Friday, December 15, 2017

The Weekly Take: Sean Miller gives hope for rekindled Arizona-New Mexico rivalry

Posted By on Fri, Dec 15, 2017 at 2:30 PM

click to enlarge Rawle Alkins scored seven points against Alabama on Dec. 9. - STAN LIU, ARIZONA ATHLETICS
  • Stan Liu, Arizona Athletics
  • Rawle Alkins scored seven points against Alabama on Dec. 9.
It’s been 18 years and 334 days since Arizona last made the 448-mile journey to the hallowed grounds of The Pit in Albuquerque.

That game—a bitter 79-78 defeat at the hands of the 16th-ranked Lobos—featured former Arizona coach Lute Olson’s famous declaration on their longtime Southwestern foes.

Olson, according to a 1999 Tucson Citizen piece, vowed to "unequivocally" end the rivalry, after Arizona lost to the Lobos on a last-second layup by Damion Walker that was aided by a late-starting game clock.

Call it home court advantage; call it bad sportsmanship—but Olson remained true to his word, putting an end to one of the region’s best rivalries.

The two teams concluded the rivalry 11 months after the infamous declaration, with New Mexico once again prevailing, 70-68, this time in front of a sellout crowd in Tucson.

The two teams—who played 54 times between 1950 and 1999—entered a cold war on the hardwood until Sean Miller and then-New Mexico coach Craig Neal struck a deal for a home-and-home series in 2016.

The first leg of that series took place on a chilly December afternoon last year, with Arizona rolling over Neal and company 77-46 (the largest margin of victory for either team in the series since New Mexico’s 31-point win in 1979).

The two former Border and Western Athletic Conference foes will meet on the light-stained hardwood of the Pit (now called Dreamstyle Arena) at 6 p.m. this Saturday.

The matchup is the perfect analogy for the holidays—with two long-feuding brothers reuniting to rekindle the days of yore.

Miller has made it clear that he has no problem scheduling regional rivals—playing UTEP, UNLV, New Mexico State, San Diego State and Gonzaga in recent years.

He addressed Saturday’s contest in the aftermath of Arizona’s 88-82 win over Alabama, saying his team is ready and willing to play anyone, anywhere—especially teams in their figurative backyard.

“Nobody can point their finger at our team and say we don’t play against good programs,” Miller said. “We’ve gone at UNLV, Texas A&M, Alabama, and New Mexico next week will be a heck of a challenge.”

That perspective, especially in a day and age in college basketball where most non-conference games are played at neutral site venues (if played at all), is rather refreshing.

My father, who attended Arizona in the 1970s (and subsequently covered several Arizona-UNM games), told me countless tales of the infamous rivalry tilts between the two foes.

I always wondered why the two, with their steeped history and good, old-fashioned hatred for each other—until stumbling across that Citizen article a few years ago.

It seems that everything old is new again, which is actually pleasant when it comes to college rivalry games.

The series between the Lobos and Wildcats has not been renewed, meaning Saturday’s matchup could be the final one for the foreseeable future.

Make sure you enjoy watching the upstart Lobos, coached by Paul Weir—perhaps the game’s best and brightest young mind.

The idea of Weir and Miller tangling each year, with Arizona’s cavalcade of stars and New Mexico’s resourceful mix of junior college and four-year transfers and under-the-radar studs would be must-watch action.

Here’s hoping for a great game in the Duke City on Saturday, and many more matchups in the years to come.

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