UTEP and New Mexico resume their long standing basketball rivalry tonight at 7 p.m. on the Root Sports network.
Miner Rush: The high expectations are back for Noodles and the Lobos, are they living up to those so far in the OOC portion of their schedule?
Jeremy Mauss: I'd say they are close to getting back to where they should be able to compete for the Mountain West title, but they still are likely a year away from that. Their three loses are not terrible as they are to a 6-1 Virginia Tech team (but by 20 points) and the other two loses are to respectable mid-majors in Illinois State and Dayton but they were always a few steps behind the latter two loses. Yet their wins have come against lackluster teams and their best win might just be against New Mexico State, so overall they are not there yet. This team should be a thorn in the side to most teams in the Mountain West but after just over a half-dozen games this team looks much closer to NIT than NCAA team.
MR: How do you think the renewal of the rivalry is being received from Lobo fans?
JM: This is great to have this game back on the schedule and hopefully this series is played every single year. It may not get the home-and-home treatment in non-conference like New Mexico vs. New Mexico State, but getting this on the schedule each year is very important. This is more of a big deal for older fans as these two teams have not been in the same conference since 1998, the two have not played since 2011 in the NIT and the last regular season game between the two it was 2009. So, it has been awhile for students at New Mexico to really know what this game is about so it is not a big deal to them but for sure those who are a bit older are excited to see UTEP on the hardwood.
MR: Without Tim Williams, how do you think New Mexico replaces his production?
JM: This will be very tough as Williams is one of two Lobos who is averaging in double figures. Starting in his place is junior Joe Furstinger and Coach Neal compares him to former Lobo Cameron Bairstow who was a star for New Mexico and spent a few years in the NBA and is now playing pro hoops in his native Australia. However, replacing Williams' 19 points per game will likely not be matched by Furstinger as he is averaging 4.7 points per game and scored only nine in his previous start. Rebounding and defense might be comparable to Williams but the scoring will need to come from someone else and maybe Elijah Brown will need to shoulder the load and up his game as will Sam Longwood how is the teams third-leading scorer.
MR: What makes Elijah Brown special?
JM: It helps that his dad is Mike Brown and has been a head or assistant coach in the NBA for 20 years and it shows with how smart Brown is on the court. Brown wants to make his own plays and can do so off the dribble and is just a natural scorer, but he is not afraid to get overs involved as he averages a modes 3.4 assists per game. With Williams out for this game with a concussion the UTEP defense can put more pressure on him and that could allow for Brown to get others involved for easy buckets. However, look for him to attack early and often and try to win this game by himself, however that could be a troubling prospect for the Lobos as he has been inconsistent this year shooting the ball and he likes to settle for three-pointers more often than he should and is 28 percent on 15 of 53.
MR: What early weakness have the Lobos been working through so far?
JM: The lack of scoring after Williams and Brown. Some of that is due to the Lobos playing a deep bench in league play with 11 players averaging 10 or minutes but no one is stepping up after those two; there is Sam Longwood who is scoring just under 10 points per game but New Mexico goes when their best players are playing well. They settle for long shots and love the three-point shot. However, those numbers are skewed by Brown chucking but take away his numbers and they are 14 of 48. Force them to shoot from beyond the arc and that is an easy way to top New Mexico. They have a tough time on defense and in adjusting for efficiency and per 100 possessions they are basically in the middle of the pack in the NCAA. One weakness is that the Lobos do not like to push it up or down the court and if UTEP were a team that liked to run they could have a big edge over the Lobos, but maybe that is something Tim Floyd and the Miners may want to try out to get the Lobos off their game.
MR: One stat, and outcome prediction?
JM: I think with UTEP's struggles this year New Mexico should win easily as it is at home at the Pit, but without Williams this game has now become very interesting. Lobos still win and I see Brown wanting to take over this game and shoot above 40 percent from three-point range and scoring at least 25 points, but this will be a game that will be close the entire way.