Gametime: 6:50pm Thursday, March 17th on TNT
Arena: KeyBank Center in Buffalo, NY
Previous matchups: N/A
Odds (as of 3/14): UConn -6.5, o/u 131.5 (according to Yahoo)
New Mexico State Overview
New Mexico State was the automatic qualifier out of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) this season after winning the tournament championship in fairly convincing fashion. They finished the year at 26-6 (13-4 in conference) and averaged 74.2 points per game this season. The team’s leader is G Teddy Allen who finished the season as the leading scorer in the WAC (19.3 points/game) and the 5th leading rebounder in the WAC (6.8 per game). The former West Virginia Cavalier and Nebraska Cornhusker, Allen transferred to the Aggies after last season and has seen improvement in almost every statistical category. Now as a Junior, the 6’6″ guard has experience playing Big 10 and Big 12, so he won’t be intimidated by a bigger and more powerful matchup in the tournament. On the defensive side, the Aggies were one of the best at limiting opponents scoring in the WAC. They finished 2nd in the conference holding opponents to a 39.1% field goal percentage and 1st in points per game against (61.2). In all games, they allowed 65.0 points per game.
Overall, these two teams are fairly close in a number of statistical categories, which is interesting. Both have committed a similar number of turnovers on the season (375 – NM St, 380 – UConn), both allow a similar number of points per game (65.0 – NM St., 65.2 – UConn), both are in the mid-to-bottom of the NCAA in total fouls committed (508 – NM St, 538 – UConn), and both teams run a slower-paced tempo overall (223rd – NM St, 291 – UConn). The huge difference for me is in their strength of schedule, naturally. UConn has played the 27th hardest schedule in all of the NCAA, while the Aggies schedule is 131st. Additionally, UConn has a KenPom of 18th, while New Mexico State is 81st and KenPom ranks New Mexico State as the 17th luckiest team in the country whereas UConn is 248th luckiest (out of 358)*.
New Mexico State has some size up front in Will McNair Jr. and Yuak Alok who are 6’10” and 6’11” respectively. (Sidenote: I desperately hope we see Akok vs Alok) It will be interesting to see if they can limit Adama Sanogo inside or if Sanogo’s brute strength gets the New Mexico State frontcourt in early foul trouble. If they are able to limit Sanogo inside, then there will be more pressure on Tyrese Martin and R.J. Cole to provide some offense and Tyler Polley and Isaiah Whaley to draw the taller players further from the rim on defense. Defensively, if UConn can slow down Teddy Allen like they have in the past with their opponent’s best guard (i.e. Collin Gillespie in the Big East Tournament), then New Mexico State will have a hard time putting up points, playing right into the Huskies hands.
Prediction – UConn 69-62
Given the style of play and focus, I’m guessing this could be more of a grind-out game than a high-scoring affair, something UConn is all too familiar with. I think UConn does a nice job slowing down Allen and gets Sanogo involved in the play, but the big man doesn’t dominate inside against the size and length of the Aggie’s. I do think Sanogo’s ability to score down low will draw a number of fouls early against the New Mexico State frontcourt and allow UConn to build a small first half lead. The Aggies inability to hit FTs (under 70% as a team) will hurt them in late-game situations and the easy ride for UConn fans to head to Buffalo should give them the edge in crowd noise. I’m taking UConn in a hard-fought, close 69-62 victory.
*The luck measurement is the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from it’s game-by-game efficiencies. A team involved in a lot of close games should lose all of them. Those that win those games are considered luckier.