The question was about his team’s strength of schedule, and Marvin Menzies thought it over. Menzies, in his seventh season as coach at New Mexico State, has always tried to push his teams during the nonconference season.
It’s something he learned as an assistant coach under Rick Pitino, Lon Kruger and Steve Fisher, and one reason he has taken his team to play road games at Baylor, Gonzaga and Arizona during the last two seasons.
But on Monday afternoon, as Menzies pondered how those tests would help his Aggies deal with No. 2 seed Kansas in an NCAA Tournament opener Friday, he was as honest as he could be.
“Well, if we get blown out by 40,” Menzies said, “it didn’t help us too much.”
Menzies, 53, is in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season. After a long career as an assistant at top programs, he has built New Mexico State into a consistent participant in the NCAA Tournament. But he also knows reality: In the last 30 years, No. 15 seeds have defeated No. 2 seeds just less than 6 percent of the time in the NCAA Tournament.
So if you want anything other than a little realism from Menzies in the days leading up to the opening round in Omaha, Neb., you won’t be getting it.
“They’re a big-time team, obviously a big-time program,” Menzies said of Kansas. “Great coaching, great coaching staff; it’s an honor to be able to play in this environment.”
In other ways, though, Menzies perhaps has reasons to feel confident. The Aggies are not your typical No. 15 seed. They have made the NCAA Tournament in five of the last six years and never ranked worse than a 13 seed before. Menzies was mildly surprised to see his team on the 15 line, especially after New Mexico State won the Western Athletic Conference regular-season title by five games and cruised to the tournament title with two dominating victories.
“Would you have liked to have been a 13?” Menzies asked. “Yeah, but for what? What’s the difference between a 13, a 14 and a 15? Or a 16 for that matter.
“I’m OK with where we’re at. It’s not brain surgery at this stage.”
Based on efficiency rankings at KenPom.com, Menzies and New Mexico State may have had an argument for better treatment from the selection committee. The Aggies enter the NCAA Tournament ranked 88th in the country at KenPom, which is better than No. 12 seeds Wyoming and Wofford and just seven spots behind Kansas State, which beat Kansas in Manhattan on Feb. 23.
The Aggies also possess experience and size. New Mexico State features four seniors in the rotation, including leading scorer Remi Barry, a 6-foot-8 small forward from France. Alongside Barry, the Aggies also start 6-foot-10 center Tshilidzi Nephawe, a native of South Africa, and 6-foot-9 forward Pascal Siakam, who hails from Cameroon.
For Menzies, the international pipeline to Las Cruces, N.M., has treated him well. The Aggies feature nine international players. And using his roster’s size and length, New Mexico State terrorized WAC opponents with a mix of zone and man-to-man defense.
“We’ve played them in the past,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, referencing a 100-79 victory over New Mexico State on Dec. 3, 2008, at Allen Fieldhouse. “And they have given us a handful when we’ve played them.”
Menzies, as you might expect, has concerns about Kansas. On Monday afternoon, he had just begun a deep study of Kansas’ personnel and film. After a couple of hours of film, Menzies said some things jumped out.
“From a basketball standpoint, their ability to transition and finish in transition, and their fast-break basketball,” Menzies said. “There’s a lot of things that jumped out. Their ability to pressure the ball. They really guard you, (and) great man-to-man defense has always been one of Bill’s signatures.”
In his first seven seasons at New Mexico State, Menzies has kept returning to the NCAA Tournament. But he is still waiting for his first tourney breakthrough. Not that there haven’t been close calls. In 2010, the 12th-seeded Aggies fell 70-67 to a Michigan State team that advanced to the Final Four. As a 13 seed last season, they fell in overtime to No. 4 San Diego State.
Now the Aggies get a crack at Kansas. And Menzies gets an opportunity to match wits with Self and KU assistant Kurtis Townsend, two old friends from the coaching business. For both coach and program, the chance to dance again is reason enough to be motivated.
“They’re guys, like us,” Menzies said of Self and Townsend. “We hang out together in the summer, and we recruit together, and usually the team with the better players win. That’s usually how it shakes out.”