Last year, when Kansas was gearing up to play in the first round (yes, it's the first round) of the NCAA Tournament, I had a lot of fun spending way too much time watching film and compiling an in-depth scouting report for a 15 seed, Eastern Kentucky. This year, I decided to do the same thing with KU's first round opponent, the New Mexico State Aggies.
New Mexico State is going to the tournament for the 4th year in a row, and the 5th time in 6 years. They have yet to pull off an upset, though, going 0-4 during that stretch under head coach Marvin Menzies.
Let's be clear right away: New Mexico State is way better than your typical 15 seed, but not so good that Kansas fans should worry too much. The Aggies finished 23-10 on the year with a 13-1 record in conference play, absolutely decimating the weaker competition and winning the WAC by 5 games. They played a decently tough non-con schedule for a WAC team, and they were short-handed for most of it, but that said, they really didn't compile any impressive wins. Their best win was a home victory over UC Irvine, who is a 13 seed in the tournament.
According to Kenpom, New Mexico State is the 88th best team in the nation. Somehow, there are 16 teams worse than them in the field of 68, according to Kenpom. These include all of the 16's and 15's (Hampton, Texas Southern, Lafayette, Robert Morris, North Dakota State, Belmont, Coastal Carolina, Manhattan, and North Florida), three of the 14 seeds (Northeastern, UAB, Albany), two of the 13's (UC Irvine, Eastern Washington) and even two 12's (Wofford, Wyoming). Needless to say, Kenpom isn't everything (though I will be using it a lot here), but there certainly is enough evidence to suggest that New Mexico State is a much tougher draw than your typical 2/15 matchup.
Since this is a really long report, I'll divide it into categories, so you can skim to your heart's desire. Something that should be noted here is that NMSU won many of their WAC games in blowout fashion, and their bench got significant garbage time, so some of their numbers are probably a bit worse than what they actually are.
Though they have very different strengths and weaknesses, Kansas and New Mexico have a lot of similarities in their offensive systems. There's a heavy emphasis on feeding the post into their two main bigs, Nephawe and Siakam (more on individual players later). To accomplish this, there's a lot of swinging the ball around the perimeter. Here is a short look at how they chose to get into their offense the first possession of the WAC title game, just to get you a general idea.
Look familiar? A few key differences in the systems, based on the games I watched of them: there's a bit more of an emphasis on inside-out play, and there's not really much high-low to speak of. In general, however, there shouldn't be anything on this end that should throw Kansas off. From these sets, the bigs obviously look to score when they have an advantage, one of NMSU's starting guards (Mullings) likes to slash constantly, and the other two enjoy drifting toward the corners to nail threes.
They do also like to run a few HORNS sets every now and then (bigs starting in the high posts, wings in the corner, movement and occasional back screens from there) and even use it to get into the middle of zones:
In terms of numbers, Kenpom has New Mexico State as having the 120th best adjusted offensive efficiency in the nation. They're pretty good from three (36.1%), and get to the line consistently thanks to their aforementioned bullying bigs and slashing specialist. There are two things on this end that they are fantastic at: offensive rebounding and not having their shot blocked. NMSU is 9th in the country in offensive rebound rate and they are 1st in the entire nation at avoiding blocks, with just 5.7% of their shots getting rejected. By comparison, the Jayhawks have 13.0% of their shots rejected, good for 335th in the nation. Obviously, a major concern here will be NMSU's offensive rebounding, as the defensive boards are an area that has bothered the Jayhawks for most of the season, and they likely will once again be without Cliff Alexander (#FreeCliff).
Overall, NMSU's scoring is usually incredibly balanced, with 6 players averaging between 8.1 and 13.3 points. One thing to watch for is that when they're struggling, they don't do as well at swinging the ball and feeding the post, and try to score off of isolations a bit too much.
The main weakness of NMSU's offense, and this is something that just kills them, is turnovers. With a 21.9% turnover rate, NMSU is ranked 326th in the nation in limiting them. Unfortunately, this is probably something Kansas will not take much advantage of, as KU's defense is still pretty mediocre at forcing turnovers (despite being great overall). More on NMSU's offense in the individual player sections later.
Things get a bit interesting here. NMSU has been known to mix it up a bit on this end, flipping from zone to man, pressure to no pressure. Lately, however, they've been running with a 2-3 zone that extends to the full-court (usually as a 2-1-2, but it varies) to apply pressure pretty consistently, and this is the defense I expect them to stick with against Kansas. Here's the basic setup, and an example of how they can force turnovers:
Here, the front two guards (in this case, Baker and Mullings) apply some pretty basic pressure and force an easy turnover. Ideally, Frank Mason and Wayne Selden would handle this better than Seattle did on this play. The manner in which Kansas deals with this pressure will absolutely be one of the factors in determining if NMSU can stay in it.
In terms of the half-court defense, expect a 2-3 zone most of the time. Something I've noticed is that they do overextend on the perimeter more than most, allowing baseline cuts to the rim, if you're looking for them.
Notice Barry (#3) stepping up too much because of the Seattle guard coming from the corner to the top of the key. This happened quite frequently in the games I watched, and I would expect there to be a few Mason dump-offs to Lucas and Traylor for jams because of this.
As always, an important part of attacking this 2-3 zone is going to be getting the ball to someone that can make plays in the middle of it. Ideally, this will be Perry Ellis, but we all remember the Stanford game and the disaster that ensued when Self put Traylor in the middle of the zone. How Self approaches this issue will be something to watch for. (Note: Remember how awesome Julian Wright was at this?)
