In one of the later games on Thursday, the Connecticut Huskies will face off against the New Mexico State Aggies in the 5-seed vs. 12-seed matchup. To get some more information on UConn’s opponents, we reached out to Austin Montgomery of Mid-Major Madness to talk about the WAC Champions.
Big East Coast Bias: New Mexico State was the best team in the WAC this season, what about this Aggies team has made them so solid this season?
Austin Montgomery: It’s the upside and talent. New Mexico State last season dealt with the worst COVID hit out of any team in the country. They weren’t able to practice in their state and had to play their home games in El Paso, Texas. That just totally got them out of rhythm. A lot of the guys came back this season and they added a Nebraska transfer in Teddy Allen. Just having him and all of the experience on the team such as guys as Johnny McCants, Sir’Jabari Rice, and Clayton Henry. Then you even have Allen himself who’s played a lot of basketball
They’re just tough and really good on the defensive end. NMSU is top 20 in defensive field goal percentage and can defend all over the court. They just have a lot of big bodies to throw at you. Even Allen, who is their offensive creator, is 6’6. Just good defensively.
BECB: Speaking of Allen, he leads the team in scoring and rebounds, what type of offensive player is he like and how could he attack this UConn defense?
AM: He is a three-level scorer. I watched him against Grand Canyon, who is a top-five defensive team per KenPom when it comes to defending threes, and Teddy Allen dropped five of 11 from deep on them. He can score in the mid-range, he’s strong to drive inside, and is very shifty. They call him “Teddy Buckets” for a reason. He can create his own shot and is a tough shot-maker, which is important for New Mexico State. You need those guys in the tournament.
BECB: NMSU is a top 80 defense team efficiency-wise via KenPom. I know you mentioned they were a good defensive team but what specifically makes them such a hard team to score against?
AM: It’s just a part of head coach Chris Jahn’s identity and again, it's their size. They can guard small ball too. McCants is only 6’7 but he plays a lot bigger than. When teams go small, you can play him at the five and it’s advantageous for New Mexico State as well. They can rebound and their guard perimeter play with Rice is very good. The same goes for Henry and Nate Pryor as well. Any guy they put in can play defense. So yeah defense has always been a part of New Mexico State’s identity.
BECB: What specific things do the Aggies need to do to secure the upset?
Someone other than Teddy Allen has to be a consistent scorer. I think Rice has to get it going. New Mexico State is not that good at knocking down the three-ball and their best shooting from deep has come in spurts. Rice went three of five in the WAC semi-finals, scoring 21 points total. They need that type of performance from him. Another guy that is a wild card off the bench is Mario McKinnie.
Another thing New Mexico State is going to have to do is not turn the ball over. They are bottom 300 in KenPom in turnover percentage. A lot of that hinges on the peaks and valleys play of Rice. If he plays well and doesn’t turn the ball over then they can keep this close. I think McCants and Adama Sanogo is one of the more fascinating matchups to watch. McCants has been playing college basketball for a long time but he hasn’t faced a guy like Sanogo. If he can hold down on the boards and Rice plays well, they can help Allen out.
BECB: On the flip side, what part of the game could lead to a defeat for New Mexico State?
AM: I think it’s if UConn asserts their dominance as a physical team. They guard the paint well and if they can make New Mexico State just take jump shots it’s just a really bad recipe for the Aggies. New Mexico State likes to clear the lane to get Allen working inside and then find open three’s off of that. They don’t want to rely on just shooting a lot of threes. If UConn can close the lane and limit New Mexico State from two’s and make Rice beat them, I think they can run away with it.
BECB: So what’s your prediction for the game? Who wins and why?
AM: It’s going to be a rock right. Like in the Mountain West where the first two to 60 points wins the game. It’s going to be interesting who UConn puts on Allen defensively. I think it might be Whaley and Martin will probably be on Rice. Again, Allen will score but Whaley is going to make it a non-efficient 20 points for him. UConn will sneak by and win via a low score of 59-57.