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Illinois Fighting Illini Scouting Report: New Mexico State Aggies

How can the Illini come out on top in the “Lou Henson Bowl”?

NCAA Basketball: New Mexico State at St. Mary's Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini take on the New Mexico State Aggies this Saturday night at the United Center in downtown Chicago.

The Illini and the Aggies share a common bond: Lou Henson.

Henson’s Illinois coaching career was bookended by two stints at New Mexico State, his alma mater. Henson coached at NMSU from 1966 to 1975, highlighted by the 1970 season where the Aggies reached the Final Four and achieved a record of 27-3. Following the 1975 season, Henson left his alma mater for Champaign where he coached for 21 seasons and led the Flyin’ Illini to the 1989 Final Four. Henson then returned to New Mexico State where he would coach the last 8 seasons of his long and illustrious career.

Both universities have honored Henson by naming their respective courts after the legendary coach.

Season Recap

The Aggies come to Chicago 8-2 with two wins over in-state rival New Mexico and losses to Saint Mary’s and San Diego. The Aggies are coming off a 28-6 conference championship season, which ended when they lost to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies are an experienced team who return many of their key contributors from a year ago. NM State was predicted to finish second in the WAC this year behind Grand Canyon, who the Illini will host later this month.

This is usually where I’ll note any weird stats about Illinois’ next opponent. NMSU’s is definitely weird.

They’ve only had 10 shots blocked so far. That’s the fewest amount of any team in the country. This doesn’t really mean anything special, and the Aggies aren’t a terribly large team, it’s merely just a weird sports stat. If it has any meaning at all, it’s probably the Illini will set a season high in blocks on Saturday night. Just because that’s the silliness of stats and college sports.

Key Losses and Additions

The biggest loss for the Aggies from last year’s WAC Championship team is 6-foot guard Ian Baker. Baker was the team’s leading scorer and was named WAC Player of the Year after tallying 16 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

The Aggies have added a pair of transfers to this year’s squad. Texas Southern transfer Zach Lofton is the Aggies leading scorer at 17 points per game while also adding five rebounds per game. Additionally, NM State has added Ohio State transfer point guard AJ Harris. Harris, a 5-foot-9 guard, left Ohio State after one season and is now starting at New Mexico state and averaging 10 points and 3.6 assists.

Star Watch

The easy answer here would be Zach Lofton. He’s the team’s leading scorer and has surpassed the 20-point threshold multiple times this year.

However, Saturday’s Star Watch goes to AJ Harris. Harris is a skilled point guard, and smaller point guards have given the Illini fits early in the season. If Harris can get hot from three, he’ll be a tough cover for the Illini backcourt.

There is also something to be said for Harris being a Big Ten transfer. I have to imagine he is chomping at the bit to prove he can play and be a very productive player against a Big Ten team. The Illini can’t get off to a poor defensive start and let Harris beat their pressure and carve them up.

Prediction

These United Center games have been strange for a really long time. They have typically been games against lower profile opponents that most would expect Illinois to win.

Instead, it seems like every year it is an incredibly close game that could easily go either way. I don’t expect Saturday’s game to be much different. This New Mexico State team is experienced and knows how to win. I expect their guards to challenge the Illini for 40 minutes.

Illinois 83, New Mexico State 79.