The two schools have virtually parallel men’s basketball histories. Both programs were built by a pair of 700+ victory coaching legends in Don Haskins and Lou Henson. Both programs reached the Final Four about 45 years ago. Both programs experienced sustained success throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. Both programs have hired successful young, up and coming coaches in recent years as they try to recapture the golden years (Reggie Theus and Marvin Menzies for NMSU, Gillespie, Sadler, and Barbee for UTEP).
Nationally, the rivalry is one of the best-kept secrets in all college basketball, but locally, the rivalry is unavoidable and passionate. The passion and energy of the fanbases infiltrates players who come to the Southwest from far away; Oakland’s Wendell McKines stirred up Miner fury a few years ago when he mocked the Miners for dropping an exhibition game to a team they had just blown out of the gym a few days before and already Detroit’s Vince Hunter has shown that even as a freshman he understands the weight of the rivalry. Hunter 'name-dropped' the NMSU game in preseason interviews when asked general questions about the season. As Miner and Aggie fans, we’ve all heard the mocking chants in both gyms, seen the pre-game scuffles and skirmishes, and felt the burning annoyance of a bragging friend's taunts after a tough loss. It’s not really basketball season until the Miners and Aggies throw it down early in the season.
Tshilidzi Nephawe, Junior Forward, 6-10, 268
The South African junior is coming off of a medical redshirt season and appears to have developed into a much improved rebounder to complement his offensive skills. He is averaging a near double-double in the early going (14.5 and 9.5) and has a motor. He also has about 40-50 pounds on Willms and Bohannon and, along with the 7'5 raw sophomore Sim Bhullar, can reverse UTEP's significant size advantage in their season opener against Loyola New Orleans.
McKenzie Moore, Junior Guard, 6-6, 200
The Miners need the junior guard to be one of those players who fills up multiple columns of the stat sheet. In just 25 minutes in the first game, Moore shot 7 of 11 from the field, nabbed 7 rebounds, and tallied 5 assists. He has a size advantage over the Aggie guards and needs to continue to shoot well in case the Aggies bigs make points in the paint hard to come by.
The UTEP-NMSU game is almost always close. Any perceived advantage gets typically overanalyzed in these games. I'm not buying the argument that the Aggies will be fatigued because of their three game tournament in Hawaii. I find it difficult a team can be fatigued this early on in the year, even with the long plane trip. If anything, the Aggies have had three game films to study, three opportunities to learn from previous games. That's an advantage this version of the Miners has not had up until now, playing only an inter-squad scrimmage and a pair of very inferior opponents. The Aggies are big, physical, and rebound well. They'll give Matt Willms a proper welcome to the rivalry and make it all the more intimidating to drive into the lane, something the Miners didn't even do too much of against Loyola. That being said, the Miners have options. Bohannon can play away from the basket a bit to draw his man out of the paint. McKenzie Moore and C.J. Cooper can knock down some threes to keep the perimeter defenders honest. The Miners will almost assuredly play great defense.
All signs point to a toss up game. Both teams will make the NCAA Tournament this year with both teams' main competition bolting for bigger conferences (Memphis and Utah State/Louisiana Tech). UTEP has the better overall talent and will have the better team by season's end, you just never know with these I-10 games.
Make sure to stay tuned to MinerRush for more information on all things UTEP sports, and make sure to Follow @sbnminerrush on Twitter for live updates throughout the game. Picks Up, and Go Miners!
Thanks to PaydirtRenzo for the writeup.