Utah Valley posed New Mexico State little threat in Saturday’s showdown for the Western Athletic Conference at the Pan American Center. The Aggies cruised, 86-59, improving to 5-0 in league play and 17-3 overall with their sixth consecutive victory.
FINAL | Aggies cruise past Utah Valley to take lead in @WACsports play behind 3-point barrage.
— NM State MBB (@NMStateMBB) January 21, 2018
Coming into the weekend, Utah Valley held a Top 100 KenPom ranking, distinction the Wolverines since lost. They now sit at No. 104. However, Grand Canyon moved up, so it’s a wash. The Aggies have three Top 10 KenPom wins, all away from the Pan American Center. They’re No. 57 in the KenPom rankings, and No. 45 in RPI. NMSU is also starting to garnering votes in the AP Top 25.
Each win and the possibility of New Mexico State’s continued climb in the various metrical rankings poses a challenge to the NCAA Tournament selection committee. Should the Aggies run the table but fall short in the WAC Tournament, do they deserve an at-large invitation?
It’s a question that, on its face, can seemingly be dismissed with an immediate and emphatic no. At-large bids into the NCAA Tournament have come at a premium for mid-major conferences since realignment earlier this decade. Low-majors — distinction for which the WAC most certainly qualifies — have never really factored into the conversation.
The WAC currently ranks No. 18 out of 32 leagues per KenPom.com, well behind the last conference with a case for multiple bids with or without a March shakeup: the WCC. The West Coast Conference plays almost as prominently into New Mexico State’s at-large conversation as the WAC, with two of the Aggies’ three losses coming against WCC members Saint Mary’s and San Diego.
Saint Mary’s climbed to No. 16 in the AP Top 25 by virtue of its win over Gonzaga on Thursday. The Gaels are virtual shoo-ins for the NCAA Tournament at this juncture, much as they were a season ago. Coincidentally, Saint Mary’s now is reminiscent of New Mexico State a few decades ago, when the Aggies were members of the Big West Conference.
Now a California-only conference (with the exception of Hawaii), the Big West of nearly 30 years ago included national powerhouse UNLV. Like Gonzaga with its perennial Top 25 ranking and the high-water mark of a Final Four run last season, UNLV both raised for the bar and brought attention to its entire conference — which, in turn, resulted in New Mexico State, Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara contending for Tournament spots commensurate with the Runnin’ Rebels’ push for national titles.
Saint Mary’s is well established as a Tournament-caliber program in the same vein as though Lou Henson and Neil McCarthy-coached New Mexico State teams, and the Gaels could even unseat the Zags atop the WCC this season. Doing so would help NMSU’s resume, though perhaps not as much as if San Diego can make enough noise to sneak into the third or fourth spot.
The Toreros upset New Mexico State, 65-60, on Dec. 6. Losses to SMC and a Diamondhead Invitational thriller against USC don’t have nearly the same negative impact on NMSU’s case, though USC’s struggles have the Trojans jockeying for one of the bubble bids the Aggies could seek. San Diego plays Gonzaga twice and gets both Saint Mary’s and BYU at home on the back-half of the WCC schedule, and its upward trajectory could be critical for NMSU’s case.
Right now, the Torerors are No. 121 in KenPom rankings; that’s 13 spots better than where Portland finished in the 2014-15, when the Pilots played a profound role in an at-large argument very similar to that which New Mexico State would end 2017-18.
Portland knocked off Murray State in a Thanksgiving tournament, one of only three regular-season losses the Racers suffered. Murray State’s other blemishes came against Xavier and Valparaiso. With a perfect record in the Ohio Valley Conference and a winning streak of 25 games, Murray State surged into the AP Top 25 ahead of its league title game against Belmont.
Like the WAC, the OVC is best described as a low-major. The conference finished 2014-15 ranked 21st among 33 leagues. That seemingly trumped any other arguments the Racers had, which included an RPI of 46 — just one spot below New Mexico State’s current standing — and a KenPom of 57.
Like that Murray State bunch, the 2017-18 New Mexico State roster features one of the most exciting guards in the nation in Zach Lofton. Lofton’s a different style of guard than Cameron Payne was in his time at Murray State, but the former is an equally effective scorer.
Man, @NMStateMBB guard Zach Lofton is special. Here’s 3 of his 24 from yesterday. Creativity & separation here is so impressive.
— Adam Young (@youngpbp) January 21, 2018
Lofton’s scoring touch adds a dynamic to the stifling New Mexico State defense reminiscent of Josh Hagins with the Arkansas-Little Rock team that stunned Purdue in the First Round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament. Add that dynamic to the numerical support for the Aggies as at-large contenders, and NMSU has a strong case. But precedent says only a WAC championship will take New Mexico State dancing.