10 potential NCAA Tournament Cinderellas: Don't sleep on New Mexico State
The 21-3 Aggies and these other teams could be a tough out in March Madness
When newly hired coach Chris Jans landed in Las Cruces, New Mexico last spring, to start working at New Mexico State his first head-coaching job since getting fired at Bowling Green a couple years before, his first task was to re-recruit his current roster. This was not easy. The team's senior point guard had graduated. Hot-shooting junior wing Braxton Huggins transferred to Fresno State. Three more guards left.
But Jans was able to convince a solid core of talented returning players to stay – big men Jemerrio Jones, Eli Chuha and Johnathon Wilkins plus guards AJ Harris and Sidy N'Dir. He added Zach Lofton, a graduate transfer from Texas Southern who was the reigning SWAC player of the year. They did individual work throughout the summer, and then, by the time classes started and the roster was fully filled out, it was time to get to work as a team. Expectations were high. The Aggies had perhaps the most talented backcourt in the Western Athletic Conference, and a core of plenty returning from a team that had won a school record 28 games and made the NCAA Tournament the year before.
Then the practices started. And players simply weren't buying into Jans' philosophy, which stresses defense, rebounding and toughness, similar to the "Play Angry" philosophy at Wichita State, where Jans had coached under Gregg Marshall for nearly a decade.
"My confidence wavered quite a bit in September and October," Jans told CBSSports.com. "Practices were not going well. Just a lot of inner strife. The guys I inherited, they didn't verbalize this, but it felt like they were feeling, 'This is how we did things last year. Now you're telling me we gotta do it this way?' "
Not long before the season started, Jans had a talk with his wife. "If we're above .500 at Christmas break, remind me how happy I gotta be," he told her.
Today New Mexico State is sitting at 21-3, undefeated in WAC play and with solid resume wins over Miami, Davidson and Illinois. Two of their losses were by five points. The Aggies are getting votes for the AP Top 25 and had enough votes to be ranked 29th in the most recent poll, between Florida State and Seton Hall. Among mid-major schools, New Mexico State should be considered among the top potential Cinderellas come March Madness.
But how did a team with a revamped roster and a reticence to adapting to this new coach's philosophy become so good and so different so quickly?
The Aggies played an exhibition game in November against Texas Tech. Jans' team got smoked; they lost by 30, but it felt like more than that. That next week, after seeing that embarrassing score at the end of the game, practices were much improved. They were getting after it. They were playing defense, chasing down rebounds, competing against each other.
"There had been a lack of trust," Jans said. "From where I sat it felt like they were not bought in to system I was selling. The style of play I wanted to establish didn't seem to interest them too much. They were all meshing well. I didn't realize it, but they were getting along great. There weren't sides in locker room, but there was a barrier between coaching staff and them. And I told them, 'You gotta jump off the bridge and have some blind trust in me.' "
Once they did, the difference has been remarkable.
A year ago, that record-setting New Mexico State team struggled on defense. The Aggies ended the season ranked 124th in the country in defensive efficiency. This season, Jans' team is an elite defensive squad. They rank eighth in the nation in defensive efficiency, allowing only 93.2 points per 100 possessions – nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better than a year ago. They play smart on offense – they are among the nation's best at not getting shots blocked and not turning the ball over – and with intensity on defense. Despite being a team that doesn't have much height, the Aggies are one of the top teams in the nation when it comes to rebounding percentage. They practice hard, and they play hard. It's the same ingredients that has made Wichita State go on one of the nation's most impressive runs during the past five years.
"These kids have allowed us to coach them," Jans said. "We're all on the same page and in a short period of time. There was a lot of bumping heads, a lot of trying times to get there. I basically told them, 'I'm not changing. My feet are in the ground. I know how I want to play and how I want to practice. You guys have to get over here on my side.' And they did."
One would assume that New Mexico State would have to win its conference tournament to make the NCAAs. But what if they go undefeated through conference play – which is entirely possible – only to lose in the WAC Tournament final? If that happens, I will be arguing that this should be an at-large team.
