Vahe Gregorian

Upset-minded New Mexico State undaunted by Kansas’ credentials

New Mexico State center Tshilidzi Nephawe, left, hugging head coach Marvin Menzies, thinks the Aggies can match up pretty well with Kansas. Basketball fans will find out Friday.
New Mexico State center Tshilidzi Nephawe, left, hugging head coach Marvin Menzies, thinks the Aggies can match up pretty well with Kansas. Basketball fans will find out Friday. AP

Apply the blue-blood name game to Kansas’ matchup with New Mexico State in their NCAA Tournament opener today at CenturyLink Center, and there’s not much for Jayhawks fans to fret over.

Sure, New Mexico State has been to a Final Four … in 1970.

But the Aggies have lost seven straight first-round NCAA games, and, well, let’s just say they still are grappling with brand recognition.

“I still get asked … ‘Oh, you’re the Lobos,’ ” coach Marvin Menzies said. “No, we’re not!”

The counterpoint to this, though, is part of what ought to concern KU fans entering their 11:15 a.m. game.

Yes, New Mexico State is a No. 15 seed and KU a No. 2. Yet the KU brand almost couldn’t be more irrelevant to the Aggies.

Nine of them are of foreign origin, after all. Some had never heard of KU or the NCAA Tournament as recently as a few years ago.

Kansas is “really just a name,” said Tshilidzi Nephawe, a chiseled 6-10, 270-pound center from South Africa. “Just somebody else we’re playing.”

These aren’t the mechanical words of someone coached up to say he’s taking it a game at a time, and they’re not the arrogant words they might sound like.

In Nephawe’s case, and it’s indicative of this team, it’s the rational truth as he sees it.

Just like this is:

“I think I’m bigger and stronger than everybody,” he said, “so I think I will have an advantage over them.”

And this:

“We’re not going to let them shoot threes for sure, and when they drive inside we will be able to change their shots and stuff like that,” he said. “They’re big, too, but they struggle around the rim with size and stuff like that, so we should be good if we don’t give them any threes.”

None of this means that’s destined to come true, of course.

It’s far more likely than not that Kansas will win, and even in a season in which its vulnerability is evident, who’d be surprised to see the Jayhawks win by 20?

But the background and the words are an indication that this will be all about the game itself, not about any preconceived scripts or logos or history or intimidation factor.

And the game itself makes for an intriguing matchup.

Among their KU-Kryptonite components, the Aggies are rugged and long inside (the ninth-best offensive rebounding team in the country, according to kenpom.com), play a flustering press, prioritize three-point defense and use a zone that varies from what KU has seen this year.

New Mexico State also has four seniors — four more than the Jayhawks — who are oh-for-three in NCAA games.

“Having it be your last go-round, there is no safety net,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I’m sure they will play with an unbelievable sense of urgency.”

Kansas, meanwhile, is young, struggles against the press, has labored from three-point range recently and fluctuates game-to-game inside, particularly as the Jayhawks have been navigating through Perry Ellis’ knee injury.

It’s equally true, of course, that KU, 26-8, played the harshest schedule in the nation and that New Mexico State lost three of its four games against teams that made the NCAA field (Wichita State, Baylor, Wyoming, and beating Texas Southern).

Then again, it’s just as contextual to note that much of the perception of KU was forged by winning its 11th straight Big 12 title.

And then the NCAA Tournament started … and Iowa State, Baylor and Texas immediately lost.

Because one is named Kansas and the other New Mexico State, though, the default is to assume that KU’s talent is superior.

And, well, it is.

Just maybe not by the margin you’d suppose.

When Menzies took over in 2007, he adopted what he called a “different recruiting paradigm” based on surmising the obvious:

He wouldn’t be able to outrecruit the likes of Duke and Kentucky and Kansas. So he would sift for hidden gems.

By way of example, Menzies points to otherwise unrecruited forward Pascal Siakam, a 6-9 Cameroonian, the only freshman to make first-team all-Western Athletic Conference.

“I guarantee if he had been born in the U.S. and raised in the U.S. and played in the U.S, it would have been very difficult for us to get him,” Menzies said. “So obviously I’ve got to tweak what we do to try to compete at the highest level.

So, shazam, an Aggies team that he considers a “world tour” in itself and actually has to remind players to speak English in the locker room.

“We don’t want to think anybody is gossiping around our backs,” said Menzies, who in addition to the two African players has five Canadians and two Frenchmen on his team. “French is something I am learning … just by being around them.”

Each has his own story, but Nephawe’s perhaps is most representative.

He grew up in Limpopo, South Africa, where his father was a tailor, his mother a government worker and his native tongue was “Venda.”

The difficulty of that language and a name he realizes gives English speakers fits (Cha-LEE-ZEE) perhaps account for why he is happy now to be called “Chili.”

Unless you count seeing the “Coach Carter” movie, Nephawe knew nothing of English or basketball until he was 17 in 2008.

Being a soccer goalkeeper was his niche, so much so that he resisted attempts to get him to play basketball.

Once, he’d agreed to go to a session to learn the game, only to change his mind. When a teacher sent a friend to get him, Nephawe told him, “Tell him you didn’t find me.”

But the friend persisted, and Nephawe remembers being given two basketballs to bounce around to get started.

That ultimately led to learning about the game and what the game could be for him, being picked to attend a Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, and then attending Stoneridge (Calif.) Prep and, finally, coming to New Mexico State.

“I came,” he said, “from far.”

Too far to think of Kansas as being anything but just a name.

“Honestly,” he said, “I believe deep down we’re going to win this game.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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