By Budd Bailey
There are all sorts of interesting stories out there when it comes to NCAA basketball tournament. I had the chance to follow one of them relatively closely, if only because of sheer luck. In other words, here’s the story about how I became a reporter following the New Mexico State basketball team for four days – and what happened during an eventful week.
Sometimes newspapers need freelance reporters to cover teams for the opening rounds. The cost of sending a reporter to a distant city can be very high, and a newspaper that usually doesn’t send someone on the road to follow a particular team might not think it was worth it. The usual procedure is for a newspaper editor to call his counterpart in another city and ask if someone is available to write some stories. So I told the sports editor of The Buffalo News that I would be interested if he heard from someone.
I explained all of this to my wife during the Selection Show on Sunday night at 6:10 p.m. I checked my email at 6:50 p.m., and already there was a note from the sports editor of Albuquerque Journal asking about my availability for the tournament. Suddenly, I was the Buffalo bureau chief of the Albuquerque newspaper, so to speak.
I obviously needed to get up to speed about New Mexico State, starting with its nickname – the Aggies. The more I looked, the more interesting the team from the Western Athletic Conference seemed. NMSU had been in a tournament every year from 2012 to 2019, including seven NCAA tournaments. The Aggies sat out March of 2020 like everyone else because of the pandemic. Then in 2021 they were clobbered by Covid-19 again. They couldn’t play any games in the state of New Mexico, and couldn’t even practice until mid-January. No wonder the Aggies were only 12-8. But they rebounded in the 2021-22 season to finish 26-6. When the team had been able to play a full season under coach Chris Jans, it had records of 28-6, 30-5, and 25-6. He received a six-year contract extension in April, 2021.
New Mexico State looked like a dangerous No. 12 seed entering the tournament. It had added a 6-foot-6 redshirt junior in Teddy Allen, who had gone through a nomadic college career before arriving in Las Cruces. Allen had passed through West Virginia, Wichita State, Western Nebraska Community College, and Nebraska before coming to the Aggies. Since he was the sixth-leading scorer in the Big Ten in 2020-21, Allen figured to be a contender for WAC Player of the Year honors – and he won that award. Veterans such as Johnny McCants (who grew up in Las Cruces), Jabari Rice and Will McNair Jr. were around too. It was an experienced group with good size – in other words, a dangerous team in the best-of-one format.
I watched a replay of the WAC title game, and saw the Aggies handled Abilene Christian in the title game rather easily. That was in spite of the fact that Allen – nicknamed “Teddy Buckets” somewhere along the way – was held to 10 points because of foul trouble. You never know how good a team like New Mexico State was, because teams from one-bid conferences are tough to judge. But they sure passed the eye test with me.
The Aggies played No. 5 Connecticut on Thursday. The Huskies seemed big and athletic but didn’t seem to have a major go-to offensive player to use at crunch time. I gave New Mexico a good chance at the upset, in part because they had something bigger at stake. The Aggies had not won a NCAA tournament game since 1993. They won a couple of more games in 1992. However, those were games were vacated after an NCAA investigation. According to the official record book, New Mexico State hadn’t won a game in the tournament since 1970 – when it went to the Final Four. Local fans might remember that the Aggies beat the Bob Lanier-less (knee injury) St. Bonaventure team in the consolation game that year. That’s a powerful incentive.
Sure enough, it was a close game. But New Mexico State took a second-half lead, and Allen took care of the rest by scoring 37 points – tying the KeyBank Center record for points in a college game. He even scored the team’s last 15 points in a row to wrap up the win. The Aggies had advanced for the first time in a generation … which made for an easy start to my story for the Journal.
After a day of rest, preparation and celebration, New Mexico State had another tough matchup in Arkansas. The Razorbacks played in the powerful SEC, had good athletes, and went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2021. Still, the Aggies played them almost even. An Arkansas spurt in the second half proved to be the difference. The Razorbacks did a great job of guarding Allen, holding him to 12 points. The usual sadness concerning the end of the season fell on the Aggies after the game. Me, I closed the Buffalo bureau of the Journal for at least four more years.
Now the story takes a twist. In noticing New Mexico State’s record over the years, the thought had occurred to me that Jans might be a likely choice to take a job at a bigger school. Now that he had won a game in the tournament, what more did he have to prove in Las Cruces? Essentially nothing.
Still, I was surprised at the news on Sunday morning at 11:30 that Jans had accepted the head coaching job at Mississippi State of the SEC. The announcement came a little more than 12 hours after the loss to Arkansas. Such stories of coaching departures are common. Athletic departments are in a hurry to fill vacancies, since recruiting goes on in one form or another year round. Contracts are written to allow such moves. Exhibit A is when Nate Oats signed an extension to coach at the University at Buffalo right after the 2018-19 season … but the buyout clause involved in his almost immediate departure elsewhere was taken out of petty cash by the University of Alabama.
Still, Jans’ exit all seemed a little quick and ugly. Realistically, shouldn’t he have allowed time for the charter plane back to New Mexico to land? I don’t know how many people received some warning about this, but it couldn’t have been many. Maybe I should have asked Jans’ job status after the loss to Arkansas. Then again, the answer might have been at best evasive and at worst deceptive.
Then I saw a note on Twitter from Rachel Lenzi of The Buffalo News: “If you decide to jump on the Chris Jans bandwagon, do a little research on the guy. And look a little further than his Wikipedia page.” That led me to find this in the ESPN story about his hiring:
“An off-court incident led to Jans’ firing from Bowling Green in April 2015. An email to the school detailed Jans’ inappropriate behavior at a bar that March, which included video of Jans touching a woman’s buttocks. Bowling Green fired him for cause with five years and more than $1.6 million left on his contract. According to sources, Mississippi State officials built up a comfort level with Jans after two separate background checks and the fact that there have been no reported issues in the seven years since his firing.”
I had noticed in the team-produced biography earlier in the week that Jans had an odd career path. He had been an assistant coach at Illinois State and Wichita State for 10 years before landing at Bowling Green for a year. Jans then left for two years as a special assistant at Wichita State again – that move carried something of a red flag without additional information – before taking the New Mexico State job. It made more sense after reading the full story.
That puts us squarely back into the area of how we should deal with bad behavior, especially in regard to improper actions taken against women. By coincidence, Deshaun Watson signed a mega-contract with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns on Friday despite having 22 civil suits filed with authorities about his behavior toward women. The Browns said they investigated the situation before completing the trade; some of the lawyers of those 22 lawsuits have gone public in saying the Browns never called them. Should such people be given second chances? Do they deserve second chances? Where’s the line between showing forgiveness and setting an example?
I’m not going to begin to say I have any definitive answers in such areas. But I do know that administrators have looked the other way for years when faced with such behavior by men, so I can’t argue if someone wonders if a college’s thirst for victories and revenues is greater than its thirst for responsible actions. Some at Mississippi State might be wondering about that right now. Others will be watching New Mexico State closely as it goes about the business of finding Jans’ successor.
That’s a lot to unpack in a week. It was interesting to see some of it from close range. Thanks for the view, Albuquerque Journal.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)