The New Mexico versus New Mexico State rivalry has been going on for well over 100 years, but there will be a new wrinkle this time around as the Lobos will head to Aggie country with a coach some fans may not be thrilled to see back in the Pan American Center.
First-year Lobo head coach Paul Weir said he didn't want to be the narrative of the story heading into the matchup against NMSU—the team he used to coach. But there will likely be plenty of focus on his return to Las Cruces, New Mexico and the reception he receives from the Aggie faithful.
On one hand, he spent 10 years at New Mexico State, taking over as head coach for the school last season and guiding the team to a 28-win season. The Aggies won the Western Athletic Conference title and earned an NCAA postseason berth along the way.
On the other hand, the Aggies lost in the tournament and then lost their coach. Plenty of NMSU supporters probably felt betrayed by Weir's decision to leave and there could be a range of emotions when he enters the Pan American Center on Friday to coach from the visitor's bench.
Weir said he was well aware that there is a lot of emotion involved, but described himself as a "process-driven" person. There isn't anything he can do to change the things that have happened or the way people feel about it, so dwelling on the past probably wouldn't do him a lot of good.
"Are my boos going to be more intense than maybe some in the past given what's happened—possibly so," the head coach said. "But that's what's beautiful about this rivalry and hope its going to make it a really fun game."
He said the team has been focused on practice and ramping things up in the three days leading up to the showdown with New Mexico State and seemed excited to see how his players will respond to its first road test.
New Mexico (2-0, 0-0 MW) has gotten off to a hot start, surpassing the 100-point total in both of its first two home games. The school set a new single-game record with 147 points against Northern New Mexico, and followed it up with a 103-71 triumph over Omaha.
Seven different Lobo players are averaging double-digit scoring figures so far, with junior guard Troy Simons setting the benchmark at 21.5 points per game.
But the level of competition will ratchet up and Weir probably knows better than most what to expect from a capable New Mexico State team.
"They can do a lot of really good things. That's a very talented team," Weir said. "They're good—they are very balanced."
Chris Jans, who was hired to replace Weir as the New Mexico State head coach, saw the Aggies split the first two games to start his tenure. NMSU picked up a victory over East Central University in the home opener, but fell to Saint Mary's by a score of 92-74.
NMSU led Saint Mary's by eight points about about midway through the first half, but the Gaels pulled away in the second half to win comfortably. Coincidentally, former guard Lobo Cullen Neal chipped in 12 points to help Saint Mary's down the Aggies.
Despite the loss, Weir said he knows how capable the Aggie players are. Three NMSU players have averaged double digits so far. Zach Lofton has put up 21.5 points per contest, while senior Jemerrio Jones and sophomore AJ Harris are scoring 15.0 and 12.5, respectively.
A couple of areas that could have a major impact on the outcome are turnovers and rebounding—specifically defensive rebounding.
Both teams have enjoyed a big rebounding advantage over opponents, with New Mexico clearing an average of 13 more rebounds than its opponents and the Aggies holding an 11.5 edge of their competition.
New Mexico entered the season with the goal creating turnovers part of its new identity. The team often applies full-court pressure—something the first two opponents have not handled well.
The team is creating nearly 30 turnovers per game and converting those chances on the other end, exposing opponents for an average of 46.5 points off turnovers.
Weir said it is difficult to anticipate what teams will do after it breaks the press, but the Lobos must focus on playing solid defense and creating turnovers.
He said it is easy for people to see things on the front end when the full-court press is in effect, but the goal is to force turnovers in every phase of the game—which would include getting in passing lanes and drawing charges after the ball gets past half court.
The Aggies have done well so far this season in the turnover department, committed just 19 total through two games.
New Mexico holds a 121-97 overall advantage in meetings between the two programs. The game is expected to get underway at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on Aggievision and aired on 610 KNML, The Sports Animal.
Robert Maler is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers basketball, football and tennis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Robert_Maler.