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Lobo-Aggie Rivalry Is Without a Few Big Names, but the Battle Still Goes on Tonight in Las Cruces

By Mark Smith And Randy Harrison
Journal Staff Writers
    LAS CRUCES— Ah, what might have been. Just when it seemed this men's basketball rivalry was ready to rekindle its gloriously heated past, icy road conditions again have cooled down the annual New Mexico-New Mexico State series.
    The two face off tonight in Las Cruces, then again Dec. 19 in Albuquerque. The latter will be the 200th meeting between the schools in the series, which UNM leads 105-93.
    Granted, this year's games should be intense. But they just don't have quite the luster many thought they would, even just a few months ago.
    So much for Reggie vs. Ritchie— though that turned out to be a mismatch.
    So much for Giddens and Danridge vs. Nelson and Pope.
    So much for the battle of two top 25 programs.
    While the Lobos (7-1) have pretty much held up their part of the bargain this season, the Aggies (3-6) have stumbled out of the gates and are one of the season's biggest disappointments thus far.
    Granted, the Aggies have been tested already by some of the nation's elite teams, losing at No. 6 Duke and to No. 4 Texas in New Jersey.
    "They are very talented and they have played a tremendous schedule; we understand that," Lobo coach Steve Alford says.
    But New Mexico State also wilted in the second half twice last week to teams not at that level. Once was at UTEP. Even worse, once was at home to North Texas, fumbling a 21-point second-half advantage in a 75-72 defeat and leaving first-year Aggie coach Marvin Menzies searching for answers.
    Senior forward Justin Hawkins, the Western Athletic Conference player of the week, offered one.
    "We're missing toughness," he said. "Everybody's got to look inside themselves to find it. I mean, it doesn't take ability to be tough."
    This time a year ago, the Aggies were riding the wave of Reggie Theus-mania. The Lobos appeared to be finally clicking under Ritchie McKay. The hope was that the immediate future would deliver sensational intrastate battles.
    And even despite the Lobos' collapse last year— which included a 31-point loss at NMSU and a last-place finish in the Mountain West Conference that led to McKay's firing— and Theus' departure to the NBA ranks, things still looked promising for both programs as recently as this summer.
    Each had a solid returning nucleus and gung-ho first-year coaches who were stirring their respective fan bases. The Lobos had a decent recruiting class; the Aggies, a great one.
    But a funny thing happened on the way to fall practice.
    The Aggies haven't gotten freshmen sensations Herb Pope or Jahmar Young past the NCAA Clearinghouse, and senior star Tyrone Nelson was booted from the program after pleading no contest to robbery and bribing a witness, stemming from the robbery of a pizza delivery guy in August 2006.
    The Lobos lost third-team All-Mountain West Conference wing Tony Danridge to a broken leg, and their new recruits have been inconsistent.
    UNM senior wing J.R. Giddens is still around, but is coming off a six-shot performance in the Lobos' 85-77 loss at Ole Miss on Saturday that was reminiscent of some of his disappearing acts from last season.
    And while the Lobos are still 7-1, they failed their first real test by basically forgetting to show up for the first 35 minutes Saturday in Oxford, Miss. The fell behind by 17 at halftime and 23 in the second before making it respectable.
    Meanwhile, the Aggies, with or without Nelson, were a chic pick to be a fringe top 25 team, assuming Pope would be playing.
    Now, they don't yet have a definitive answer to who can run the offense in the wake of losing last year's senior point guard Elijah Ingram. And they don't know why they quit rebounding in both of their last two losses.
    "We've got a couple of players who are up and down," said Menzies. "Our team has been up and down."
    Alford says that the biggest concern is the team showed "some slippage" from earlier games as far as defense, and that's been the priority the past two days in practice.
    The Aggie centers, 6-10 Hatila Passos and 6-11 Martin Iti, could pose more defensive problems for UNM.
    Alford (315-184), who is coaching his 500th game tonight, says he's eager to be a part of the Lobo-Aggie duel, that "rivalries like this are great for the fans and the players. It gives them more appreciation for what the front of their jersey is all about. I think it's good that we play twice a season."
    And would Alford like to see the series get back to the rivalries of yesteryear?
    "Did New Mexico win those games?" Alford asks with a laugh. "If the glory days were when games when New Mexico was winning, I want to get all that back."
    New Mexico at New Mexico State, 7 p.m. TV: Comcast (Ch. 53); FSN, Comcast (Ch. 10) Radio: KKOB-AM (770), KDEF-AM (1150)