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Lobo, Aggie rivalry won’t change, even if hoops season is altered

UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez

It appears the first glimpse of major college sports’ return to New Mexico will be on the basketball courts of the Pit in Albuquerque and the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, albeit likely without the presence of fans in the stands.

Wednesday, we should find out when that season tip-off should be.

Unlike with FBS football in which conferences made independent decisions on whether to play, the NCAA does have more authority over a more uniform rollout of the upcoming men’s and women’s college basketball season amid ongoing coronavirus pandemic concerns.

The NCAA Division I Council is set to meet, virtually, and formalize such things as when the season will start (expected to be in the Nov. 20-25 range), the minimum and maximum number of games teams can play (some national writers have suggested the minimum could be lowered from 25 to 13), and COVID-19 testing requirements.

“I think for us the first thing we’re waiting on is the vote (on a start date),” UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez said. “Then we can start going from there in terms of finalizing what games need to be rescheduled, which tournaments can be played in or can’t, how many conference games and when will those be played. All those sort of things come next, but we first need to see when the date to start is and what exactly the testing requirements will be and we will go from there.”

While there will certainly be a drop in the number of non-conference games, either due to the calendar or teams’ opting out of previously scheduled games for a variety of reasons, hoops fans in the Land of Enchantment can rest assured the annual Lobo/Aggie rivalry – both games – will be played.

New Mexico State AD Mario Moccia, left, with NMSU men’s basketball coach Chris Jans

Both Nuñez and New Mexico State University Athletics Director Mario Moccia assured the Journal of that.

“Yes,” Moccia said. “We will do everything in our ability to get those games played as well as the two with (NMSU’s other annual two-game, non-conference rival) UTEP.”

Currently those Lobos-Aggies games are contractually set for Nov. 21 in the Pit and Dec. 5 in the Pan Am Center.

But there are also some other hurdles that still need to be cleared for those two teams the NCAA has no say over.

New Mexico’s current public health order doesn’t allow for full team practices or fans in the stands – the latter not being likely to change, at least to full capacity, any time soon.

The Journal asked Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who openly urged the delay of fall contact sports of all New Mexico universities, what her thoughts were on a potential November return of college basketball and what that might mean for fans.

“It’s difficult to speculate on November, but mass gatherings and physical contact continue to pose great risk to the health and safety of both individuals and the wider community due to the increased potential for the spread of COVID-19, which is why they continue to be prohibited in New Mexico,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal in an email. “I do not anticipate that changing anytime soon, but we will continue to evaluate health conditions every day.”

The governor last week did, however, hint that this Thursday’s weekly COVID-19 news conference could bring with it a relaxing of the public health order that would allow for more regular training and practicing in the state. Current restrictions don’t allow groups of more than 10 to work out, preventing basketball teams from full five on five scrimmaging with a coach or trainer present.

The Mountain West conference has been having regular meetings each Thursday with athletic directors, and that has not changed this week. At that meeting, ADs are expected to take the Council’s recommendations and fine tune the league’s plan for the season, which could include a change in the number of conference games played (the 11-team league currently has an unbalanced 18-game format, but there has been a push from most members other than San Diego State and UNLV to move to a 20-game league schedule that allows for all teams to play each opponent twice).

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