LAS CRUCES — After having its 12-game win streak snapped over the weekend at Utah State, New Mexico State returns to a rivalry atmosphere on Saturday.
The Aggies hope for a split on the season against UTEP when the Miners visit the Pan American Center on Saturday. The Miners beat the Aggies in El Paso in November.
“We feel like we have to win that game,” Aggies senior Bandja Sy said. “The first game was a bad game for us. We have to win that game on Saturday.”
Here are five storylines entering Saturday’s I-10 rivalry game:
Two vastly different teams: Other than the Aggies system vs. UTEP’s system, it’s hard to imagine either coaching staff spending much time viewing the video from UTEP’s 55-54 victory at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso. Consider that Saturday’s game could feature up to five starters between the teams will be different than the first meeting. For NMSU, Tyrone Watson (suspended) and Tshilidzi Nephawe (injury) won’t be available and Daniel Mullings won’t have his jaw wired shut. UTEP guards Konner Tucker and McKenzie Moore are two of the Miners’ top two scorers in Conference USA play. Neither were available in the first meeting.
“We look at (the first game) but both teams’ identity has kind of changed,” Aggies sophomore guard Daniel Mullings said. “They have a couple guys who are eligible back and playing. For us, a couple guys are injured and starting roles changed due to incidents. We are just looking forward to bringing whoever we have suited up and going 100 percent.”
Lost opportunity in El Paso: NMSU led the first game 54-50 with 1:34 to play in El Paso, but a pair of NMSU turnovers cost the Aggies. NMSU had 20 turnovers in El Paso, including a Watson double-dribble call at midcourt that gave the Miners the ball back down one. Chris Washburn stepped tot he foul line and converted a one-and-one opportunity with 5.9 seconds left to deny the Aggies their first win in El Paso since 2009.
Fatigued factor?: UTEP lost a 45-39 C-USA game at Southern Mississippi on Wednesday night. The Miners are 2-9 away from the Don Haskins Center this season while NMSU is 12.1 at the Pan American Center.
Aggies coach Marvin Menzies also gave his players three days off following last weekend’s road loss at Utah State.
“They will have a quick turnaround,” Menzies said. “They are all healing up. It was good to have a few extra days.”
Turnovers: NMSU’s 20 turnovers led to 22 UTEP points in the first game, but the Aggies have done a better job taking care of the ball with 12.6 turnovers per game in WAC play. UTEP turns the ball over 12.2 times per game for the season so ball security could decide the outcome on Saturday just as it did in November.
Two struggling leagues: The WAC and C-USA are middle-tier leagues in terms of RPI, but both have significant separation between contenders and the rest of the league. Memphis and Southern Miss are three games clear of the rest of the conference at the top of the standings. The WAC also appears to be a two-team race between unbeaten Louisiana Tech and Denver with NMSU needing some help to get back into the Top 2. C-USA is ranked No. 11 in the RPI and the WAC is ranked No. 13.
“Every game is a grind for every team,” Mullings said. “You can’t take any team lightly. (Louisiana Tech) is playing well and they are getting away with a lot of close games. You have to tip your hat to them.”