Utah and BYU may be gone, but UTEP is back on the New Mexico Lobos’ basketball schedule.
The National Invitation Tournament is sending the Miners (25-9) to the Pit on Tuesday in the first round of its event to face the Lobos (21-12).
There are 32 teams in the field, which is split into four brackets.
The Lobos got a No. 4 seed while the Miners are a No. 5. The teams will renew their longtime rivalry at 7 p.m.
“It’s a great rival from the past, kind of a border war,” UNM coach Steve Alford said Sunday night. “There have been a lot of good games between UTEP and UNM in the past.”
Unfortunately, for the Lobos’ lone senior — starting point guard Dairese Gary — his season has ended. Alford said Gary tore the ACL in his right knee during Saturday’s Mountain West Conference semifinal loss to BYU, and he won’t play on Tuesday.
Alford said he’s not sure who will start in Gary’s place.
The Lobos-Miners winner advances to the second round against the winner of the first-round game between top-seeded Alabama and eighth-seeded Coastal Carolina. The second round will be held sometime from March 18-21.
If the Lobos beat UTEP and Coastal Carolina upsets Alabama, the Lobos could get the option of a home game. While the Pit will be occupied with the NCAA Women’s Tournament, UNM athletic director Paul Krebs said the school is working on trying to use Rio Rancho’s Santa Ana Star Center in the second round.
As of early Sunday evening, however, Krebs said he had not spoken to NIT officials about securing that possibility.
Right now, it’s time to welcome those Miners once again.
UNM’s longtime rivals Utah and Brigham Young are both leaving the Mountain West Conference after this season. Utah is heading for the soon-to-be Pac-12 and BYU to the West Coast Conference in basketball. The Lobos haven’t made any nonconference plans with either.
But Alford said a game against UTEP is in the works for next season, and this will be a good tune-up for his bunch.
“I think this is a tremendous experience for us,” Alford said, “anytime you can make it to season 4, which is obviously postseason. The guys’ goal was the make the NCAA Tournament, and to fall short of that and now get an opportunity to play in the NIT, I hope gives us something to get excited about. It gives them a chance to get started for next season a little bit early.”
UTEP is the Lobos’ second-oldest rival. The teams will play for the 141st time, with the Lobos holding a 75-65 advantage. The first meeting was during the 1928-29 season. They last met on Jan. 6, 2009, when the Miners won 73-60 in Albuquerque.
New Mexico has won 19 straight nonconference home games since.
Colorado State of he Mountain West Conference also made the NIT, and is a No. 3 seed in a different bracket. The Rams take on Fairfield.
Also in that bracket are two Lobo nonconference opponents: (1) Colorado and (4) California.
Another Lobos opponent from this season, Dayton, is a No. 3 seed in yet another NIT bracket. The Flyers are defending NIT champs.
The tournament utilizes home sites for the first three rounds before heading to New York’s Madison Square Garden for the semifinals and championship on March 29 and March 31, respectively.
“I think the NIT did a pretty good job in getting a game of interest, with a long-standing rival,” Alford said. “It will be a good atmosphere. But they’re a tough draw, a tough matchup for us.”
The Miners missed making the NCAA Tournament by seven seconds. Memphis beat UTEP 67-66 in Saturday’s title game of the Conference USA Tournament in El Paso for the automatic bid into the NCAAs. Memphis’ Joe Jackson hit two free throws with seven seconds remaining in the game, giving the Tigers their only lead of the night.