Sunday, November 18, 2007

A closer look at Aggie-dom to date

The two expected-to-be WAC behemoths, Utah State and New Mexico State, are stumbling a bit in the early going -- or picking an alternative description -- not running roughshod over the competition.

This wasn't supposed to be happening as Utah State Coach Stew Morrill has amply demonstrated the knack of plugging in new players without missing a beat and Coach Marvin Menzies inherited a talented squad in Las Cruces.

So let's analyze why this is happening in Aggie-dom.

First Utah State.

Any team with a returning backcourt of star scorer Jaycee Carroll and efficient point Kris Clark would have the expectation of moving in some frontcourt talent and continuing on successfully. But such hasn't been true for Morrill and his players.

So far.

A 19-point loss on the road to Big West member UC Irvine -- which lost by five against visiting Nevada -- actually was a shocker. Irvine shot 47% for the game, out-rebounded the Aggies by one and committed 12 turnovers to 16 for Utah State. This from a squad picked to finish fourth in the Big West pre-season media poll and fifth by the league's coaches.

Carroll was the only Aggies in double figures with 21 points.But don't blame Carroll as he is back with his usual sterling play, averaging over 21 points a game, shooting .493 from the floor and .500 from three-point range. He is also nabbing 6.8 caroms a contest.

Stephen DuCharme, who was expected to play a lesser role this season after having to man the middle last year, is second in scoring with 11.8 ppg. and leads the team in rebounding at 7.2.

Newcomer Gary Wilkinson is third in scoring at 10.4 ppg. and third in rebounding with 4.8 boards a contest but he also leads the team with 18 turnovers.

Heralded redshirt frontcourter Brayden Bell has played but 24 minutes in five games with a negligible contribution. He was on the court for nine minutes at Irvine with all zeroes in the stat sheet.

So far early in the season, the Aggies are close with opponents in shooting .440 to opponent's .443. Free-throwe shooting is also strikingly similar, with Morrill's players attempting 98 foul shots and opponents 99. For the season so far, Utah States is scoring 65.6 ppg. while allowing 67.6.

Poor shooting by some of the newcomers to the team has been a hindrance for the Aggies. Freshman Pooh Williams is shooting just .308 on the year, Desmond Stephens is at .235 and DeUndrae Spraggins a lowly .100 to date. The latter two are junior college transfers.

The most telling comparison is with turnovers. Utah State has been 'credited' with 93 turnovers to 80 for opponents, an extremely atypical ratio for a Morrill-coached team.

Plus, Morrill became so upset with the play of his bigs in a game with NAIA member Montana-Western that he had freshman Modou Niang -- an expected redshirt -- change into a uniform at half time and take to the court ,thereby ending Niang's possibility of sitting out the season.

The Aggies also fell 83-69 to Cal Poly this season, yet another Big West Conference member. Any appearance of defensive intensity was lacking then, just as it was missing in the Irvine contest.

The Aggies are potentially more talented than last season and also possess better athletic ability on the roster this year but that as yet hasn't translated into consistency. So Morrill is going to have to be more patient than was expected with his mixing and matching of the new with the old.

He needs steady scoring and rebounding contributions from Wilkinson in the middle, plus getting Stephens and Spraggins to ratchet up their shooting and scoring.

Plus, the entire team must dedicate itself to defending better.

It appears that losing Chaz Spicer and Durrall Peterson, he of 111 assists in 2006-2007, has set the Aggies back more than expected. Both played within themselves, picked their moments of assertion wisely and thrived under Morrill's concepts.

The biggest mystery is Bell, who already has a year in the system as a redshirt transferr back to his homestate after a year at Ohio State. Big men tend to be the slowest at realizing potential so it could be simply a matter of Bell needing more time than initially projected.

Now New Mexico State.

This was supposed to be a situation where Reggie Theus simply handed over the reins of a talented group to Marvin Menzies. It still may well be but it's a similar situation to what Utah State is currently enduring -- that being the slow development of a consistent and cohesive unit.

The two-headed tandem at center, Hatila Passos and Martin Iti, have seemingly underperformed but a closer inspection abolishes this conjecture. Passos has been solid on the boards at 8.3 a game while averaging 5.7 ppg. He's shooting well at 8-16 but lacks any signature moves, scoring more on putbacks and the like. Iti is receiving just above 15 minutes of action a game. Neither player has extablished his presence while on the court, especially offensively, but also surprisingly at the defensive end. What you get with this duo is 10 fouls between them, some beef inside -- Passos in particular -- decent boardplay and that's it.

What has hurt the Aggies immensely is the unavailability of freshman phenom Herb Pope. Still sidelined by an NCAA eligibility logjam. Pope will immediately be the best frontcouter for Coach Marvin Menzies -- if he becomes available. He'll supply both scoring and boardplay, thereby easing the burden on Passos and Iti.

But the sidelining of Pope has produced an opportunity for another freshman, Wendell McKines. An under-sized 6-5 power forward at, McKines has a non-stop motor and is amazingly quick off the floor as a leaper. Making the most of his opportunity, he is averaging 9.0 ppg. and 4.7 rpg. with his increased playing time.

Justin Hawkins has been the one Aggie performing as expected, a count-on-him player. Expect him to be in the running for conference player of the year.

Despite a recent article about his steady play in the Las Cruces Sun-News, returnee Fred Peete, who has been forced to play the point much more than expected, hasn't hit his stride. He is averaging 10 ppg. but on shooting percentages of .357 from the floor and .313 from three-point range. Despite a paucity of turnovers, Peete is still more effective as a defender and opportunity shooter. It appears carrying the biggest burden of ballhandling duties has hindered the other aspects of his game.

Redshirt point Chris Cole's rep was an a ballhandler -- from his freshman output while at at Hartford -- but he has yet to demonstrate command and control over the offense. Improvement on his part will be an immense aid to the Aggies.

Sophomore Jonathan Gibson has shot well overall but poorly from long range. He is averaging 11.7 ppg. for the young season and his goal should be to establish himself as a steady producer.

Newcomer Paris Carter has been inconsistent with his shooting so far -- a paltry .286 from the floor, including .143 from long distance.

As a team, New Mexico State is shooting but .243 from long range and being out-assisted 48-38 by opponents. The Aggies are in the minus with turnovers, committing 66 to just 47 for opposing teams. Mernzies squad is ringing up 22 turnovers a game so far -- a number that needs to be reduced to the low-to-middle teens.

Another indicative stat is opponents having grabbed 27 steals while NMSU has barely broken double figures with 11.

Besides Pope, three other missing players also factor into New Mexico State's slow start. Tyrone Nelson's guilty plea to charges against him led to his dismissal over the summer. He was a highly productive frontcourter with scoring, boarding and passing talent and someone who would be steadying the Aggie frontline as a senior if still available.

Plus, backcourters Elijah Ingram and Shaun Davis are being missed more than expected. Ingram could shoot or ballhandle his team in or out of a game but he always wanted the ball and welcomed any challenge thrown his way.

Davis had a 66 assists to 38 turnovers ratio overall last season, one of the very few Aggies who could boast of such.

The season is young and and the new talent in Logan and Las Cruces will be gaining experience. It's far too early to make any profound pronouncements or pass critical judgments since the sample of games is just too few as yet.

But we'll return to these two teams later.

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