Not surprisingly, there are additional opportunities immediately available when you can beat their zone pressure.
Often, NMSU's defense is not set very well when their pressure gets beaten, and you can easily sneak behind the zone if you get penetration to the free throw line. Getting the ball to Mason will be very important here. And if the defense doesn't step up, Frank should get his share of easy floaters from these scenarios.
You normally would think that, going against a 2-3 zone, Kansas should be looking to take a lot of threes, but that actually isn't the case. Like I hinted at earlier, NMSU's #1 focus on defense is limiting threes. They're incredibly aggressive in extending the zone and running shooters off the three point line. Only one team in the nation allowed fewer attempts from three (per field goal attempt) than NMSU, and they've held opponents to shooting just 29.5% from downtown. The WAC wasn't known for it's perimeter shooting this year, but that's still pretty remarkable. Still, the threat of three point shooters for Kansas on the outside of the zone should open things up to get the ball inside.
Overall, NMSU's defense is ranked 86th in adjusted defensive efficiency, which isn't great, but is about the same caliber as an Iowa State defense. Again, it's probably a bit better than this, considering the number of blowouts and bench minutes, but this is still a decent ballpark. KU's offense against NMSU's defense will definitely be the more interesting of the two sides of the floor.
INDIVIDUAL SCOUTING REPORTS
#4 Ian Baker, 6'0 PG, Sophomore
No relation to Ron. This guy probably won't be the focus of the scouting report, as he just picks his spots and starts NMSU's sets, but he is hyper efficient with his shot, sporting a 64.9 TS%, and converting a ridiculous 47.2% of his threes. Mason will have to check this guy, and he won't cause a ton of problems, but you can't let him get open, period. Not a major dime dropper (3.8 assists per 40 minutes) and is a bit turnover prone (23.0 TOV%).
#23 Daniel Mullings, 6'2 SG, Senior
The 2014 WAC Player of the Year, but fell off a little bit this year. Mullings is a pretty good shooter (36.1% from three) but this guy's bread and butter is slashing to the hole whenever he sees an opening. In terms of his style of play, think Keith Langford; he's that aggressive with his slashing. Self will probably stick with Selden on this guy, and Wayne will have his work cut out for him to prevent drives to the hoop. Mullings also gets as many assists per game as Baker, and ranks 11th in the nation in steal rate (4.5%) as one of the two frontmen of the full-court pressure.
#3, Remi Barry, SF, 6'8 Senior
Barry is interesting. He is huge and strong for a wing (listed at 6'8, but probably closer to 6'6). Spends most of the time swinging the ball on offense and looking for threes. This guy loves to sneak into the corner, and is another great shooter (44.6% on threes). His shooting form is pretty and consistent, but doesn't have a super quick release. Because of this, you can run him off the three point line a decent amount, and sometimes he'll settle for a long pull-up two (the Wayne Selden special!). Doesn't provide a whole lot on defense, usually in the middle of the full-court pressure. Can get lost off the ball sometimes.
#43 Pascal Siakam, 6'9 PF/C, Redshirt Freshman
This kid is very talented. And strong. Statistically, he also might be NMSU's best all-around player. Per 40, Siakam averages 16.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.3 blocks, and 1.1 steals. He is an absolute beast on the offensive glass. Frequently featured in the post, he has a 61.8 TS% and doesn't turn it over much for how often he's in the post (15.2 TOV%). His go-to move in the post, unquestionably, is to try to get on the left block or left middle, and go left shoulder to a right hook shot. He goes to this quite a lot, so hopefully the defensive assignment knows this. He also can hit you with a secondary up and under move, but he strongly prefers the hook. He's very willing to pass out and re-post if he needs to. Siakam is frequently asked to do a lot for NMSU's zone, and he usually does a pretty good job, but like I mentioned earlier, you can sneak behind him sometimes.
#15 Tshilidzi "Chili" Nephawe, 6'10 Senior
I'm not quite sure how you are supposed to pronounce his first name, but everyone just calls him Chili anyway, so he will be referred to as Chili, since that's an awesome nickname. At 6'10, 268, Chili is a grown-ass man, and he was expected to be the man inside until the emergence of Siakam. Now, they're pretty much the twin towers. No, towers doesn't quite work; they're the twin bulldozers. Both of them are a load to deal with in the post, both are great on the offensive glass, and together they can cause quite a problem if you have a weak link in your frontcourt (which Kansas currently does). There's no other way around it: Siakam and Chili together will be the issue that could lead to KU getting upset. Both will need great games, but they're probably capable if things break right.
Good news: Not much to worry about on the bench. In big games, they'll primarily use two guys that are pretty forgettable and overall mediocre: DK Eldridge, who mainly serves as a point guard, and big man Johnathon Wilkins. I wouldn't waste much time worrying about either, or the bench overall.
Kansas 70, New Mexico State 61, with an 83.5% chance of a Kansas victory.
91% chance of Kansas victory.
There is no doubt in my mind that this is a much more difficult team than a 2 seed would expect to face. Unquestionably, the offensive rebounding and full-court pressure paint a pretty easy picture of what an upset might look like. If Kansas overlooks NMSU, it could be quite bad. However, Kansas is simply a better team, and they're clearly better at most aspects of the game. If Self has a good gameplan, KU will be playing either Wichita State or Indiana on Sunday.
KANSAS 76, NEW MEXICO STATE 66
The game will tip at 11:15 AM Central on CBS at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Marv Albert, Chris Weber, and Len Elmore will be on the call.
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