Until last week, New Mexico State was perched on the edge of the national top 10 with a No. 11 ranking. Then came a shocking first-round loss in the Big West Tournament to Fresno State, which killed them with 3-point shooting (11 for 24).
So who did the 23-5 Aggies draw for the first round of the NCAA tournament? One of the better 3-point shooting teams in the nation in the Creighton Bluejays (23-7).The Aggies and Bluejays, former Missouri Valley rivals a decade ago, meet Thursday in the second game of the NCAA subregional at the Huntsman Center at 3 p.m.
"I was distressed to hear that their three perimeter players rank 1-2-3 in the conference in three-point shooting," said NMSU Coach Neil McCarthy, who spent 10 years as head man at Weber State.
The three Bluejays McCarthy was referring to are Duan Cole (46.1 percent), Matt Petty (42.3) and Darin Plautz (38.8). As a team, Creighton shoots 41 percent from 3-point range, which isn't far behind the Aggies' overall 44.6 field-goal shooting.
"We're not real good shooters from the perimeter or anywhere really, free throws included," McCarthy said.
You can say that again. From the foul line the Aggies are shooting an abysmal 63.7 percent. Creighton's figures are 48.8 from the field and 75.3 from the line.
However, McCarthy knows his team hasn't averaged 24 wins the last two years because of great shooting. The Aggies are blue-collar team much like the University of Utah, relying on rebounding and tough defense.
"We average 18 offensive rebounds a game, 21 (opponent) turnovers and 12 steals," McCarthy said. "Defense and offensive rebounding are our strengths."
The Aggies' steal leaders are 6-foot-3 guard Randy Brown , 6-3 guard William Benjamin and 6-4 forward Reggie Jordan . Creighton's top stealer is reserve Latrell Wrightsell, who has 52.
"They have great, great quickness - the type of quickness we can't simulate in practice," Creighton coach Tony Barone said. "We can't play their style of play in practice. The biggest thing for us is to be fundamentally sound, make sure we take care of the ball and make sure we make solid passes."
Besides Cole, Plautz and Petty, who average 13.9, 8.3 and 6.8 points, respectively, the Bluejays have a strong inside game.
Chad Gallagher, a 6-10 senior, averages 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds, while Bob Harstad, a 6-6 forward is close behind with 18.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. The Aggies have balanced scoring led by Jordan at 15.0 ppg. Forward Tracey Ware scores 12.9 per game, Brown 12.1, Benjamin 11.6 and center Michael New 10.5.
The NMSU-Creighton winner advances to play the Seton Hall-Pepperdine winner Saturday at approximately 3 p.m.
GAME NOTES: New Mexico State gave top-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas two of its toughest games, losing by 12 twice, both 86-74 . . . Last year, the Aggies were a No. 6 seed like this year, but were blown out in the first round of the NCAAs by Loyola Marymount 111-92 . . . Creighton's last NCAA appearance came in 1989, when it lost a first-round game to Missouri . . . The only common opponent for NMSU and Creighton this year has been UTEP. The Aggies beat the Miners twice in December, while the Bluejays beat the Miners last month 75-62.