The New Mexico Lobos (5-1) visit in-state rival, the New Mexico St. Aggies (7-2), Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. MT for the 211th time. The meeting between these two schools has been dubbed the "Rio Grande Rivalry" (previously the "Battle of I-25"), and the basketball rivalry is the fiercest.
The rivalry dates back to 1904, in the Aggies' very first basketball game ever. The Lobos won that first game in overtime 21-9 (I wonder what the score was before overtime?). The Rio Grande Rivalry is unique among non-conference rivalries because the schools play a home-and-home series each season (compared to the traditional single game).
The series has always been competitive, if not ridiculously streaky. The Lobos won the first eight games and then the Aggies took the next ten. Starting in 1925, the Lobos went on a seventeen game streak, lost one, and then took four more. The Aggies took nineteen straight through the end of 1940. Overall, the Lobos hold a 115-95 advantage over the Aggies.
The Aggies are led by 6-2 Daniel Mullings at 17.9 points per game and 3.7 assists and rebounds per game. Next up is DK Eldridge with 12.7 points per game who is shooting 53.6 percent from beyond the arc. And then there is the very big, seven-foot-five Sim Bhullar, averaging 10.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game. Last season Bhullar swatted away ten percent of opponents' two-point field goal attempts. K.C. Ross-Miller is another dangerous weapon on offense; he poured in 26 points against UTEP.
The Lobos are led by 7-foot Alex Kirk, who is averaging a double-double (20.8 ppg & 12 rpg) and four blocks per game. Kendall Williams is next with 19.8 points and 6.3 assists per game. Williams is also shooting an incredible 92.3 percent from the free throw line. Cameron Bairstow is right behind averaging 19 points, six boards and three assists per game.
That is pretty much it and that pretty much highlights the Lobo's primary weakness. The Lobos have to get more scoring support from the rest of the team. Cullen Neal is next in line with 7.5 ppg, but he had 11 points in one game and 15 in another. Otherwise he has scored four, three and zero.
Hugh Greenwood is the go-to ball handler, but he has posted pedestrian scoring figures, averaging 5.2 ppg (shooting only 34.3 percent). I keep on saying this, but Greenwood is a natural shooter and he has to become more involved in the offense if the Lobos expect to win close games.
Other bench players need to step it up too. "I think we have a long way to go," said Lobo's coach Craig Neal. "I thought some of the guys we brought in would be further along and they're not." Neal is probably referencing transfers Arthur Edwards and Deshawn Delaney who are averaging 2.8 and 1.2 points, respectively.
Neal and Kendall Williams also expressed a desire to increase the tempo on the offensive end. "Being a little more selfish I think would help this team," said Williams, whose 6.3 assists per game easily lead the Mountain West Conference. We're "trying to reverse sides of the ball quicker and get some things on the other side," said Neal.
It will be interesting to see how Bhullar and Kirk match up. Bhullar has five-inches on Kirk but he lacks Kirk's footwork and finesse. Either way, Bhullar is going to be the biggest obstacle the Lobos have faced this season and it will be up to Kirk and Biarstow to contain him. Meanwhile, Mullings and Eldridge are going to pose a threat for the perimeter defenders. Mullings is agile and Eldridge can shoot. The Lobos will not want to leave either man open or give them space to dribble.
This is one the Lobos would really like to come away with. A loss here would make the next three games quite daunting. After this the Lobos face Cincinnati, #6 Kansas, and then NMSU again. Look for the Lobos to challenge Bhullar in the paint and pass the ball less.