By Steve Escajeda
Every team gets a little more geared up whenever a hated rival comes to town, but two rivals in three nights?
That’s exactly what the UTEP Miners have in front of them this weekend when the New Mexico State Aggies and the New Mexico Lobos visit the Don Haskins Center this Thursday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (7 p.m.) respectively.
This will be the 215th meeting between the Miners and the Aggies with NMSU holding a slim 111-103 series lead, which includes last week’s 72-63 NMSU win in Las Cruces.
Though the two no longer compete in the same conference, it will be the 143rd time the Miners and Lobos face off against one another, with UNM holding a 77-65 lead in that series.
The two teams renewed their rivalry a year ago with the Lobos winning in Albuquerque. This will be UNM’s first trip to El Paso since Jan. 2, 2008.
The Miners have gotten off to a disappointing start this season due mostly to the loss of their big men, either by injury or by choice.
And that’s on top of the sudden resignation of head coach Tim Floyd last Monday evening just six games into the season.
“We’ve had a really integral part of our basketball team go down with Matt Willms’ injury,” Floyd said, before his resignation announcement. “We’ve lost three post players in the last month. We’re going to have to reconfigure some things with how we’re going to go about it.”
Aside from 7-foot-1 Willms’ broken wrist, 6-11 freshman Joey St. Pierre decided to return home for family reasons and 6-11 sophomore Kelvin Jones left the team at his father’s request.
As a result, the much-shorter Miners were outrebounded by the Aggies last weekend 46-31.
A day after Floyd’s announcement, assistant coach Phil Johnson was named the team’s interim head coach for the rest of the season.
“I think we have some possibilities,” Johnson said. “I think we have talent in here. We have a losing record, but we don’t have any losers on our team.”
Without Willms and injured forward Trey Wade, UTEP will have to count on leading scorers Keith Frazier, Omega Harris and Paul Thomas to pick up the slack.
Frazier is averaging over 16 points a game while Harris and Thomas are averaging near 10 points a contest.
The Aggies (4-1) are led by 6-4 guard Zach Lofton, who is averaging 23.8 points per game.
Six-foot-7, 230-pound forward Eli Chuha averages 12.6 points and 5.6 rebounds a game while 6-5 forward Jemerrio Jones is scoring 9.2 points and pulling down 11.6 rebounds per outing.
The Lobos started 2-4 with losses to notables NMSU (75-56), TCU (69-67) and Maryland (80-65).
New Mexico is led by Chris McNeal and Sam Logwood, who are averaging 17 and 16 points a game respectively.
McNeal, a 6-1 junior guard, leads the teams in assists with four per game. Logwood, a 6-8 forward, is averaging 5.2 rebounds and is hitting over 84 percent of his free throws.
Both the Aggies and the Lobos have gotten the best of the Miners recently. NMSU has won nine of the last 10 meetings, including six in a row, while the Lobos have won three of the last four matchups.
New Mexico State, which will try to go a combined 3-0 versus the Miners and Lobos on Thursday night, will just need to keep doing what they’ve been doing.
“We had a goal for this particular game (against UTEP) to be under 40 percent field goal percentage defense. We accomplished that,” said first-year head coach Chris Jans. “We felt like we had a size advantage with Willms and (Trey) Wade out as well. We felt like we should have controlled the backboards and for the most part, we did a good job of that, too.”
Like last week, the Miners will be at a distinct height disadvantage in both games. And who knows where the players’ heads will be after Floyd’s shocking departure.
“We have good coaches,” Johnson said. “We’ll all do this together. We’re going to figure out a way to get the most out of this team.”