Getting to know upset-minded NMSU
New Mexico State hasn’t lost a college basketball game since Jan. 17. Winners of 13 straight, the Aggies hope to keep that streak alive Friday in Omaha, Nebraska, against national powerhouse Kansas.
Dancing in March for the fourth season in a row, NMSU (23-10) also has a chance to deal the Big 12 (0-3 on the first day of The Madness) another NCAA Tournament blow — if it can find a way to topple the Midwest’s No. 2 seed, KU (26-8).
The WAC regular-season and tournament champion Aggies lost at Baylor, 66-55, back on Dec. 17. But this is March. And upsets rule supreme.
If New Mexico State wants to test — or upset — Kansas, it will have to do so with its defense. The Aggies are:
19th in the NCAA in scoring defense (59.3 points allowed)
10th in 3-point FG% defense (29.3%)
19th in rebound margin: +6.9 boards a game
The Aggies do all of that while playing pressure defense, and an adapting half-court zone that actually specializes in taking away open 3-point looks.
Asked to describe NMSU’s defense, sixth man D.K. Eldridge labeled it the ever-popular “40 minutes of hell.”
“We try to make it impossible to bring the ball across half court,” Eldridge said. “It mostly comes from all our deflections. We keep count of that. Daniel (Mullings) leading in deflections right now. Myself, Ian (Baker) can do it. And our back wall guys, they very athletic and make plays, as well.”
In summation: It’s the kind of approach that opponents hate.
In order to get to know the Aggies better, I asked senior guard Eldridge to provide his take on each of NMSU’s top six players.
No. 3 — Remi Barry, 6-8, 225 senior F
— Season stats: 13.3 points, 46.3% FGs, 44.6% 3s (41-for-92), 76.6% FTs, 4.8 rebounds
“Coming off an injury from last year, he’s had a very successful year. He brings scoring to the table and he’s a part of our defense with his length.”
“He knows his role. He don’t get outside his box too much.”
No. 43 — Pascal Siakam, 6-9, 230 freshman F
— Season stats: 13 points, 57.7% FGs, 0-for-2 3s, 76.3% FTs, 7.7 rebounds (4.4 offensive), 1.8 blocks
“Oh, man. He an animal down low. Only a freshman, though. That’s what’s crazy about it. He’s got a lot left. Hopefully this’ll give him experience to have confidence for the future.”
“He’s very athletic, rebounds, scores the ball really well. He plays hard every possession.”
No. 23 — Daniel Mullings, 6-2, 170, senior G
— Season stats: 12.6 points, 43.5% FGs, 36.1% 3s, 70.8% FTs, 5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2 steals
“He’s the head of the program. A very good player, athletic, very strong competitor.”
“Similar to myself, we just go out there and do what we do best: play hard every possession, give it our all for 40 minutes.”
“He’s a very strong driver, capable shooter, very good defense on the ball and off the ball.”
No. 15 — Tshilidzi Nephawe, 6-10, 268, senior C
— Season stats: 10.4 points, 53.1% FGs, 62.1% FTs, 7.6 rebounds
“Just call him ‘Chili.’ He gets mad if you don’t say his nickname.”
“Just a big presence down low. Offense, it’s hard to stop him. Big, strong kid. A guy you want to get the ball to every time. You know you’re gonna get a bucket out of him.”
“On the defensive end, he just change shots, rebound, guard. He can get down and guard guards if he want to.”
“His conditioning got better. He came off an injury not too long ago (missed 12 games before returning in mid-January).”
“He’s a senior, does the right things. Not too many mistakes — on and off the court. He’s a guy that you want, and we want. We’re lucky to have him on our team.”
No. 4 — Ian Baker, 6-0, 180, sophomore PG
— Season stats: 9.5 points, 47.8% FGs, 47.2% 3s (58-for-123), 75.9% FTs, 2.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals
“He brings a lot. For being a young player, he’s a very experienced guy. He’s very mature at his position.”
“He can shoot the ball very well. He can lead the team on offense, and when he wants to he can play very good ‘D.’”
“He comes from a family with a lot of older brothers, so I think that’s why his maturity is so strong. … He’s a very good leader. We listen to him. He puts us in the right position to win games, hits a lot of big shots for us… When we’re in a deep situation, he’ll get us out of it.”
No. 1 — D.K. Eldridge, 6-2, 180, senior G
— Season stats: 8.1 points, 38.6% FGs, 28.1% 3s (34-for-121), 63.3% FTs, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals
Eldridge considers himself a defensive-minded guy.
“That’s where my offense comes from most of the time — playing good ‘D.’ I know this team needs me in that category, so I just try my best to come off the bench and bring energy, especially when the starting five’s not feeling too energetic.”