If you’re bored with Gonzaga and don’t really care about Kansas or Syracuse, if you think Auburn should stick to football and you have no clue what or where Fairleigh Dickinson is, and you’re just plain looking for a team for which to root during the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament here in Salt Lake City, we’ve got the one. A team for you to dial in on, to watch, to adopt. Your team.
The New Mexico State Aggies.
Not only are these guys lovable underdogs, a 12-seed from the WAC going up against the SEC’s fifth-seeded Auburn on Thursday at Vivint Arena, they are kind of weird, in the best sense. They do things in ways rarely seen in college basketball.
If you’ve never watched the Aggies — and chances are you haven’t — they play as though they are … well, the Philadelphia Flyers.
They not only move and share the ball and their playing time, they employ line shifts in the middle of the action, replacing an entire group with a fresh one, changing up three, four, five guys at a time. You can almost imagine them climbing over the boards and skating out in their Nikes to do their business.
On this team, bench players don’t stay seated for long. They go 12, 13 deep. If they dress, chances are they’re going to sweat through their jersey. Stars don’t play all that much more than the role guys, nor do they lord over their teammates.
Everybody’s in the pool.
That’s not only unusual, it’s pretty cool.
“There’s nobody in our league that plays like them,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
The Aggies are a diverse group, a bunch of big-school castoffs and junior college transfers coming to Las Cruces from all over the place — Florida to California, Canada to Texas, Senegal to Spain and points in between. One of them — JoJo Zamora — used to play for Utah. And they breathe, run and play as a single organism.
“This team really is different,” said Shunn Buchanan, a junior guard from Mississippi. “Nobody stands out. We’re all equal in production. We play hard — grinding, grimy basketball. We play what we think is the right way — unselfishly. We’re OK with it. We don’t just like each other, we love each other and play for each other, whoever’s on the court.”
NCAA IN SLC
Thursday’s games at Vivint Smart Home Arena:
• Auburn (5) vs. New Mexico State (12), 11:30 a.m.
• Kansas (4) vs. Northeastern (13), 2 p.m.
• Gonzaga (1) vs. Farleigh Dickinson (16), 5:27 p.m.
• Syracuse (8) vs. Baylor (9), 7:57 p.m.
A lot of teams move their lips in concert, in that direction. The Aggies actually mean it.
“We don’t do or say anything for show,” said Trevelin Queen, a junior guard from Maryland. “With this team, it’s real. It’s genuine. It’s a lot of fun, taking this journey together.”
It might not be all that much fun if it weren’t for the fact that New Mexico State wins by the truckload. The Aggies put up a record of 30-4 this season, the second under coach Chris Jans. He is the one who made the determination for his team to throw numbers at opponents. But, on Wednesday, Jans said the key to a win over an opponent like Auburn is the way whoever is on the court at one time connects.
“That is our biggest [asset], our spacing and having more guys on the floor that are capable scorers and teams can’t focus on one or two guys,” he said. “Hopefully, that will help us in being able to get better shots off against a team that is trying to turn you over.”
The Aggies like to spread the floor and bomb away, having launched nearly a thousand 3-pointers, and they score better than 78 points per game. They also have built a 10-plus rebounding margin against opponents, including an average of 13 offensive boards.
Auburn is better than most of the teams New Mexico State played this season, and comes in having won the SEC tournament, which included a rout of Tennessee in the final. The Tigers most definitely will be difficult for the Aggies, who have a track record of losses in the NCAA Tournament, the school losing 12 straight.
But those were other Aggie teams, not this one. That’s, at least, the way the current players are looking at it. Whether the infamous 12-5 upset plague will come into play here depends, more than anything, on New Mexico State’s level of confidence and execution.
They’ve certainly got the former covered.
“We’re very confident,” said AJ Harris, a junior point guard, a transfer from Ohio State, who called himself the team’s leader. “I’m the general, the head of the snake. The snake, this team, believes we can beat anybody.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.