The college basketball season is currently in a dead zone, but New Mexico State University coach Chris Jans has his players looking forward to November. New Mexico State, the dominant programme in the NCAA’s Western Athletic Conference, will be one of the headline teams at the third annual Cayman Islands Classic on 25-27 Nov.
The Aggies have won their conference in seven of the last eight years, and Jans has been the WAC’s Coach of the Year in both of his two seasons at the helm. New Mexico State is coming off a tough loss in the NCAA’s postseason tournament and is itching to get back on the court and win again.
“I think it’s important to be in these preseason tournaments to give your programme more exposure,” Jans said Monday of the Cayman Islands Classic. “It’s hard to get top teams to come play us at home, so our best chance is to either go to their gym or to participate in these neutral site opportunities.”
Jans is 58-11 in two seasons at New Mexico State, and his team has played to a 27-3 record in conference play. Despite that success, New Mexico State has not won a game in the NCAA’s postseason tournament since 1993, when it beat fellow Cayman Classic participant Nebraska in the first round.
New Mexico State came close to breaking through in March Madness earlier this year, when it fell to Auburn by a 78-77 score in the opening round. Auburn survived that scare and made it all the way to the Final Four, and Jans said his team knew just how close it had come to progressing further.
“In that tournament, you have to play well,” Jans said. “Everybody’s good. Anybody can go on a run and win three or four games like Auburn did. We were rooting for them in some fashion, I guess. It’s even more motivating for us to scratch, fight and claw our way to winning in the tournament.
“Everybody deals with that last loss on an individual basis. There are no do-overs.”
In some respects, this season will be a little bit easier for New Mexico State. Jans said that his team brought 10 new players to mesh into the programme in each of the last two seasons. This year, more players return, which means that more of the team knows what to expect from practice.
Returning guard Terrell Brown was named First Team All-WAC (Western Athletic Conference), and backcourt partner AJ Harris was named Second Team All-WAC. Harris was also named to the WAC’s All-Defensive Team.
At this point, Jans said, the players are off on their own preparing for next year.
“We’re all taking a break from the rigours of the daily grind,” he said on Monday. “We’re not starting summer school until June, so everybody has a chance to recharge their batteries.”
One thing is certain: New Mexico State is comfortable with neutral-site tournaments. The Aggies played in the Las Vegas Classic last year, and two years ago they played in Hawaii’s Diamond Head Classic.
That latter tournament took them all the way to Honolulu, and though many of the players from that team have graduated, Jans said that Cayman’s natural beauty will not catch New Mexico State by surprise.
“We’re not going there to quarantine these guys,” he said. “There will be plenty of time to explore the island, but our guys are mature enough to understand they’re there to win basketball games.”
The Cayman Islands Classic field will have Colorado State, South Florida, Old Dominion, George Mason, Washington State and Loyola-Chicago competing against Nebraska and New Mexico State.
Cincinnati and Creighton have won the tournament championship in each of the last two seasons.
New Mexico State hopes to add its name to that list, but Jans has his players focussed on improving through the season and ultimately breaking through in March Madness.
“I think people in the industry understand the rich tradition of New Mexico State throughout the history of the game,” Jans said. “It’s certainly a goal of ours to advance [in the NCAA tournament]. It’s been a long time since our programme has won there, but it’s not something we dwell on as our only goal.”