There is no denying it, there is no getting around it, and the truth kills me to type this; NMSU has owned UTEP in the past three match ups.
But now the tables may have turned a bit at least on paper and 24 hours away from the tip.
UTEP is loaded and receiving Top-25 love, while it appears NMSU is searching for post Sim Bhullar identities.
One thing that is for certain about the 2014 hoops edition of the Battle of I-10 is this will be......well.....a battle.
NMSU comes into the Don with a 1-2 record, playing a respectable and difficult three game swing to open the season, but had some of their weaknesses exposed for all us to see.
For one, NMSU is playing at a different pace on both ends of the floor.
Versus Saint Mary's the Aggies opened with a 2-2-1 full court press, then a 1-3-1 press, and ended in a man-to-man press. The Aggies also played at a faster tempo on offense, with both shown schemes exhibiting a little rust, to possible major holes in the Aggie armor.
Through three games NMSU has 48 turnovers, and though they held a 10-point lead or more for most the contest against Northern Colorado in their lone win, the slop ball was still there in stretches.
Tim Floyd on NMSU:
"They are a team that has several starters back from a year ago. They are very experienced. They have gotten road tough by playing Wichita State, one of the really fine teams in the country, and Saint Mary's, who has been terrific the last couple of years. They will come in here with a lot of veterans who beat us here a year ago. It will be very difficult. Nephawe is one of the more active big guys in the country. He is a very good rebounder. They are versatile, with Mullings being one of the terrific guards in the country. He is just outstanding. I think they shoot the ball well. They haven't shot particularly well from the three-point line, but we know that they can. New Mexico State is going to play a bunch of different defenses. We're going to have to be ready for everything from 1-3-1 to full court presses, zone, man, and we'll try to come out well-prepared and maybe share the ball a little bit better than we did in the first game."
On the defensive side, the absence of Bhullar is clearly a lost identity as both St. Mary's and Northern Colorado both had more than 10 offensive rebounds each, and NMSU allowed 16 second chance points against a weaker Northern Colorado front court.
Another issue the Aggies have is the health of Tshilidzi Nephawe.
The usual physical explosion from the athletic big man looked non-existent both in rebounding, and his post moves. He looks uber slow when defending the post, and is clearly not at 100%. Nephawe also looks lost to me when the paint gets crowded, which isn't a good sign from a seasoned veteran.
To me this is where Vince Hunter comes in.
Remi Barry is a decent defender, but I feel Vince will give Barry, and Nephawe trouble with his high motor, and improved quickness. All of NMSU's interior defenders play defense with their feet dragging, and I'm sure that is something Menzies has addressed.
Red-shirt freshman big man Pascal Siakam is long, but WILL be pushed around by the UTEP bigs, and also looks lost and a step slow once the ball hits the rim.
The Aggies reverted back to their tough, pressuring perimeter defense led by all-world guard Daniel Mullings in their Northern Colorado win, and in second half stretches against St. Mary's.
"We have to show that we can handle their pressure a little better than we did a year ago. They bothered us by limiting us to one shot. They were very good on the boards. We are going to have to get more active in all areas. Defensively I thought it was very, very easy for them a year ago.
So though I'm pretty much pointing out NMSU's weaknesses, Daniel Mullings can still guard at a high level, and as always is pretty much automatic on fast breaks with the rock in his hands and head full of steam.
As huge of an advantage UTEP appears to have on the blocks, the Aggies still are guard strong, and guard play will be huge keys for both squads.
D.K. Eldridge got going a little bit against Northern Colorado, and Ian Baker is capable, though has been inconsistent thus far. One of those guys will have to step up and help Mullings get the Aggies into an offensive flow.
For UTEP its not going to be post up, back down and have your way with NMSU, the Miners have to be patient and break down the Aggies with keen craft, and smart decision making from the guards.
The Aggies allowed 38 points in the paint versus Northern Colorado, and they allowed St. Mary's guards to break the press with usually one down court heave/pass that lead to an easy layup by a big. St. Mary's guards had no trouble breaking the press, though NMSU clamped down in the second half, and really gave Northern Colorado's lesser talented guards trouble with their pressure past the three point line.
It will be interesting to see if the Aggies do come out and press UTEP, because UTEP has shown that their bigs can run, and we saw how effective and athletic UTEP's new plethora guards can be even if they are not scoring.
As always match ups will key, but here some other points I think UTEP has to be on top of to knock off the Aggies.
UTEP Keys to The Game
***Limit turnovers-Like I mentioned the Aggies will bring that attacking pressure either in a press or in the halfcourt, and by forcing turnovers late in the St. Mary's game they were able to cut the lead down to 10.
***Dominate the boards-If UTEP is at more than plus-five clip on the boards, I can guarantee you the Miners will have no trouble at home, the Aggies really got after it on the offensive glass against Northern Colorado and I would expect that confidence to be there. But which Aggies set of big men show up to play Saturday?
***Free Throws-Something tells me Vince Hunter, Julian Washburn, and a few guards will be driving, driving, and driving some more against NMSU. The Aggies bigs just aren't quick enough to hold down a driving Hunter, or Washburn with out hacking, so I expect NMSU to lazily foul a few times, and the Miners HAVE TO CASH IN AT THE LINE!
***Transition Defense-If its up to Menzies, the Aggies would run UTEP out of the gym with an up and down game. Daniel Mullings maybe the best in the country when leading a fast break, and getting back on defense is a big MUST for UTEP just like its going to be down on the other end for the Ags. I'll also throw in protecting the rim as another key that plays along in this realm.
***Ride Momentum-The Don is supposed to be close to capacity Saturday night. Any UTEP run, easy look at the basket, positive defensive sequence, and any other break or game changing chance has to be played hard till the very end. Though NMSU has three seniors, I feel a good UTEP spurt, mixed with some energy from the Don can put the Aggies away in spots where the Miners have them down.
More than NMSU's struggles in defending the paint and rebounding, UTEP's unknown offensive identity in a regular season game, this game is going to come down to guard play.
Whichever set of guards can play controlled, fast, and feed their bigs off the dribble or set offensive action give their respective squad an edge.
One of the best Mid-Major one-on-one match ups will also take place: Washburn v Mullings.
The two seniors have been dueling, calling each other by name in the media, getting after each other on the floor, and it all comes down to two more games between the faces of each program.
Defense, athleticism, smooth jumpers, overall heart and love for their school is what will and has taken place between these two seasoned battle tested warriors, and for people who follow both programs, this as always should be a fun match up to see one last time.
And make no mistake, no matter how much verbiage, stats, film study, or anything other crap I throw out at you don't get this match up twisted: ITS A RIVALRY GAME BETWEEN TWO NCAA TOURNEY CALIBER TEAMS, and an NMSU v UTEP rivalry at that.
Expect everything and anything to happen between two hated rivals with recent history of classic clashes.
No matter how much trash talk, analysis, stats are thrown out its plain and simple: its forty minutes, 94 feet between two goals on each end of the floor, with one goal in mind........beat the hell out of each other.