They said the right things.
But as a pair of UNM men’s basketball players, followed by their first-year coach, fielded questions in the Pit media room on Monday about the importance of Tuesday night’s rivalry renewal with the New Mexico State Aggies — an annual thing that COVID brought a halt to in 2020 for the first time since World War II — it was apparent there remains an almost awkward cloud of uncertainty surrounding this year’s Rio Grande Rivalry.
To add to the unusual feel surrounding the lead-up to the game, NMSU on Monday called off coach Chris Jans’ weekly news conference, where the Aggies would have talked about the game. The school hasn’t yet announced whether Jans will be cleared to coach the game after he missed last Wednesday’s win over New Mexico Highlands due to what the school said was COVID-19 protocols (it has not said whether he contracted COVID, but his availability for Tuesday has not been made public yet).
Basically, the players and coaches in the rivalry from one side have never played in it (UNM senior walk-on Jordan Arroyo is the only Lobo that saw action in the 2018 rivalry games) and the ones from the other school were unavailable to talk about it.
None of it means there isn’t excitement or awareness of the importance of such games as the Lobos (4-3) play the Aggies (5-1), who have gone 4-2 in the series since Jans took over.
“When you’re in coaching as long as I’ve been in it (18 years since he started coaching in college), plus growing up around it — Kentucky/Louisville, Florida/Florida State, Minnesota/Wisconsin — you know it’s a big deal,” said Richard Pitino, the Lobos first-year head coach. “… Obviously excited to go on the road — a rivalry game. We know how much it means to our fans, to their fans, to our whole state.”
The last time the rivalry was played in the Pan American Center was Nov. 21, 2019 — or 742 days ago, for those scoring at home.
Pitino was coaching Minnesota to an 82-57 home win over Central Michigan that night.
Saquan Singleton, then the starting point guard for Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, was preparing for the big Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference opener against Coffeyville Community College on Nov. 21, 2019. And after a year with the Lobos, but not being allowed to play a game in the state in the 2020-21 season, including the rivalry game, he’s excited.
“We was mad, you know?” Singleton said of not being able to play the Aggies last season. “Everybody wants to play their rivalry. That’s one of the biggest games of the year before your conference. … I know it’s big in New Mexico. I’m just happy I can play in that game. Not many people can play in these games where I’m from.”
Jamal Mashburn Jr., the Lobos leading scorer at 20.6 points per game, was traveling to New Haven, Connecticut, on Nov. 21, 2019, where the Brewster Prep Academy Bobcats he helped lead to a high school national championship that season were playing in a tournament.
“Since I’ve been here, ever since football played them (in September), I knew it was a big deal for at least these local fans and the state in general,” Mashburn said. “So, I’m definitely taking it seriously and they’re going to get my best punch.”
PITINO’S FIRST: In the past six decades, dating back to Bob King’s debut in the 1962-63 season, 10 Lobo coaches have gone 4-6 in their first game against the Aggies (some at home, some on the road).
The four who won: King in 1962, Norm Ellenberger (1972), Gary Colson (1981) and Craig Neal (2013).
For the Aggies, dating back to the 1966-67 season when Lou Henson took over, NMSU coaches have gone 5-3 in their first games against UNM.
More recently, Jans won his debut in the rivalry, 75-56, on Nov. 17, 2017, in the Pan Am Center.
Paul Weir went 0-2 in rivalry debuts — that 2017 game as UNM’s coach and in 2016 as NMSU’s coach, though the Aggies later in 2016 beat the Lobos 84-71 in Las Cruces in what would be Neal’s final game coached in the rivalry.