No. 24: This Year's New Mexico State Is...
Each year, it’s become a tradition for us at B101 to fall in love with a non-first place mid-major team and include them in our bracket early in the season, in hopes that they eventually win their conference tournament or earn a somewhat unexpected at-large bid. Two years ago, it was Hofstra (a love affair that screwed us in the end), and last year it was then-Reggie Theus-led New Mexico State. After a solid start to 2006, we added the Aggies to our bracket on December 26th (two and a half months before anyone else did) and kept them in every bracket the rest of the way. Our faith was rewarded when our boys went on to win the WAC tournament title on their home floor and snag an automatic bid.
So who’s this year’s New Mexico State? Which mid-major conference do we like to be a two-bid league? This year, we’re going with a group of Aggies again: Stew Morrill's Aggies of Utah State. Our Bold Prediction No. 24 is that the WAC will get two teams in this year’s final Field of 65, and that second team will be Utah State.
Ironically enough, our old friends from New Mexico State factored heavily in this bold prediction. Theus may have moved on, but new Aggies coach Marvin Menzies inherits one of the league’s best players in senior Justin Hawkins (three starters are back in total) to go along with heralded 6-9 freshman Herb Pope. Pope’s troubled past is well-documented, but if he can stay focused on basketball during his rookie season, he should help New Mexico State win the WAC regular season title and dethrone a Nevada team that was decimated by graduation.
With Nevada down, a handful of teams will be battling for second place, and we like Utah State to establish themselves as the league's second best team. The Aggies certainly have enough talent returning to do it. Senior shooting guard Jaycee Carroll, the league’s best player and top returning scorer at over 21 ppg, is back, and he joins senior point guard Kris Clark (4 assists per game last year) in the league's most potent backcourt. Morrill's track record is also a huge plus here - the Aggies have won 23 or more games eight years running.
Remember, you heard it here first. Utah State will be this year’s version of New Mexico State. They may not win the regular season WAC title, but don’t be surprised if they upend New Mexico State on its home court to win the conference tourney. We think they'll find a way to go dancing somehow...and once again we'll hope that our blind faith pays off.