framework of our offense and he’s not having to deviate from what we are trying to get him to do and if he can continue to do that and be that efficient, that really helps us.”
Guard play has and always will be critical to the success and failure of teams in the NCAA Tourney. Lofton is without a doubt a tremendous backcourt player, and he’d create waking nightmares for any team that might face NMSU come March.
What about production in the paint for these Aggies? They have it. Jemerrio Jones, standing 6’5″ and weighing-in at 200-pounds, gets the dirty work done on the interior. As a second senior leader alongside Lofton, Mr. Jones (aka – “Mr. Double-Double”) pounds the glass while averaging 10.2 ppg, 11.4 rpg, and give him 3.3 apg for good measure.
Veteran coaching, senior leadership, interior production, and fabulous guard play make New Mexico State a formidable menace come March Madness. If the Aggies reach the field of 68 yet again in back-to-back seasons, don’t be surprised to see them grab a “W” or two while busting your bracket. Don’t believe me? Just ask the likes of Davidson, Illinois, and then-No. 6 Miami who fell victim to the Aggies during their non-conference slate earlier in the season.