Photo courtesy Jeremy Hawkes/NMSU

Under and off the radar, New Mexico State in midst of unexpected stellar season

Of the 351 Division I men’s basketball programs, you need more than a Google search to find one that is more obscure but more deserving of attention than New Mexico State.

Located in the outpost of Las Cruces, it is an hour north of the Mexican border in the Chihuahuan Desert. The Aggies have a sparkling record, a remarkable winning streak, an intriguing story … but they’re not on the radar. New Mexico State is so far off the radar, it’s like the radar has been unplugged. Or not even invented.

New Mexico State’s last loss came on Nov. 18. The Aggies are 22-2 and their 20-game winning streak is second only to top-ranked Gonzaga’s 24-game streak. The Zags are ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. New Mexico State received three votes.

The Aggies will put their winning streak on the line with an important road swing in the Western Athletic Conference. Thursday they’ll play at second-place CSU-Bakersfield and Saturday at third-place Grand Canyon.

There are numerous reasons for the lack of exposure. One of the biggest might be that this sterling start is a surprise. A number of events that could have been negatives have been turned into positives.

First, Pascal Siakam left for the NBA after his sophomore season. The 6-9 forward had developed into a dominant player. Last season, he averaged 20.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. He was a first-round pick of the Toronto Raptors.

Shortly after Siakam left, so did coach Marvin Menzies departed. UNLV thought it had hired Chris Beard as its next coach, but after a few days Beard changed his mind to take the Texas Tech job. On April 17, UNLV hired Menzies.

That was relatively late in the hiring cycle to make a regime change. And New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia decided to promote associate head coach Paul Weir as Menzies’ replacement. Weir had been an integral part of the staff and was the players’ favorite.

“It’s been an easy adjustment,” point guard Ian Baker, the only senior on the roster, told the Las Cruces Sun News. “Coach Weir and I have become close since Day 1. So, I always looked at him as a big brother, but I always respected him as a coach. The coaching change has been easy. Not only for me, but for everybody.”

Weir’s back story is as intriguing as his team’s current story. He’s the only native of Canada who is a full-time Division I head coach. The 37-year-old Weir also has masters degrees from three schools – health and human performance from Northwestern State, sports psychology from Iowa and business administration from New Mexico State. Weir is currently enrolled in the Educational Leadership doctoral program at NMSU. So, he’ll soon be Dr. Weir.

Hall of Famer Lou Henson, who led the Aggies to a Final Four appearance in 1970, is serving as a special adviser and has high praise for the new coach.

“I’ve kept up with him since he’s been here at New Mexico State,” Henson said. “I’ve observed his coaching and I think he’s an outstanding young coach. He’s smart, I’ve watched practices and he has tremendous discipline. That’s where you start. He’s a good fundamental coach.”

The Aggies were 23-11 last season and the regular-season champions in the Western Athletic Conference. They played in the NIT and will likely need to win the WAC tournament and the automatic bid to make the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in the last eight years.

Some schools have a blue-collar approach but New Mexico State has developed a PB&J approach. The go-to snack in the Aggies’ locker room are peanut butter (creamy) and jelly (Concord grape) sandwiches. The staple of a grade schooler’s lunch box represents a humble and simple approach the team has adopted.

“For us, it’s really about finding ways to overcome whatever obstacles that we have,” Weir said in reference to the school’s budget and facilities. That’s all we can really control. We just go into these games with an underdog mentality no matter what their record may or may not be, we just feel like there’s a chip on our shoulder and we have something to prove every single time.”

Wendell Barnhouse is a freelance writer based in Dallas. Follow him on Twitter at @WBBBPB

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