New Mexico State is one team to keep an eye on as a Cinderella come March. Here are nine more. A quick note: I'm not including any ranked teams in this list. You may think Rhode Island, Nevada or Saint Mary's are Cinderellas, but top-25 teams are outside my definition of Cinderella.
| 19-5, 11-1 Conference USA|
Kermit Davis can flat-out coach, man, and Nick King can flat-out play. After two seasons in which the Blue Raiders won games in the NCAA Tournament, this is Davis' best and most experienced team yet. KenPom has the Blue Raiders ranked 14th in the country in experience; six of their top seven minute-getters are upperclassmen. King, a power forward who transferred from Alabama after starting his college career at Memphis, should be considered one of the best mid-major players in the country. He's been playing hard, crashing the glass and making shots.
| 17-7, 9-2 Conference USA|
When I saw this team at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, I was floored by how well they played together. The Hilltoppers beat Purdue and SMU and gave Villanova a run for its money. This is a well-rounded, down-and-dirty team with an interesting mix of freshmen and upperclassmen, including three transfers (Lamonte Bearden, Darius Thompson and Dwight Coleby). Can you imagine how good the Hilltoppers would have been with Mitchell Robinson?
| 17-9, 7-6 Big Ten|
What is this? A Big Ten team as a Cinderella? Hey, it's my list, and I make the rules, and when a high-major team has made one NCAA Tournament since a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2001, I'm going to call it a Cinderella. Penn State is a very good defensive team. The problem is that Penn State has only one top-50 KenPom win (Ohio State) and some questionable losses (namely, Rider at home). And the Big Ten isn't exactly full of opportunities for great wins this year. But I believe this team is better than its record. Five of this team's nine losses were by six points or less or in overtime. Making the tournament will take some work. But this is a team that could win a game or two if it does.
| 20-5, 10-0 America East|
The Catamounts have the two biggest boxes to check for a potential Cinderella team. They are experienced (all but two players in their current rotation are upperclassmen) and they can really shoot it (15th in the nation in 3-point percentage at 40.7 percent). The foot injury to star sophomore Anthony Lamb hurts, but the Catamounts haven't lost since his December injury. If Lamb makes it back for March, this team will be even more dangerous.
| 20-4, 10-2 Mountain West|
Not many mid-major teams have potential first-round picks. With do-it-all senior wing Chandler Hutchison, the Broncos do. After several down years, the Mountain West appears to be gaining momentum as something more than a one-bid league. Jerry Palm currently has league leader Nevada in the tournament and Boise State smack on the bubble.
| 20-5, 10-3 Missouri Valley|
I am impressed and surprised that Porter Moser has turned the Ramblers into a consistent winner in the Missouri Valley. This year he has done it with one of the most efficient shooting teams in the country. Loyola ranks ninth in the country in effective field goal percentage and fifth in 3-point percentage. Six players on this roster make threes at a 40 percent clip or higher.
| 21-6, 9-1 Summit League|
T.J. Otzelberger's team has an experienced roster and one of the best mid-major players in the country in Mike Daum. The Jackrabbits have a home revenge game on the final game of the regular season against their top rival in the Summit League, South Dakota, which beat the Jackrabbits in January. This team is careful with the ball, efficient on offense and can really bang home 3-pointers -- senior Skylar Flatten leads college basketball with 52.9 percent shooting from 3-point range.
| 20-4, 10-1 Sun Belt|
The Ragin' Cajuns lost for the first time in Sun Belt play Thursday, falling to Georgia State 106-92. And in the unfortunate math that is the NCAA Tournament, they probably still have to win their conference tournament to make the NCAAs. Coach Bob Marlin has built this team on transfers -- four of his top five minute-getters transferred from larger programs. What's most impressive about this team is how well the players share -- nearly two-thirds of their made shots are assisted, the third-highest rate in the sport.
| 19-7, 11-2 Ohio Valley|
Because Rick Byrd. What more evidence do you need than Rick Byrd? OK, how about this: This is an experienced team. The Bruins shoot a lot of 3-pointers -- 54.1 percent of the Bruins' field-goal attempts are from beyond the arc, which is a higher percentage than all but one team in the country. They make those 3-pointers at a respectable 37.5 percent. When they are shooting close to the rim, there's no one better in college basketball than Belmont's 61.6 percentage from 2-point range.
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