Last Updated: 2019-03-18
For the 12/5 game of the Midwest Regional branch of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday afternoon, we venture to Salt Lake City Utah, where the Auburn Tigers, champions of the SEC, are a 6.5-point favorite over the New Mexico State Aggies, champions of the Western Athletic Conference.
Auburn, led by 5th year Head Coach, Bruce Pearl, finished 11-7 in the SEC, and were hardly the favorite to make a run for the Conference Championship; but they did just that, capping it off with a dominant 84-64 win over Tennessee (8th Overall, KenPom).
The run through the Conference Tournament made it eight wins in-a-row for the Tigers, bringing their season long record to 26-9, vs. the 25th overall schedule in the nation, and their in-conference record to 11-7 in the SEC- the 4th most difficult conference of 2019 (KenPom).
Auburn is an experienced team (36th), with two Seniors and two Juniors starting along side one Sophomore; and with two wins over Tennessee and close losses to Duke (3rd, 78-72) and Kentucky (7th, 82-80), the Tigers have shown they can compete with anybody in the country.
New Mexico State, led by Chris Jans, in his second year as Head Coach (3rd year overall), was the class of the WAC in 2019; going 15-1 in-conference, and coming up with a pair of dominant performances in the WAC Tournament: 86-49 vs. Chicago State (351st), and 89-57 vs. Grand Canyon (105th) to go along with a close, 79-72, win over UT Rio Grande Valley (166th).
The 239th most difficult schedule in the nation obviously wasn’t quite difficult enough for the Aggies and closing out the season with 19 straight wins is the proof. Stepping up in competition a few times: vs. Saint Mary’s (L, 73-58) and vs. Kansas (L, 63-60) – the Aggies came up short, but showed in the Kansas game that they can compete with the Blue Bloods.
They’ll get their shot to make it 20 straight wins against Auburn, as a dangerous 12 seed – which we all know infamous for upsets in the round of 64.
In analyzing the matchup, it’ll be important to note the difference in strength of schedule for the respective teams, as stats a certainly relative given the competition. To reiterate, Auburn played the 25th most difficult schedule in the country – NMST the 239th.
Against that SEC-laden schedule, Auburn finished the year with the 8th most efficient offense in the nation. Lead by Junior PG Jared Harper (4th Assist Rate SEC), Sophomore C Chuma Okeke (15th SEC 3P%), and Senior G Bryce Brown (5th SEC 3P%), the Auburn offense lived or died by the three (7th Point Distribution) and shot just over 38% from beyond that arc (27th).
The question for the NMST defense (83rd), is whether their only slightly above average perimeter D (105th) can slow down the Tiger onslaught from outside. Against such a soft schedule, the 33% allowed from three isn’t overly impressive, and as one of the shorter teams in the entire country (332nd), the Aggies could have some problems in slowing down the Tiger perimeter attack.
New Mexico State, on the other hand, was an offense (37th) that, while relying heavily on the three-ball for success (70th), actually was one of the better teams out there, percentage-wise, inside (9th). It’s important to note, however, that in late January the Aggies lost their best interior player, in C Ivan Aurrecoechea for the year, so these numbers are a little scewed.
NMST will rely on Junior SF Trevelin Queen, Senior C Eli Chuha (4th WAC 2P%), and Junior G Terrell Brown (68th NCAA 3P%) for much of their offense, minus Aurrecoechea, and could find success against an Auburn defense (45th) that has struggled in terms of FG% allowed (220th).
One key advantage the NMST offense will have on paper, is in offensive rebounding (8th) -where they have generated second chance opportunities as well as any team in the nation – against an Auburn defense that have struggled mightily on the defensive glass (330th).
Perhaps this is one statistic under-considered in the number, but it’s hard to say given the discrepancy in competition between the two teams.
Pick: NMST 6.5 -110
It’s hard to bet against a team that has won 19 games in-a-row regardless of their competition, knowing how easily upsets can occur in College Basketball.
The Aggies have shown they can compete with a team outside of their talent level in a close game with Kansas, and with a few key matchup edges – on the offensive glass and 2P% offense vs. defense – New Mexico State has some ingredients to give Auburn a scare.
New Mexico State is an experienced team (73rd), starting four Juniors and a Senior, and back to the Big Dance for the third year straight, the Aggies are a dangerous 12 and should keep it close in Salt Lake City.
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