No. 18 Arizona, New Mexico to meet for first time since 1999 (Dec 20, 2016)
Arizona and New Mexico are set to renew an old rivalry Tuesday night.
The programs have played 125 times in men’s basketball, much of that as members of the Border Conference from 1931 to 1951 and of the Western Athletic Conference from 1962 to 1978.
But when the 18th-ranked Wildcats (10-2) and Lobos (7-4) meet in Tucson for a 9 p.m. ET tip, it will be the program’s first clash since December 1999, after which then-Arizona coach Lute Olson had no interest in continuing the series.
“To renew it, it’s not necessarily a favor to them. It’s in our program’s best interest to play them,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said Monday.
“I’m sure New Mexico is really excited about the opportunity to play us. But, I’m telling you, we’re really excited about the opportunity to play them, too. This isn’t a one-way street. We’re not the high-and-mighty and they’re not the little guys trying to climb the hill.”
Olson canceled the series after a 79-78 loss in Albuquerque on Jan. 16, 1999, when the Lobos went coast to coast with a dribble, a pass and a buzzer-beating basket in 4.6 seconds. Olson, with a history of questionable calls at The Pit, felt the scoreboard operator did not start the clock on time.
The programs were contracted for one more game and the Lobos upset the No. 3 Wildcats in December 1999 in McKale Center in Tucson. But, per Olson’s wishes, that was it — until the schools agreed in 2015 to this home-and-home series.
“We didn’t schedule them to renew something that once was,” Miller said. “We’ve scheduled them because it makes a lot of sense for our current team and program.”
Arizona is still limping along with seven scholarship players, but the Wildcats are coming off a 67-63 win over Texas A&M in Houston on Saturday. They are led in scoring by a trio of freshmen — 7-foot power forward Lauri Markkanen (16.3 points per game), wing Rawle Alkins (12.3) and guard Kobi Simmons (12.3).
Point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who has been out since Nov. 30 because of a high ankle sprain, has a chance to come back for the Wildcats’ Pac-12 opener at Cal on Dec. 30, Miller said. The game against New Mexico is Arizona’s final nonconference game.
The Lobos have a dangerous scoring combo in post Tim Williams (18.6 points per game, 63.8 percent shooting) and guard Elijah Brown (16.0 points per game). Brown was a unanimous selection to the All-Mountain West first team last season after transferring from Butler. He is the son of veteran NBA head coach Mike Brown.
Lobos sophomore Dane Kuiper, a 6-7 wing, has added to the scoring punch of late with 29 points in the past two games as he moved into the starting lineup.
“I think it’s the team and Coach (Craig Neal) putting a lot of confidence in me and me coming out a lot more focused,” Kuiper said in the Albuquerque Journal about his increased production. “A couple games before, I came out really tentative. I’m really starting to come into my own.”
This will be the second Miller brother that Neal has faced this season. The Lobos lost 64-57 to Dayton and Miller’s younger brother, Archie, last month in Anaheim, Calif.
“They may have had their ups and downs in nonconference play,” Sean Miller said, “but every team hits their stride and, you know what, I’m sure this is a game that they would love to hit their stride in right before Christmas.”