When: 9:57 p.m. ET, Friday March 16th
Where: Viejas Arena, San Diego, CA
It’s honestly a very strange existence to be an underdog who’s not actually an underdog.
What I mean by that is the New Mexico State Aggies have been an underdog for not just most of this season, but most of their entire existence as a program.
This year that has changed, in part because of the great success that Chris Jans has had in his first year as a head coach.
That has only accelerated now that tournament time has come and the Aggies are slotted into that coveted #12 space where 50% of 12-seeds have won their opening-round game against a 5-seed in the last 9 years.
This has led to quite a bit of press revolving around New Mexico State being the 12-seed that all of the pundits like to pull the upset the most.
Such discussion can obviously be a little bit disconcerting for a program that is accustomed to being the underdog that no one talks about or believes in, and now having to transition to the underdog that a lot of people think is overhyped – because everyone’s talking about them but still lots of folks don’t know a damn thing about them.
So let’s fix that.
WHO ARE THE AGGIES
First, let’s talk about Jemerrio Jones. He is 6 foot 5 and while he may be listed on some rosters as 200 pounds he’s probably closer to 170.
Those numbers make it all the more impressive the Jones has averaged 11 points and 13 rebounds per game for the season and has actually increased that to 16 rebounds per game over the last month or so. He’s even had five games with 20 rebounds, which is rather uncommon for a forward of his size.
He’s not the strongest or the biggest, but he’s always the one who wants the rebound the most. That kind of energy is always beneficial to everyone else on the floor because they don’t want to be the one that Jemerrio makes look bad.
Then let’s talk about a couple of graduate transfers in AJ Harris and Zach Lofton. Lofton has had a few games this season where it took him awhile to get into the groove of the game or he never really got in that Groove but when he is in that Groove you had better watch out because he will shoot the lights out.
If you had a dollar for every time this season that Lofton had at least 15 points in one half of a game, you could probably go by you and your friend a Happy Meal right now. He can be streaky at times, but the good news is that every time he hits a hot streak it benefits the Aggies, and every time he hits a cold streak it doesn’t ruin them because they’ve got other options, one of which is Harris.
He’s an Ohio State transfer who’s a great captain, sees everything well, and knows where to send it. He’d be the team’s assist leader if it weren’t for Jones.
WHO ARE THE TIGERS
I mean, they’re an above-average AAC team. What else do you need to know?
Seriously though. They are just like the Aggies in that they are built on their defense, namely one that plays aggressive and blocks a lot of shots, but does so without committing a lot of fouls. That said, they also get a lot of shots blocked, and they’re well below average when it comes to offensive rebounds.
The team has gradually adapted to the absence of Donte Grantham now that he’s been out for a couple of months, but he was easily their most efficient offensive player – especially from long range – when he was healthy, and the shift in their overall offensive production has been noticeable.
Marcquise Reed is still their best scorer, and Gabe DeVoe has done a respectable job picking up the three-point shooting slack, but the Aggies definitely catch a break not having to face Grantham in this game
WHO IS GOING TO WIN
This is going to be a very tough matchup for the Aggies, as they face a team that does what they do, but better. Both squads rely on their defense to set up their offense, and Clemson’s defense (10th in adjusted efficiency) and offense (48th) are both better than New Mexico State’s (15th and 114th respectively).
The Aggies will need to stick to their rebounding advantage – they finished fourth in the country with 41.5 per game – in order to cut down on Clemson’s opportunities and maximize their own, and they’ll need a little bit of everything from a roster that already does that. Also keep an eye on the free throw line; the Aggies have improved some as the season has worn on but they’re still the worst free-throw shooting team in the entire tournament.
Maybe they’re lucky that Clemson isn’t a team that fouls a lot, but maybe it’s close and late and that winds up being what either sinks or floats them. I’m worried about how they will handle the best defense they’ve faced all year outside of practice, but they’ve got length and aggression, and I picked them in both of my brackets.
New Mexico State 74, Clemson 72