“It’s really motivating knowing each game could literally be my last. We’re gonna go out and play with total desperation and do whatever we can to win. It’s gonna be a really fun environment, especially in Buffalo. I know UConn’s gonna travel well for that,” said UConn forward Isaiah Whaley.
When any team is in the NCAA tournament to compete for the glory of cutting down the nets when the final buzzer sounds, you have to play your best. That’s exactly what the University of Connecticut needs to do to overcome teams like a powerhouse Gonzaga lineup or specifically in their first matchup of the tournament, New Mexico State University.
As Aggies head coach Chris Jans has expressed, the tough play of the Big East conference has prepared the Huskies for the difficult play of elite teams.
“The quality of their competition really prepares them to play anybody in the NCAA tournament,” said Jans. “It’s not like they’re going to be shaking in their boots when they see New Mexico St. and they watch us on film compared to the teams that they’ve been playing all year long.”
UConn head coach Dan Hurley seemed to echo that statement when finding out the team will play the Aggies on Thursday in Buffalo, saying, “It’ll be nice to play a regular game. A Big East game is not a regular game. We ended up playing 21 of them.”
But, at the end of the day, this is March Madness. With any team having the chance to go on an immaculate run for glory, the Aggies could certainly pull off the upset if UConn does not play their best brand of basketball.
“That’s what is beautiful about sports,” said Jans. “The best team doesn’t always win each game.”
Taking a closer look into New Mexico St. and their style of play, the team is led by freshman Teddy Allen. While Allen hasn’t shot the best from beyond the line, he does have a solid ability to get to the line with 5.6 fouls drawn per game. However, that could potentially be a problem fpr someone like Adama Sanogo who struggles to stay in the game due to foul trouble. He’s a big scorer for the Aggies, averaging 19.3 points and 6.8 rebounds. Fans can expect for Cole to need to play some hard defense on the guard.
There’s also Sir’Jabari Rice, who’s helped with the Aggies on the scoring end with 12.2 points per game and 5.3 assists per game. That’s solid production at the second guard spot for the Aggies and definitely poses a threat for UConn.
Finally, when talking about New Mexico basketball, you cannot forget about Johnny McCants. McCants, who leads the Aggies in blocks with 1.8 per game, gives New Mexico a terrific defensive presence in the paint. His block percentage of 8.8 ranks at no. 42 in all of college basketball. That’s definitely something to note for the Huskies ahead of Thursday’s matchup.
With UConn and New Mexico St. looking particularly close on offense, the team needs to lean on the one thing they’ve been preaching about all year: their identity. That identity is playing some hard defense to set up the team’s well-rounded offense. With the Aggies shooting just 33% from the three-point line and a tough matchup inside with Sanogo, Whaley and Akok Akok off the bench, it’s not going to be easy for New Mexico.
The Aggies also have an average of 14 turnovers per game and with a clear advantage on the offensive rebounding for UConn, the Huskies can turn defense into offense in this matchup if they play their cards correctly and play to that defensive identity.
In short, the Huskies are heavily favored in this matchup. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index has the Huskies favored to win 90.2% to 9.8%. KenPom predicts the score to be 70-64 in favor of the Huskies.
The game will tip-off at 6:30 p.m. in Buffalo and will be televised on TNT.