Aggies vs. Lobos
It's Aggies vs. Lobos, part one on Saturday afternoon in Albuquerque. Courtesy NMSU Athletics.

It’s Aggies Vs. Lobos; Enough Said

Aggies vs. Lobos. Bitter rivals. Fan bases that dislike each other. Bragging rights for a state. Simply put, it is a day of days in the Land of Enchantment.

Is there a chance in the 227th meeting between the Aggies and Lobos that fans get as exciting of a finish as they did in both games in 2021?

It remains to be seen. But, The Pit will be rocking. And you know the trash talk has been going on all week.

Aggies vs. Lobos

Enough said.

Rapid Preview

Last season’s co-WAC regular season champions, the New Mexico State Aggies are off to a rough start to their 2022-2023 campaign.

With a 1-1 record through two games, the transition pains from a 3-time WAC Coach of the Year Chris Jans leaving. To a highly respected junior college head coach making his name at his first division one gig. It is bound to happen.

Still, fans in Las Cruces have already gotten accustomed to the good life. The Aggies dominated the series with the Lobos (5-3) and the Miners (7-1) during Jans’ tenure. New Mexico State cut down the nets in Las Vegas and went dancing three out of five years (likely four out of five if not for Covid-19). And secured a win in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly three decades.

It’s a lot to follow up. But head coach Greg Heiar is cut from the same coaching tree as Jans. And in an interview with WAC Hoop Digest’s Kyle McDonald in the preseason stated, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, when it came to how he plans to run things in Las Cruces. He’ll need to begin, of course, with winning against the Lobos. So, Saturday afternoon is almost a must-win situation in the Aggies vs. Lobos saga.

Saturday’ is Heiar’s first chance to make his mark on the Rio Grande Rivalry. The last time these two programs met on the hardwood was Dec. 6, 2021. The Aggies secured a 76-74 revenge win inside The Pit. This after the Lobos traveled south, breaking the 100-point seal in their 101-94 victory inside the Pan Am Center.

Most of New Mexico State’s squad is gone from that series. And several key Lobos have yet to play a minute in this rivalry.

But a near sold out University Arena, AKA The Pit and two hungry squads are going to make for must watch TV Saturday night. With more on the line than meets the eye.

New Mexico State 1-1 (0-0 WAC)

The Aggies are 1-1 through two games thus far. New Mexico State has a 49-point win over D-II opponent New Mexico Highlands in the season opener. And then a more tell tale 67-64 loss on the road to I-10 rival UTEP, inside Don Haskins Arena last Saturday.

To put it frank, rivalry wins are a must at New Mexico State. Undefeated against both schools may be shooting for the stars. But keeping things competitive is a given. There isn’t too much to analyze with such a small sample size. But the Aggies certainly have the talent, athleticism and depth to hang with any team on their schedule.

So, with such a heralded recruiting class, and ties to the same coaching tree Jans hailed from, expectations haven’t changed in Las Cruces for Greg Heiar. He certainly has the tools to compete. But after a lackluster loss to UTEP last week, Heiar needs to ignite a fire in his highly touted roster. Because winning against your rivals is a must. Already down 0-1 in that category, Saturday could either be a huge boost to morale inside the program or a nuclear bomb.

Aggies vs. Lobos. You get the point.

Keys to an Aggie win:

Protect the paint, attack the rim & limit turnovers.

The Aggies may have had more time off to rest before Saturday’s showdown. But the momentum is almost all on the Lobos side. The visiting squad needs to find a way to protect the paint, attack the rim and play with stable ball control.

The Lobos play fast and a part of that fast game is having their guards drive to the rim, take mid-range jumpers and get the ball to their bigs. The Lobos take 70.1% of their shots from inside the arc, and make an even higher rate of those shots versus 3-pointers (79.9%). Heiar’s squad won’t be able to beat the Lobos at their own game. But slowing things down and protecting the paint could force the Lobos to attempt 3-point shots. An area they do lack in, making just 6.0 3-point field goals a game while shooting 32.7% from distance.

Attacking the rim may also be the key to an upset on the road. And attacking the rim and putting their starting bigs in foul trouble could hurt. New Mexico doesn’t have the deepest frontcourt depth coming off the bench. Removing their double-digit scoring starting frontcourt could really hurt their scoring efficiency and force Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. into tougher shots.

Lastly, take good care of the ball. The Lobos thrived off of forcing turnovers last game and it could have well been the Aggies kryptonite. If they protect the ball, New Mexico State should even the playing field.

New Mexico 3-0 (0-0, in the MWC)

New Mexico comes home after a fruitful road trip to Dallas, TX. Securing a quality 83-64 win against SMU inside Moody Coliseum. This statement win puts the Lobos at 3-0 on the season. And with favoring confidence as well as momentum heading into their weekend rivalry match up.

Second-year head coach Richard Pitino’s squad is really modeling that Mountain West Sleeper tag given to them in preseason coverage. Led by senior guard Jaelen House, the Lobos have four players averaging double-digits at the moment. Playing fast, tough and smart to secure the W.

A win Saturday could, for the most part, cement that label and put the team in great shape heading into next week at the Lobo Classic.

Keys to a Lobo win:

A balanced attack, create turnovers & penetrate the perimeter

In the Lobos’ recent thrashing of SMU on the road in Dallas, it seemed as if everything was going right for Pitino’s squad. To secure the first win of this rivalry series, New Mexico is going to have to provide fans an encore performance at home Saturday afternoon.

