Its been a rough go at things so far for the New Mexico State Aggies who have already played five road games, and hold just a 3-5 record. They have, however, won all three of their home matchups, and now return to the Pan Am Center to take on the UTEP Miners (4-2) Saturday night.
The Aggies enter the contest fresh off a pair of tough road losses, including a 62-47 loss at the hands of the New Mexico Lobos Wednesday night in Albuquerque, and a 78-75 loss in Laramie against an undefeated Wyoming team.
NMSU fields a much different team than that of a year ago with the 7'5 Sim Bhullar clogging the middle, and because of that, they're still trying to figure out their true identity.
Remi Barry, a 6'8 senior forward, and the 6'2 senior Daniel Mullings, a guard, have become the most consistent players in the early going. However, outside of those two, not a lot is known.
Barry has always been known as fairly good defender, but is easily seeing his best offensive production this year. He's already had a solid game against the Miners in El Paso, tallying 16 points and 9 rebounds on 7-11 shooting. UTEP's bigs will have their work cut out for them there.
Mullings, as usual, will battle Julian Washburn, and now Earvin Morris as well. He's averaging 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds a game, but was held to just 6 points and 5 boards in the first game against the Miners. Keep in mind though, he went off for 26 last year in Las Cruces.
Senior guard D.K. Eldridge has seen his production fall off a bit from a year ago, especially in the five losses this season, where's averaged just 7.4 points a game. He did though, put up 17 and 5 two weeks ago against the Miners.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for the Aggies is the emergence of redhshirt freshman forward Pascal Siakam. He's averaging 11 points and 7.3 rebounds a game, and has already put up a pair of 19 points performances, as well as a 10 point 17 rebound effort.
On the other side of the spectrum, the biggest disappointment has been the play of Tshilidzi Nephawe. The 6'10, 270 lb senior center who was supposed to be the anchor in the paint for the Aggies, has battled injury all year, and is putting up his worst numbers since his freshman year in both points (5.8) and rebounds (4.8) per game.
He missed the last two contests against Wyoming and New Mexico, and according to Mark Rudi of the Las Cruces Sun News, he'll be out another four weeks, along with Tanveer Bhullar, the 7'3 brother of former Aggie Sim Bhullar.
Talked with Marvin Menzies, who said Chili Nephawe will be out an estimated 4 weeks and Tanveer Bhullar out an est. 6 weeks with injuries.— Mark Rudi (@mrudi19) December 5, 2014
Besides the lack of production from Nephawe, the Aggies have really struggled to find anything coming off the bench, and that, more than anything has really hindered this team.
Without Nephawe the last two contests, the Aggies have inserted Siakam into the starting lineup, effectively taking away about 80% of the bench production. In those games, the NMSU bench has averaged just 3.5 points and 5 rebounds a game. That simply won't get it done.
Enter the Miners. UTEP has had its own struggles, especially in the opening minutes of games, and the last contest against New Mexico State was no different. After opening with an extremely young starting five, the Miners found themselves down by as many as 15, and by 12 at the half.
That trend continued into the Wooden Legacy and beyond, with the Miners falling behind early to each of their last three opponents including 13 against Washington and 15 against Colorado State Wednesday night.
The Miners have to buck that trend and figure out a way to get off to quicker starts. Perhaps, as discussed, it may be something as simple as just switching up the starting five to a smaller, quicker lineup. Perhaps not. But, with Nephawe out of the lineup, it may not hurt the Miners to start a little smaller.
Despite their struggles, the Aggies are not a team to be taken lightly, and not a team that Miners can start slow against. NMSU enters with a 13 game home winning streak, and have taken three of four from the Miners in Las Cruces since Tim Floyd took over the program.
Even though Barry and Siakam have played extremely well in the early going this year, if Nephawe is out of the lineup it is a huge relief and advantage for the Miners on both ends of the floor.
I'd expect Mullings to try to do a little more to try to create his own shot, but having a pair of outstanding defenders on him should keep him from causing any real damage.
Freshman forward/center Johnathon Wilkins should see an expanded roll against a longer UTEP team, but he provides little threat to them on the offensive end, or even the defensive glass at that.
For the Miners, expect Vince Hunter to rebound from what was arguably the worst performance of his young college career. He already went off for 23 and 10 against the Aggies the first time around, and had a great game a year ago in Las Cruces. Expect him to find his 6th double-double of the year Saturday night.
Julian Washburn is also coming into his own, averaging 16.5 points on 54% shooting his last two outings. He'll be in a battle against Daniel Mullings, and considering Mullings got the best of him in this game a year ago, I'd expect Julian to return the favor.
The lack of a bench is sure to hurt the Aggies in what should be another physical battle, and with guys like Hunter and Cedrick Lang living in the paint, this game should be the Miners' to lose. It won't be easy, but NMSU simply does not have the personnel.
UTEP 76, NMSU 69