Program Reviews: Chris Jans and New Mexico State can’t stop winning

If you follow college basketball at all, especially in the month of March, you’re very familiar with the New Mexico State Aggies. Seemingly every year, they enter the NCAA Tournament as a 12 or 13 seed, give a 4 or 5 seed a 40-minute scare, and remind you that no one wants to draw this team in March. In this way, they make a lot of sense to me as Western Belmont: they may not have a signature March moment in recent history, but every coach dreads seeing their name come up in a Round of 64 matchup. Ask Bruce Pearl, Tom Izzo, and Steve Fisher: all coaching legends that have been pushed to the absolute brink by a program that resides near the Organ Mountains and a whole lot of government workers.

There’s more to this program than March, obviously, but for a long time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that was it. An astounding and true fact about the Aggies: they actually only won their regular season conference title once between 1999 and 2015. In theory, they shouldn’t have been a March mainstay at all. And yet: they won their conference tournament five different times in that span. In fact, they’ve won the WAC conference tournament eight times in the last ten years. (NMSU would’ve been a massive favorite to do it again this year prior to the cancellation of March basketball.) That’s unbelievably consistent for any program, but it’s more surprising for a program that, for a long time, struggled to stay at the top of the conference from November to February.

That’s where Chris Jans comes in. Since Jans’ arrival, NMSU is three-for-three in winning the WAC regular season title and two-for-two in the conference tournament. He’s making things look pretty easy, as the Aggies are 43-3 against WAC opponents in the regular season since his arrival. This year, they went a perfect 16-0, with nine wins by double digits. From December 18 onward, the team went 19-0 against all opponents, including a massive road win at Mississippi State on December 22. (We’ll talk more about that one in the interview.) All of that is obviously great. It’s made even more impressive by the fact New Mexico State suffered three injuries before the season even started and had eight different starting lineups in its first 17 games.

This year could’ve been New Mexico State’s best shot yet at their signature March moment. Under head coach Neil McCarthy in the early 1990s, the program was also a March mainstay, and they took advantage: a Sweet Sixteen run in 1992, a second-round run in 1993. Since that 1993 win, the Aggies are a painful, unfortunate 0-for-11 in finding a March win. They’ve had several close calls, and statistically, at least one of those games should’ve gone in their favor. Good news for Aggies fans: as long as Jans is your coach and the level of program support remains this high, the signature moment for New Mexico State basketball will come soon enough.

The below interview is lightly edited for clarification and time.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

Chris Jans: “We’re not really a slogan program. When you walk into our facilities, be it our locker room or our practice facility, you’re not gonna see a bunch of slogans slapped onto the wall. It’s just not our approach. We talk about within our program of a “why” and such, but we mostly have an attitude of trying to get better every day. In terms of on-court philosophy, our staples that we talk about on a daily basis are rebounding, defense, and toughness. We think that travels a lot better than your offensive repertoire will outside of your home court. We also want to have the right mindset off the court – be a good guy and treat others like you’d like to be treated. At a place like New Mexico State, people know who you are and a lot of eyes are on you.”

WW: For 15 years now, New Mexico State has consistently been one of the best mid-major programs in college basketball, a school that no one looks forward to drawing in March. What makes NMSU such a special place to play?

CJ: “First and foremost, I think it’s name recognition. People in the industry recognize New Mexico State men’s basketball across the country. When you call coaches in high school or AAU, along with prospective student-athletes, you don’t have to explain to them who you are. It’s a nice feature. The fan base is very real. The people here in the community truly care about this program. They want to win, obviously, but it’s deeper than that. There’s a relationship between the team and the community that goes far behind our three years here. It’s been developed for decades; we merely inherited it and are trying to enhance it. This program just means a lot to so many people. The fans want to root for the kids, both as people and as players.”

WW: This year’s NMSU team struggled through injuries and cycled through eight different starting lineups in the first 17 games. Once your lineup was settled somewhat, though, you went undefeated in conference play. What was the most challenging part of this season? The most rewarding?

CJ: “It certainly was a roller-coaster year on the court. I’ve been coaching for 28 years on different levels in different capacities and I’ve never been a part of a program that had anywhere close to the number of injuries we sustained. We were so excited in the offseason heading into this year. We’re coming off a 30-win season, got beat by Auburn by a point in the first round, but we had four starters and seven seniors returning. On paper, we were elated about this particular team being our best one yet. Our summer workouts were unbelievable, and the competitive level among our players was the best I’ve seen. I had to do interviews like everyone else in the offseason, and I told people we’d be really good. I can’t go on them and say the ‘I don’t know how good we’re gonna be’ stuff.

