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The top storylines for UConn men’s basketball’s NCAA Tournament opener against New Mexico State

New Mexico State is elite at many of UConn’s strengths.

Syndication: Las Cruces Sun-News Nathan J. Fish/Sun News / USA TODAY NETWORK

The 5-seed UConn men’s basketball team will look for its first NCAA tournament win since 2016 tomorrow. Standing in the way are the 12-seed New Mexico State Aggies, winners of the Western Athletic Conference.

On paper, its a favorable matchup for UConn — they’re 6.5-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook, and have a 71 percent chance to advance to the second round according to KenPom. But it’s March baby, and anything could happen. We’ve already done a deep dive on Teddy Buckets, but here are a couple other storylines to watch for come Thursday:

Six pack of facts

  • Last year, the Aggies played their entire season in a resort in Phoenix, Arizona, because the state of New Mexico had banned athletic competition due to pandemic restrictions. Everyone overcame adversity during the Covid bubble era, but that’s a brutal level of isolation. Don’t expect the Aggies to be phased by a cross-country trip to miserable Buffalo.
  • The Aggies’ best alum? Pascal Siakam, NBA Champion and 2020 All-Star for power forward for the Toronto Raptors.
  • New Mexico State’s top five scorers don’t shoot better than 33% from three.
  • Only one player averages more than one block a game, Johnny McCants. But they still led the WAC in block rate.
  • In the last 3 months, they haven’t faced anyone higher than 90th in NET.
  • New Mexico State hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1993.

Dollar store wrench

McCants is the Aggies’ version of Isaiah Whaley and their best player in Evan Miya’s defensive efficiency metrics. He gives New Mexico State an edge with his energy, deflections, and interior toughness. He’ll do all the dirty work, but if his presence is limited to just that (think how Whaley played against Villanova in the Big East tournament), then UConn will be in good shape.

The margin that matters

Whereas the rebounding margin was usually the tale of the tape in the Big East, the turnover margin will be the battle that wins the game tomorrow. New Mexico State ranked outside the top 300 in the nation in turnover rate, pretty careless for such an experienced team with three fifth-year seniors. The Aggies lost or tied the turnover battle in four of their six losses this season. While the Huskies are no St. John’s, It’s likely New Mexico State hasn’t faced as athletic team as UConn, so Hurley should be dialing up the ball pressure all over the court.

Be smart with the bunnies

Inefficiency at the rim could doom Connecticut, as New Mexico State ranks in the top 35 nationally in both 2-point and 3-point percentage allowed.

Adama Sanogo went 8-27 from the field in the Big East tournament. The sophomore has a tendency to bounce back in a big way after rough stretches, but he’ll need to convert those baby hooks and little floaters at the rim at a much higher clip than he has been doing.

It’s not just Sanogo, though. Slashers like Tyrese Martin, RJ Cole, and Andre Jackson will have to be disciplined in avoiding head-down drives into the paint in the hopes of drawing contact and shooting two; the Aggies allowed the lowest free throw rate in the WAC.

Hold my beer

NMSU is 39th in the country in offensive rebounds and 20th in the country in limiting opponent field goal percentage. The Huskies are first and 25th in those categories, respectively, so this is a true ‘hold my beer’ moment. UConn’s strengths should overshadow New Mexico State’s given the stark difference in schedule.

If UConn converts its easy looks, turns the Aggies over, and sticks to its strengths, they’ll move on to the second round.