It may seem a bit harsh to label as underachievers a team that won 22 games two seasons after winning just six.
But that may be the tag saddled on the New Mexico State Aggies if they don't win this week's Western Athletic Conference tournament and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Right now they're no better than a bubble bet.
"We gave away a couple of games, so in some ways we do feel like we underachieved a little bit," said junior forward Justin Hawkins. "Almost every loss that we had, we've come back and said
to ourselves, 'We should have won that game.' We didn't play for 40
minutes or we didn't rebound. It was always something that we felt we did."
What the Aggies didn't do was match the preseason hype that surrounded coach Reggie Theus' second year in Las Cruces. With a
solid group of transfers in place, there was plenty of talk of the Aggies being a Top 25 team and ending Nevada's run of WAC championships.
The Aggies (22-8) didn't come close to breaking into the Top 25, despite a 13-game winning streak that followed a 1-3 start. The streak ended with a loss at Louisiana Tech, where the Aggies led by six points with 30 seconds left. Two losses to Fresno State and a road loss at Utah State sealed the Aggies' runner-up finish to No. 10 ranked Nevada's fourth straight WAC regular season title.
NMSU's signature win was over Nevada (27-3), which no matter what happens in the league tournament appears to be a lock for a fourth straight NCAA tournament bid. The Aggies beat the Wolf Pack 80-73 in Las Cruces, then lost to Nevada 69-65 last Saturday in Reno.
Nevada is led by senior Nick Fazekas, who averaged 21 points a game and joined former Utah star Keith Van Horn as the only three-time WAC Player of The Year.
But the Wolf Pack has plenty of other options. Marcelus Kemp, who scored 32 points in the win over New Mexico State last week, averages 18 points a game and Ramon Sessions nearly 13 points a game.
"We've had a lot of expectations ourselves this season," third-year coach Mark Fox told the Las Cruces Sun-News. "We have a group of guys that play hard and play together."
Fresno State (22-8) rates the "sleeper" label since the Bulldogs come into the tournament on a six-game winning streak. They were the only team to sweep New Mexico State this season and could meet the Aggies in the semifinals. The Bulldogs, with their athleticism and 3-point shooters, pose tougher matchup problems for the Aggies than Nevada.
"They're as athletic as us, but they're a little bit smaller than us," said Hawkins. "That gives us problems."
Hawaii (18-12) is trying to extend coach Riley Wallace's career. Wallace, finishing up his 20th season with the Rainbow Warriors, earlier this year announced his retirement.
The quarterfinal round matchups Thursday will have Nevada taking on the winner of Tuesday night's Idaho (3-26) and San Jose State (5-24) play-in game. Utah State (21-10) plays Hawaii; Fresno State meets Boise State (16-13) and New Mexico State plays Louisiana Tech (10-19).
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)