The second week of October, we had three guys go down within a 24-hour period. It was literally the day of our season kickoff event, one of the biggest fundraising events we have. A.J. Harris, Clayton Henry, and Wilfried Likayi all had varying injuries and it changed everything. As the head coach, the team can go off of your mood and actions. For a 24-hour period, it was borderline depression. At the banquet, I wasn’t in the best mood, and our fans knew about the injuries. We took a day to feel sorry for ourselves and then we got back to work to attack it as best we could. We struggled hard in the non-conference schedule, but the Mississippi State win was what empowered us and gave us confidence the rest of the way.”

WW: You’ve carried over the rebounding dominance of your predecessors in Menzies and Weir and have become one of the very best defensive rebounding teams in basketball. Why do you value team-wide rebounding to this extent?

CJ: “One, having worked with Gregg Marshall at Wichita State. It’s something he emphasizes as head coach and it’s something he’s worked at since his days at Winthrop. Two, I read a simple stat along the way. Teams that win 80% of the ‘game-within-the-game’ rebounds end up winning the actual game. Seems to me like that’s something you’d want to emphasize! (laughs) The other way I look at it is that I’ve been a sports fan my whole life. In football, you used to track time of possession really close. We sell to our guys that we probably aren’t going to have the ball for most of the game. Any chance you have to get that ball, you’ve got to take advantage of it. Rebounding is something you can rely on to pull you through when you aren’t shooting the ball well.”

WW: Your level of three-point shooting is a complete 180 from the Menzies NMSU era: where Menzies’ teams took fewer threes than almost anyone, your teams have ranked in the top 20 in three-point attempt rate the last two seasons. Why make this shift towards taking more threes?

CJ: “I think the shift has been made by basketball in general. I’m somewhat old-school but not afraid of new-school, and feel like I’m fairly well-versed in analytics. We’re not a program that’s disgusted with our players if they shoot a mid-range shot, but we certainly talk about when we should take them. When we get enough data for each player, both in game and in practice, we show it to them and want them to understand the math behind their shots. At the end of the day, I ask so much of our guys on defense that I want them to feel good and be confident on offense. I was raised with the mentality of ‘turn down a good one to get a great one,’ but at the same time, I want them to feel empowered to take those kind of shots. We don’t really talk about threes that much with our guys, but I’m a fan of it. Obviously, it makes a lot of sense analytically, and it helps us with offensive rebounding.”

WW: Defensively, I think your teams are really good at forcing opponents to score one-on-one off the dribble as opposed to a catch-and-shoot situation. Do you place an added emphasis on this within your defensive system?

CJ: “It’s interesting you say that. Each year, I get more and more familiar with KenPom and the analytics world. That stat (NMSU regularly ranks among the nation’s best in opponent assist rate.) is crazy to us. We’re not a team that’s really focused on it, but wow, what a random stat to be good at. (laughs) It comes from a couple things. We want to take away catch-and-shoot opportunities from the best shooters on the court, but I also think that comes from taking away a team’s set plays. We want teams to score in unnatural ways. Something we’ve started talking about as a team is motivating our guys to get better at defending one-on-one.”

WW: I want to ask about a specific game from this past season: the December win at Mississippi State. It was a defensive battle, but I know that no win of this caliber is too ugly. How big of a win was this for your program?

CJ: “I like winning ugly! I love when I get the text messages from friends, family, and fans after a game with something to the effect of ‘we’ll take them any way we can get them.’ I laugh when I get them. It’s so hard to win in Division I! Winning ugly is a good thing, because it means you played hard and showed some grit and grind to your team. Any time we get a chance to play a Power 5 team, our kids get excited. Some of them may have even played at that level, while others feel they should’ve been at that level. It provides more exposure for your program nationally. In terms of that game in particular, we came into it really struggling because of the injuries. They were scary when scouting them because of their size, but we knew if we could rebound with them, we had a chance. It just gave us such a huge confidence boost, and our players came back from it more focused and energized.”

WW: What’s the next big step for NMSU as a program?

CJ: “The obvious answer is to win games in the NCAA Tournament. This program has a rich tradition of winning, and it’s amazing how many times they’ve won the conference tournament. Something I didn’t realize before I took the job because of their success in the conference tournament is the lower number of regular season conference championships. Prior to our arrival in 18 years before us, they’d won a total of four regular season conference championships, but no one knew about that because they always won the postseason conference championship. One way our staff and team can put our stamp on this program is to win the regular season conference championship as much as we can.”

WW: What’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

CJ: “A lot more TV! Obviously, I’d imagine everyone out there that’s going through a stay-at-home order is watching a lot more TV than they normally do. We’ve watched a lot of Netflix. My wife and I have somewhat different tastes, so Narcos or Peaky Blinders or Ozark may not work for her – the gore turns her off. She’ll go find another TV to watch something she enjoys. Recently, we started watching Schitt’s Creek and we’ve found common ground on it.”

Below is a short video featuring some of my favorite plays from the games I sampled.

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