|Clemson takes on NCAA-tested New Mexico State|
SAN DIEGO -- Clemson is riding high again, having reached seldom scaled heights in the national rankings in a record-setting run to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in seven years.
To New Mexico State and new coach Chris Jans, this is somewhat old hat.
No. 20 Clemson (23-9) set a school record by winning 11 ACC games this season, including its second victory over North Carolina since 2004, and will make its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 as the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region against the 12th-seeded Aggies at the Viejas Arena on the San Diego State campus.
New Mexico State (28-5) tied a school record for victories and qualified as the Western Athletic Conference champion for its fourth NCAA appearance in five years. The Aggies have not broken through lately but took San Diego State into overtime before losing in the first round in 2014.
Clemson, led by guards Marcquise Reed and Gabe DeVoe, opened the season 20-4 and peaked at No. 11 in the Top 25, its second-highest ranking in 20 years. The 2009 team reached No. 10.
Reed, DeVoe and 6-foot-9 center Elijah Thomas, named to the ACC all-defensive team, have taken another step forward while helping the Tigers overcome the loss of forward Donte Grantham, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Jan. 20 victory over Notre Dame. Grantham was averaging 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds.
"It kind of hurts, knowing Dante isn't going to get to play in it, but it's a lot of work we put in and the leadership we put in to make this a special year," said DeVoe, one of only three seniors on the team. "Just happy for the program and the team."
Reed, averaging 15.9 points, has six 20-point contests since the Notre Dame game, and made eight 3-pointers in a 28-point game against Virginia Tech in February. DeVoe, averaging 13.2 points, has four 25-point games and a 24-pointer in the last 12.
The Tigers, who have won three of four, fell to No. 1 Virginia in the ACC semifinals after beating Boston College in the first round. They are 7-6 without Grantham.
"I'm just happy for our players," Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. "Our players deserve this, with everything they have dealt with all season. The way they have played. The way they have handled things."
"They've given us maximum effort and everything they have had all year. This is a reward for not just a season or hard work but an offseason of hard work."
New Mexico State, which has won its last six, has held opponents to 63.8 points per game, ranked 10th nationally.
The Aggies lost to West Coast Conference power Saint Mary's early in the season before a strong showing in the Diamond Head Classic holiday tournament in Honolulu, beating NCAA tournament teams Davidson and Miami before falling to USC in the final.
Jemerrio Jones, a 6-5 senior forward who averages 11.0 points and 13.2 rebounds, was named the WAC tournament MVP after getting 35 points and 56 rebounds in three games.
"We're not the biggest team in America by height, but they are pretty tough," Jans said after winning the WAC tournament with a 72-58 victory over Grand Canyon.
"They have developed a competitive spirit amongst themselves. They like each other. They have great chemistry and they have built that on their own. As a coach, you pray that happens."
Guard Zach Lofton, a graduate transfer from Texas Southern, leads the Aggies with a 19.8 scoring average and averages 5.1 rebounds. Lofton, from Minneapolis, was the Southwestern Conference Player of the Year in 2017 while averaging 16.8 points, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals at Texas Southern.
"We have the talent, but you can't win without heart," Lofton said after the WAC tournament. "And I think is that what we have. They me pick up, I pick them up."