SALT LAKE CITY — When JoJo Zamora left the University of Utah program two years ago, his basketball trajectory at the time didn't appear to have a clear intersection back through Salt Lake City.
The NCAA Tournament made that possible, though, as Zamora and his current team, the New Mexico State Aggies, face the Auburn Tigers in the first round of the NCAAs at Vivint Arena on Thursday.
An invitation from NMSU assistant David Anwar helped land Zamora in Las Cruces, and he's grateful for the opportunity there while appreciating his time in Utah.
“It just kinda wasn't a good fit for me (in Utah). It was a good experience for that year, playing Division I in the Pac-12,” Zamora said. “I think everything I went through up there was worth it, but I made the right decision to come up here.”
Zamora's stint in Larry Krystkowiak's program was short: he joined the Utes for the 2016-17 season after playing two years at Yuba College and averaged 6.9 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game for Utah.
After sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, Zamora has started 16 of 34 games this season for New Mexico State while averaging 7.5 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game. He's also shot 41.7 percent from the field.
The 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard from Oakland, California, has visited with some former Utah teammates while in town.
"They're just glad to see I'm back here in the tournament," he said Wednesday, as the Aggies (30-4), the No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region, prepared for their matchup with No. 5 seed Auburn (26-9). Thursday's contest tips off at 11:30 a.m. MDT and will be televised on TNT.
New Mexico State uses its bench: the Aggies have 11 players who average 14 minutes or more per game, while no one averages more than 25 minutes. Nine players average five points or more per game, including Terrell Brown, who is the team’s only double-digit scorer at 11.3 ppg. Eli Chuha, who is playing in his third NCAA Tournament, adds 9.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.
"They don't shrink their rotation, so they have 13 or 14 guys that play, all of them are capable of going off at any moment in the game," said Auburn guard Bryce Brown, who leads the Tigers with a 15.8 ppg average. "That's why we have to pay close attention to our scouting report because they shoot the ball well and, like I said, not a single person we have to focus in on."
On a team that truly lives by the belief that any given player could lead the way on any given night, Zamora has had his moments.
"He won a couple of games for us singlehandedly this year. He's capable of that," second-year New Mexico State coach Chris Jans said of Zamora.
One of those times came two days before Christmas, when Zamora went off a career-best 28-point night for New Mexico State in a 75-72 win over the Pac-12's Washington State. Zamora made six 3-pointers that night, including the game-winner with 1.9 seconds to play.
It's that kind of play the Aggies would love to see again from Zamora if needed on Thursday.
"As a coach, you want him to be a bit more consistent. Sure is nice bringing someone off the bench that you know can change a game with three or four shots, and he is capable of doing that," Jans said.
Thursday's test against the Tigers of the SEC will be their biggest since narrowly losing 63-60 to the Big 12's Kansas in December. Ironically, the winner of Thursday's Aggies-Tigers game will face the winner of the No. 4 seed Jayhawks and No. 13 Northeastern, who play in the second game Thursday in Salt Lake City.
One thing Zamora and the Aggies will have to watch out for is the Tigers' quick hands: Auburn is the top team nationally at forcing turnovers, forcing 599 this season for a 17.6 per-game average.
Another thing to expect early Thursday in Salt Lake City will be plenty of 3-point shots. Both Auburn and New Mexico State rank in the top 10 nationally in 3-point attempts per game.
"We will put four or five guys on the floor that can shoot it. It is most important I give them the confidence to shoot it," Tigers head coach Bruce Pearl said.Comment on this story
Auburn's Bryce Brown has connected on 40.4 percent of his 3-point attempts this season while averaging 3.49 made 3-pointers per game. New Mexico State's Terrell Brown shoots 43.1 percent from 3-point range, averaging a pair of 3-pointers per contest.
Zamora is also a threat beyond the arc, hitting 37.5 percent from 3-point range, second-best on the team.
No matter how long the visit to Salt Lake City lasts for Zamora and NMSU, he appreciated the trip back to a place he briefly called home.
“It brought a lot of memories back when we touched down,” Zamora said. “It’s a beautiful city; I love it out here.”