The dream begins Friday, and hopefully the legacy continues. Kevin Durant will lead the Texas Longhorns (24-9) into Spokane, Washington to take on the WAC champions, the New Mexico State Aggies (25-8).
New Mexico State earned an automatic birth into the tournament courtesy of their 72-70 win over Utah State. NMSU should have already put their thank you note to Utah State in the mail since the Aggies managed to avoid conference powerhouse Nevada thanks to Utah State's upset in the semifinals. The Aggies have won 7 of their last 9 and are lead by second year head coach Reggie Theus who has continued to improve each season. After a 3 game improvement to last year's 16-14 mark, the Aggies took the leap this season improving 9 games in the win column. Theus, an NBA veteran, spent 2 seasons at Louisville as an assistant to Rick Pitino before coming to New Mexico State. Much in the Pitino style, New Mexico State likes to push the tempo, which considering the Longhorns style could put this game in the upper 80s and low 90s in scoring.
New Mexico State is led by 1st team all WAC performer Justin Hawkins. The 6'7" junior led the team in scoring and rebounding (15.7 ppg/6.8 rpg) and is built much in the PJ Tucker mold. He could force Texas into more zone and larger lineups as Damion James should likely draw the assignment. The other front line threat for New Mexico State is 6'9" junior forward Tyrone Nelson who is averaging 11.8 ppg and 6.5 rpg. New Mexico State will rotate 6'9" junior center Hatlia Passos (8.5 ppg/6.5 rpg) and 7'0" junior Martin Iti (6.3 ppg/4.3 rpg). The Aggies back court is led by senior guard Elijiah Ingram (10.4 ppg/2.5 apg/42% 3P%).
New Mexico State will use 8 to 9 players in their rotation and Coach Theus does not hesitate to mix things up. Junior guard Fred Peete, a starter much of the season (9.7 ppg/4.1 rpg) did not play in the last three games of the regular season and has played sparingly since. He was replaced in the starting lineup by senior guard Ted Knauber (44 % 3P%), had only been averaged 12 minutes a game until his move into the starting lineup. Theus will call on his senior forward David Fisher and senior guard Shaun Davis off the bench along with Iti. Also, freshman guard Jonathan Gibson will see minutes off the bench.
Texas will be tested on the front line with the size and rebounding ability of New Mexico State. They are a team that is led by their front line and they attack inside and they attack the boards. Look for Texas to sit in a lot of zone to help combat their size and keep Texas out of foul trouble. If Texas is in man to man, look for New Mexico State to try and go at Durant to get him in foul trouble, since that is the only way they will be able to stop him. New Mexico State while not an outside shooting team by nature, has a few players who shoot well from the perimeter and NMSU as a team has been shooting well recently. New Mexico State should try to run several players at Durant to keep their top players out of foul trouble and to try and at least slow down Durant. Texas should be able to control the pace with superior back court play. Augustin and Abrams should be able to get free and wreak havoc on the back court of NMSU.
With Texas, you know what you are getting from Durant. He hasn't been in foul trouble all season, and Texas does a good job of putting him in a position where he will not pick up many fouls. Texas needs Abrams to be on-track from the get go. He's one of the few guys on this team who has played in a tournament game and his poise will be crucial. Most importantly, Texas needs DJ Augustin to get back on track. While his play has not been terrible, he hasn't been shooting the ball well and has been careless at times handling the ball. He is the key for Texas in this game and this tournament. He should be able to get to the rim a lot and get some of NMSU's front line in foul trouble.
Don't look for Justin Mason to get back on track in this game as his play down the stretch has been unimpressive and Craig Winder has been stealing his minutes and playing well in that role. Look for Texas to be in zone more often with Mason and Winder in the game since match ups defensively will be difficult with NMSU's size. Connor Atchely should play an important role if he can stay out of foul trouble and play effectively. He would allow Texas to match up with Damion James on Justin Hawkins. Also, look for Dexter Pittman and Matt Hill possibly stealing some minutes on the centers of the Aggies. Texas could see some extended time in the zone, and if that is the case, the rotation will need to significantly improve as teams got open looks from the perimeter during the tournament.
If Texas can at least stay close in the rebounding margin with New Mexico State and keep out of foul trouble, they should be able to dictate the pace of play, as New Mexico State will have trouble stopping the guards of Texas and that guy, Kevin Durant, he's kinda good. Look for Augustin and Durant to have a big day.
Prediction: Texas 87-79.