They’ll have to create turnovers and find a way to maximize those opportunities as they did in Dallas (20 points off of 15 forced turnovers). The Aggies themselves appear to be struggling with ball handling issues at the moment. 20 turnovers to a mere 8 assists in their road loss in El Paso.

The Lobos will also have to minimize defensive fouls as they did against SMU (only 16 Lobo fouls). New Mexico has to keep their best players on the court. Lobo starters account for nearly 83.8% of the teams total scoring average at the moment.

Next, they’ll need a balanced offensive attack against the Aggies. By balanced, I don’t mean contributions from multiple players. I mean finding a way to get buckets at all speeds. The Lobos have a near top-30 fast paced playing tempo (per KenPom) in the entire country. The Aggies are not to far behind (138th) and have very capable players who could thrive in the open court. New Mexico will have to find a way to keep their offensive tempo balanced. If they’re forced into a relay race or, even worse, a hacking contest to see who can make the most free throws to win, the Lobos are in trouble.

Lastly, they’ll need to penetrate what is anticipated to be one of the more athletic, long and bruising perimeter defenses they’ve seen, yet.

Any combination of Xavier Pinson, Dajuan Gordon, Michael Peake and Deshawndre Washington will be daunting for a Lobo squad that doesn’t exactly shoot it lights out from deep. Efficient ball movement, patience and good looks will separate these two. Especially if the Lobos are looking to break down any half-court sets the Aggies throw at them.

Players to Watch

New Mexico State

Junior Guard-Deshawndre Washington

The 6-7 point forward from Chicago, IL is showing just why he spurned high major offers in favor of joining his head coach from Northwest Florida State in Las Cruces. Washington can knock down shots form the perimeter. And as 6-7 can back defenders down or take defenders off the dribble. With his size and athleticism, Washington is a matchup nightmare.

Senior Guard-Xavier Pinson

Pinson is showing why he was the lone Aggie to receive preseason recognition on both the coaches and media All-WAC teams last month. The 6-2 New Mexico State floor general came alive in the Aggies’ loss to UTEP a week ago. Pinson had 20 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals against UTEP.

The former LSU point guard showed the ability to score at all three levels and distribute the ball to players in both the open and half-court situations.

His defensive assignment come Saturday will likely be fellow lightening quick, gritty all-around scorer, Jaelen House. The son of former NBA veteran Eddie House. He may find his energy spent containing the Lobos’ leading scorer and facilitator. Pinson currently averages 2.5 SPG through two contests. But has a reputation as a high major defender. Pinson ranked 60th in steal rate last season in the country. All while running the offense and avoiding turnovers against an opponent that thrived off of them in a recent high-profile win.

New Mexico

Senior Guard-Jaelen House

The Lobos floor general and spark plug has helped lead New Mexico into the national spotlight after their 21-point road win on Tuesday. The 6-0 senior guard is averaging a team best 20.7 points. House also leads the Lobos in  assists (6.3 APG) & steals (3.3 SPG) through three contests. For those who have not yet caught a glimpse of him, House is a lightening quick, gritty do it all floor general for the Lobos.

House has the ability to drive through traffic, shoot the open three and get down hill at will. He’s also a very capable distributor and perimeter defender. But, he will face some very difficult defensive foes Saturday. In either Xavier Pinson, DaJuan Gordon or Deshawndre Washington. All lengthy, quick and strong.

It’s a good thing House has help, to take the attention away from him for just long enough. Just look at highlights from his performance at SMU. Most of his damage was done in the second-half.

Senior Forward-Josiah Allick

The Lobos have plenty of firepower this season. And I could have easily gone with junior guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. (18.7) as my second highlighted New Mexico player. Or maybe the team’s third leading scorer, big man Morris Udeze (16.7). Instead I’d like to point out the Lobos’ last double-digit scorer, Josiah Allick.

The 6-8 transfer forward made his way to Albuquerque after a successful first three seasons in the Summit League at Kansas City. Allick is currently averaging 10.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG & 1.0 BPG through three contests for the Lobos. His 18-point, 9-rebound & 2 blocked shots performance against SMU Tuesday night was a leap forward New Mexico needed.

The Lobo big man was making his money in transition as well as half-court sets against the Mustangs. Shooting a whopping 88.9% from the field on the night. A huge proponent to his team’s offense, as other Lobos like House took it easy and kept feeding their hot hand.

Any help offensively just makes New Mexico that much more dangerous. Aside from bringing a presence down low defensively and on the glass with fellow transfer forward Morris Udeze (Wichita State). Both big men averaging double-figures elevates the Lobos to just where they need to be as a resurgent program.

What’s on the Line?

Much more than just another number in the win column. With a Lobo victory, New Mexico will head into their Lobo Classic with all the momentum in the world. Primed for a return trip to Las Cruces after the holiday break.

If the Aggies were to win, not only would it completely let the air out of the tires of their in-state rivals. It will also be a solid foundation and stepping stone for Greg Heiar during his first season at the helm of the program. That win is just what his program needs, working from behind on rivalry games after falling to UTEP on the road last week.

Aggies vs. Lobos.

It doesn’t get much better than this.

Prediction

The KenPom ($) line in this one is New Mexico favored by 5 points. Given the home teams run of form as of late and what appears to be a solid home court advantage with over 13,500 tickets sold as of Friday. A near sold out Pit, is something no coach can prepare for.

Aggies vs. Lobos.

Enough said.

New Mexico 78, New Mexico State 73

Tip-off for Aggies vs. Lobos  is scheduled for 5:00 PM MT and can be watched live on Mountain West Network.

Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.

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