It has been five years since UTEP and New Mexico – teams that have waged epic battle after epic battle, for over eight decades – have set foot on the same basketball court.
On Wednesday night, a rivalry will be renewed and a battle will be forged once again as the Miners and the Lobos will meet for the 142nd time in Albuquerque.
UTEP Coach Tim Floyd is as excited as anyone that the series is back.
“I think it’s a game that means a great deal to a lot of El Pasoans,” he said. “We were travel partners up and down those Rocky mountains for 80 years. So many great memories. I think our facilities, I think our coaching history here, the great players that have played at our institutions reflect each other. I think the academics at the schools reflect each other.”
The last time UTEP faced New Mexico was on March 15, 2011, a first-round NIT game at The Pit. Floyd was in his first season as the Miners’ head coach, and Steve Alford was in his fourth season at New Mexico. Fans may recall a testy exchange taking place between the two coaches at the game day shootaround.
Alford is no longer at New Mexico. Floyd and New Mexico’s current head coach, Craig Neal, both say that what’s in the past will stay there.
“Craig and I were good friends before that incident,” Floyd said. “Craig was not really a part of that incident, although he was working there at the time. I think that cooler heads have prevailed. I think we both recognize that this is a series that’s very important to our fans. We’re really appreciative that it’s back on the table. I know a lot of people from both administrations worked on it. I’ve always said that there are certain series that coaches should not be allowed to schedule. The fans, the stockholders, should be allowed to schedule and this is one of those because our histories are too deep.”
The Lobos are 5-3 but will likely play without star forward Tim Williams on Wednesday. The senior forward, averaging 19 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 62.7 percent from the field, is recovering from a concussion.
New Mexico has another All-Mountain West Conference player in junior guard Elijah Brown, who averages 15.8 ppg a year after scoring 21.7 points per outing.
“Craig has one of those old visible jobs where they love ball like we do. That’s why we’re such a great fit to continue to play,” Floyd said. “I think they’re an athletic group. They are a lot more athletic than we are right now. We’re not a very athletic team right now. They’ve got a couple of guys who go get the ball in the basket on a regular basis and that’s really not who we are right now. They’ve got a little length that we don’t have right now, 6-11 and 6-8, that are shot blockers and active guys. I think we all know the history in the Pit. They have won 80 percent of their games in that arena. They have a beautiful fan base and we’ll look forward to the experience.”
UTEP will be playing its first road game of 2016-17. The Miners are 25-42 in road games under Floyd and are trying to win a non-conference road game for the first time since Dec. 21, 2013 at Washington State.
“We haven’t been on the road yet. We’re not road tested,” Floyd said. “We played at a neutral site [Charleston Classic] and obviously we are not a very good basketball team right now. We have had our struggles. We are really fighting an uphill battle going into this facility. I’m sure we’re going to be underdogs by a few points. But I’m interested to see how our players play.”
It should be all hands on deck for the Miners. Omega Harris will return from a one-game suspension, and Matt Willms, who broke his nose in Saturday’s game against Northwestern State, is also expected back.
“He got fitted for a mask yesterday,” Floyd said. “The perfect mask will take two weeks to get here. He’s going to look like the guys used to look 25 years ago with one of those old baseball catchers masks, but he’s going to try to play with a broken mask and a broken nose, and he’s going to give it the old college try tomorrow. He hasn’t practiced, he still has not practiced since Charleston. I love the kid. He has basically averaged 14 [points] and six [rebounds] playing about 19 minutes a game. He’s got a lot of talent.”
Tip-off is at 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on ROOT Sports.