WAC favorite New Mexico State is latest team that could test No. 2-ranked Kansas
By Gary Bedore firstname.lastname@example.org
Playing a difficult nonconference schedule usually benefits Kansas’ basketball team on NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday.
Months before that, however, it can make for some stressful hours of preparation in KU coach Bill Self’s office.
“I do think it prepares you for league without question. But the other thing is I do think it would be nice to not have to sweat every single moment,” said Self, KU’s 16th-year coach, whose Jayhawks have claimed a No. 1 or 2 seed in nine straight NCAAs.
His No. 2-ranked Jayhawks (7-0), who will play host to Western Athletic Conference favorite New Mexico State (7-1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Sprint Center, for the seventh time in eight games will be matched against an opponent picked to place first or second in its league’s preseason poll.
KU has defeated Michigan State and Vermont, squads predicted to win the Big Ten and America East Conferences. The Jayhawks also have wins over Marquette, Tennessee, Wofford and Louisiana, teams picked to place second in the Big East, SEC, Southern and Sun Belt leagues respectively.
KU so far has played just one team — Stanford — that was picked to finish in the bottom half of its conference. Tabbed to finish ninth in the 12-team Pac-12, Stanford took KU into overtime before falling, 90-84, last Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. KU also will play Arizona State, a squad picked sixth in the same Pac-12 poll, on Dec. 22 in Tempe, Ariz.
KU will tangle with Big East favorite Villanova on Dec. 15 and MAC West Division favorite Eastern Michigan on Dec. 29, both at Allen Fieldhouse, as well as SEC favorite Kentucky on Jan. 26 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. South Dakota, tabbed second in the Summit League poll, will travel to KU on Dec. 18.
It all adds up to KU playing 13 nonconference games — 11 versus teams expected to win or place second in their league.
“I think it’s better for your team to play good teams in the nonconference. The key to having a good nonconference resume is you’ve got to beat some high level teams away from your home. We’ve been able to do that a couple times,” Self said.
KU defeated Michigan State in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis and both Marquette and Tennessee in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“The reality is what makes your schedule is your guarantee games — games where you don’t have to return a game — how good those teams are and what kind of year they are going to have,” Self said. “That’s what made your RPI what it is and will end up making your NET moving forward, trying to get as many quality wins in there as possible.”
The absence of games against teams the late Al McGuire long ago deemed “cupcakes” does not bother Self. For the most part, he likes the challenge.
“I am saying if you look at our immediate schedule and go two weeks at at time, there is not a lot of time to breath from a standpoint you go in and say, ‘OK if we just really try hard today, we’ll be OK.’ That’s not the way it’s been for us” Self said. “I think it’s good with young kids, but also does not allow guys like David (McCormack, freshman center) an opportunity to play as much as if it wasn’t a one, two or three-possession game.”
KU freshman guard Quentin Grimes — he busted an early-season slump by scoring 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting with three rebounds and one assist while playing 32 minutes in a 72-47 win over Wofford on Tuesday — says the early-season schedule has been eye-opening.
“It’s different. Going out there, the pace is different, the energy is different,” McDonald’s All-American Grimes said. “Every game matters. Every game means something. You’ve got to go out there and produce, do what coach asks you to do.”
The Jayhawks, who will be playing their first of what figures to be at least five games without injured center Udoka Azubuike, must stop a New Mexico State team that has defeated New Mexico twice (98-94 in Albuquerque, N.M. and 100-65 in Las Cruces, N.M.), UTEP twice (96-69 in Las Cruces and 62-58 in El Paso) Washington State (69-63), Eastern New Mexico (92-65) and North Dakota State (73-56). The Aggies’ only loss was to Saint Mary’s (73-58) in Las Cruces.
“I’ve known Chris a long time. We go way back,” Self said of second-year NMSU coach Chris Jans, a former assistant coach at Wichita State. “If you look at them, they’re averaging over 80 (81.0 ppg) and their leading scorer is averaging 12 something.”
AJ Harris, a 5-9 junior guard from Dayton, Ohio, averages a team-leading 12.3 ppg on 46.4 percent shooting.
“They’ve got about 10 guys scoring points so they’re obviously balanced,” added Self.
Ivan Aurrecoechea, a 6-8 junior from Spain, averages 11.6 points per game, while Terrell Brown, a 6-1 junior from Hayward, Calif., also is in double figures at 11.1. In all, 11 Aggies played double-digit minutes in the squad’s 100-65 home rout of rival New Mexico on Dec. 4.
“Their scores are impressive but their last one is really impressive to do what they did to New Mexico, beat them by 35 in a rival game,” Self said.
JoJo Zamora, a 6-2 senior from Oakland, Calif., scored 27 points vs New Mexico on 9-of-10 shooting in the last meeting. He was 6 of 6 from three. As a team, New Mexico State has made 72 of 221 threes for 32.6 percent. KU has hoisted 130 threes, making 50 for 38.5 percent.
“They’ve only lost once and I think that was to Saint Mary’s and Saint Mary’s has a really good ballclub. They’ll be good. Our schedule is one in which there are no let-ups, whatsoever,” Self said.
KU is 38-9 at the Sprint Center the past 11 years, all games contested in the Self era. The Jayhawks are 22-4 in Big 12 tournament games, 3-1 in NCAA Tourney games and 13-4 in regular-season contests in the building.
KU is 5-1 in the Hall of Fame Classic at the Sprint Center, but just 8-3 in single games played annually in the arena, games usually contested around the holidays. KU a year ago fell to Washington, 74-65, on Dec. 6, and also lost to Davidson in 2011-12 and UMass in 2008-09. KU’s wins in its annual trip to KC for a nonconference game at Sprint Center have been against Davidson, Utah, New Mexico, Oregon State twice, Colorado State, LaSalle and Ohio.
“We haven’t played well in this game over there,” Self said. “We’ve played well in the Sprint Center in the (Big 12) tournament. Of all the games, I think we have only lost two or three games in the tournament ever over there, but as far as a regular season game this is the game that we struggle with the most.
“Usually, it is a good crowd, (but) no students, not quite the same atmosphere as it is at home. The value is I do think it is great to play in a place where you play in the (Big 12) tournament. I do. And I am sure K-State feels the same way and I bet that is why they play a game there too. I actually like the game a lot and last year we obviously played very poorly over there and so we will remind our guys about that. But this will be a hard game and certainly one that should be fun to play in. They are going to get after you and this is going to be a fast-paced game.”
KU will take some time off for final exams in the classroom and next meet Villanova at 11 a.m. Dec. 15 in Allen Fieldhouse.