So it's time to turn our attention away from the tournament as a whole, and onto the task immediately at hand for the Longhorns: the first round matchup with #13 seed New Mexico State.
New Mexico State University
New Mexico State University is located in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about 45 miles northwest of El Paso. Founded in 1888, the state university has an enrollment of 16,428 students. The university's athletics teams are members of the Western Athletic Conference.
The New Mexico State Aggies men's basketball team plays its home games in the Pan American Center (seating: 13,000). The 2006-07 season is the 100th year of men's basketball at the university. All time, the Aggies are 1,231-950-2 (.564), though they are considerably better all time at the Pan Am Center (446-128). The Aggies are making their 17th NCAA appearance, though it is their first since 1999. All time, the Aggies are 10-18 in NCAA Tournament games.
New Mexico State's 2006-07 Season
The Aggies returned four starters from their 2005-06 team which finished 16-14 (10-4 in the WAC). The group improved their overall record this season, finishing 25-8, though just 11-5 in WAC play. Their best win of the season came on January 20th, when the Aggies defeated Nevada in Las Cruces, 80-73. The Aggies earned their NCAA bid by winning the WAC Conference Tournament, which they hosted at the Pan Am Center in Las Cruces. Away from home, the Aggies were less impressive, finishing just 6-7 on the season.
The Aggies are an unusually deep team, running nine players on the floor for 15 or more minutes per game. They're led in scoring by Justin Hawkins, who scores a shade over 15 points per game. Tyrone Nelson (12 ppg), Elijah Ingram (10.5 ppg), and Fred Peete (10 ppg) all average double figures in scoring.
Looking at their KenPom Scouting Report, several things jump out right away. First, the Aggies are an up-tempo basketball squad (24th quickest tempo in the country). They like to run and gun, and they're a pretty solid three point shooting team (39% on the season). The Aggies are also an above average offensive rebounding team, which is something Texas will need to be careful with.
Turning to New Mexico State's KenPom Game Plan page, the Aggies look like a streaky team. If they're "on," they can be a dangerous offensive team, putting up points in bunches. The Aggies have not proven themselves able to excel defensively, though, which has to concern Head Coach Reggie Theus as they prep for the Longhorns.
Keys To The Game
Slowing down Texas' offense this season has been near impossible. Only Villanova, LSU, and Michigan State had any success at all in keeping the Horns in check, and I can assure you that New Mexico State isn't even in the same league as those teams on the defensive side of the ball. The good new for the Aggies, though, is that the key to beating Texas has been outpacing them. In that sense, they're better suited to upset the Longhorns than a team which relies on trying to win close games with defense.
For the Longhorns, they'll have no trouble avoiding the upset if they can amp up the defense. The Longhorn team that punished Oklahoma State and Texas Tech during the latter part of the Big 12 season will have no trouble running the Aggies out of the gym. The Longhorn team that shuffled about ineffectually against Baylor in the first half of their Big 12 tournament matchup, though, could find itself in a true scram.
The good news for Texas is that the Aggies aren't a very big team on the frontcourt, so there shouldn't be a huge mismatch opportunity on the interior. The bad news is that the Aggies have a lot of length on the perimeter - a team characteristic that's given Texas fits this year. In fact, the team that New Mexico State most reminds me of is Kansas State; if the Aggies were to bomb three pointers as effectively as Kansas State did in Austin, the 'Horns will be in a fight for their lives.
Still, I find it terribly difficult to envision Texas losing this game, both because of Texas' marginal improvements on defense and their continued improvements on offense. It's becoming harder and harder to keep up the pace with Texas, and though Kansas managed to outlast the Longhorns twice, it took two Herculean efforts to do it. If the 'Horns have learned anything from those two heartbreaking losses, then Texas' East Region opponents need to be prepared to play their best basketball of the year.
I wonder whether Texas won't get off to a bit of a slow start, but I expect them to put up a healthy number of points and keep New Mexico State safely behind for most of the second half. The crystal ball sees a burnt orange win Friday night: Texas 80 New Mexico State 69.