New Mexico State, coming to town Friday night as Wichita State’s season-opening basketball opponent at Koch Arena, brings back memories.
The Aggies spent 11 seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference, from 1972-73 through 1982-83. I covered Wichita State some back in those days and remember my one and only trip into Las Cruces, N.M., for a game in 1981. It’s a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains. I don’t remember much else.
New Mexico State was a solid member of the Valley in those days; the Aggies knocked off Larry Bird and Indiana State in February 1978, at the Pan American Center, which seats more than 13,000.
NM State was coached by Lou Henson, Ken Hayes and Weldon Drew during its time in the Valley. The Aggies were 11-3 in the MVC and 20-7 overall in 1975-75 and had several other good seasons in the conference.
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People often talk about how the losses of Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis State, especially, had a profoundly negative effect on the Missouri Valley Conference. Losing New Mexico State was also a blow when the Aggies departed to join the Big West Conference, which provided a much better geographic fit.
The Aggies never won an outright Valley regular-season title, but they were co-champions with Southern Illinois in 1976-77 and finished second twice – to Louisville in 1974-75 and to Indiana State in 1978-79.
Center Sam Lacey and guard Jimmy Collins are probably the two greatest players in New Mexico State history and played for the Aggies together from 1967-70, before the Aggies joined the Missouri Valley. As seniors, Lacey and Collins led New Mexico State to its only Final Four, where the Aggies were beaten by UCLA, 93-77, in the national semifinals played at College Park, Md.
New Mexico State reached the Final Four by defeating Rice (101-77), Kansas State (70-66) and Drake (87-78) in earlier rounds of the tournament.
The two players I remember most from the Aggies’ days in the Valley are center Slab Jones and forward Jaime Pena, both All-MVC players.
Jones averaged 15.4 points and 8.3 rebounds during his New Mexico State, including 18 points and 11 rebounds during his senior season in 1979-80. Jones is one of only 21 players in MVC history to be chosen to the all-conference first team three times.
Pena, an all-Valley player in 1981-82, scored nearly 1,000 points in his two seasons at New Mexico State.
In 1972-73, the Aggies’ first season in the Missouri Valley, they were led by high-scoring guard John Williamson, who averaged just more than 27 points per game to lead the conference.
New Mexico State and Wichita State will be breaking a 14-14 tie when they get together Friday night, a tie that has existed since the teams last met in 1983. The Aggies are 10-3 at home against Wichita State, but just 4-11 against the Shockers in Wichita.
The Aggies are coming off a 26-10 season in 2013-14, when they lost in overtime to San Diego State, 73-69, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Several key players return, including 6-foot-2 Canadian guard Daniel Mullings, NM State’s leading scorer last season.
New Mexico State is coached by Marvin Menzies, a former assistant at San Diego State and Louisville who is beginning his eighth season with the Aggies.
This is definitely a challenging opener for the Shockers. And remember, there’s a tie to be broken.