Spokane, WA (SportsNetwork.com) - Winners of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament three years in a row, the New Mexico State Aggies contend with the San Diego State Aztecs in the second round of the NCAA Tournament's West Regional at Spokane Arena on Thursday.
The 13th-seeded Aggies finished second in the WAC standings during the regular season, facing a host of new opponents with the league switching out former members for new ones. However, the Aggies did finish with the best overall record of any squad at 26-9, thanks to a three-game run in the conference tournament that culminated in their third consecutive tourney title, the fourth in the last five years and the fifth all-time.
New Mexico State began the WAC Tournament with a narrow 70-68 victory against Seattle in the quarterfinals, continued with a 69-63 win over Cal State Bakersfield and finished off with a lopsided 77-55 triumph over Idaho at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
As for the fifth-seeded Aztecs, they were ranked as high as fifth in the polls during the 2013-14 regular season, thanks to a record 20-game win streak that began just after a loss to Arizona at home on Nov. 14 and carried through to the second week of January. For much of the season, SDSU was the team to beat in the Mountain West Conference, losing only twice, once each to Wyoming and New Mexico.
During the MWC Tournament the Aztecs took care of Utah State (73-39) and host UNLV (59-51) at the Thomas & Mack Center, but then were defeated by a pesky UNM squad, 64-58.
San Diego State is into the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year, this time around with an at-large bid, but as dominant as the program has been in the MWC the last several seasons, the Aztecs have been one-and-done in both 2012 and 2013 after reaching the Sweet 16 in 2011 under head coach Steve Fisher. The Aztecs have a record of just 3-9 in this event dating back to 1975,
New Mexico State has registered 10 wins in 32 opportunities in this tourney going back to 1952, reaching the Final Four in 1970. More recent returns have seen the program bow out after just a single effort in each of the last six appearances. Last season the Aggies were turned away by a 13th-seeded Saint Louis squad, 64-44.
Team sources differ quite a bit on how often they've met previously. While the Aggies document a total of just four meetings, played once each season between 1998-2001 where NMSU owns a 3-1 advantage, the Aztecs note that they won the first three encounters dating back to the 1940s, which would give them a 4-3 edge. Coincidentally, NMSU head coach Marvin Menzies served as an assistant coach under Fisher during the three most recent meetings with NMSU.
The survivor of this game will take on the winner of the North Dakota State/Oklahoma battle in the next round this weekend.
The Aggies are a big team up front, with Tshilidzi Nephawe and Sim Bhullar clogging up the paint. Nephawe, who stands 6-10, is the more agile of the two, as he puts up 11.1 ppg and 7.8 rpg. Second on the team in blocked shots with 51, Nephawe doesn't have the best eye at the free-throw line (.626) and tends to get into foul trouble, which might keep him off the floor if the team is trailing late in a game. As for Bhullar, he is a lumbering 7-5 center who eats up space and is far less fluid than Nephawe. The Toronto native is shooting 64.7 percent from the floor, but just 54.5 percent at the charity stripe as he responds with 10.3 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 99 blocked shots on the year.
Out on the perimeter is team leader Daniel Mullings with his 16.8 ppg, 119 assists and 64 steals, all of which were highs for the Aggies over the course of 35 games. DK Eldridge (11.5 ppg) and Kevin Aronis (7.5 ppg) lend support, the latter having knocked down a team-best 76 3-pointers and made the move into the starting lineup once K.C. Ross-Miller was suspended indefinitely for his role in a post-game skirmish against Utah Valley in February.
Like the Aggies, San Diego State also tends to run with a bigger starting lineup than most. A big reason for SDSU's streak of 20-win seasons reaching nine in a row has been the play of star guard Xavier Thames, the MWC Player of the Year. Thames, a member of the All-MWC First Team, carried the squad with a team-best 16.8 ppg and was responsible for 105 assists, not to mention 3.0 rpg. With 55 steals, Thames was also named to the All-MWC Defensive Team.
Winston Shepard is the only other player scoring in double figures with his 12.1 ppg, accounting for 70 assists and 5.2 rpg. Considering that the Aztecs are one of the top defensive programs in the entire nation, allowing opponents to shoot only 38.4 percent from the field and 28.7 percent behind the 3-point line, scoring points is not always a top priority. Josh Davis, the MWC Newcomer of the Year, is a big reason for the team's defensive success, as he comes up with 7.7 ppg and a team-best 9.7 rpg. When the Aztecs due need a shot of offense off the bench, it tends to come in the form of Dwayne Polee II (7.9 ppg), the MWC Sixth Man of the Year who scored a combined 32 points in the last two outings.