The 18th-ranked Wildcats (10-2) have won four games in a row, including a 67-63 win over the Texas A&M Aggies on Saturday in Houston.
Arizona will be without starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright on Tuesday as he continues to sit with a high ankle sprain, though Sean Miller said the junior is ahead of schedule in his recovery and could possibly return for the start of conference play on Dec. 30.
Jackson-Cartwright has missed Arizona’s last five games.
There is still no update on Allonzo Trier’s status. One Tucson sports reporter predicts the guard’s return is near, but Trier quickly shot that notion down.
Trier has missed Arizona’s first 12 games for unspecified reasons. Should Arizona be without the sophomore on Tuesday, the Wildcats will continue to be limited to seven active scholarship players.
It’s a patch of adversity for Arizona, but Miller thinks the team will benefit from it in the long run.
“If we were able to get our whole team back, I think all of us would point toward this stretch here, really the whole year from the beginning of the school year through tomorrow’s game (against New Mexico), has been incredibly beneficial,” he said. “Everybody that plays on our current team — the seven that are playing — has had a bigger role, more pressure on them to perform, baptism by fire.”
Arizona’s trio of freshmen — Lauri Markkanen (16.3), Rawle Alkins (12.3), and Kobi Simmons (12.3)— continue to pace the Wildcats, as they are the team’s leading scorers this season.
Dusan Ristic is coming into his own lately, too. Arizona’s starting center has scored in double figures in each of the last six games, including two 18-point outings. The junior is averaging 10.7 points per game this season.
The Lobos (7-4) have split their last four games and are ranked as the No. 113 team in college basketball, according to KenPom.com.
New Mexico is led by an inside-outside duo of Tim Williams and Elijah Brown. Williams, a 6-8 senior, is averaging 18.6 points and 6.7 rebounds this season. He is shooting 63.8 percent from the field and 79.7 percent from the free throw line.
Brown, a 6-4 junior, is posting 16.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per contest. He averaged 21.7 points per game as a sophomore a season ago, being named to the All-Mountain West First Team, but his scoring efficiency has regressed this season.
The Orange County native is shooting 39 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from 3. Brown was a teammate of ex-Wildcat Stanley Johnson’s at Mater Dei High School.
“We know him well,” Miller said of Brown. “He played at Mater Dei and I remember watching Stanley practice and seeing (Brown) there. ...He’s an all-conference player, a very, very good guard. They run some great offense to get him some shots and he gets to the foul line and he’s a load. He’ll be one of the best perimeter players that we have faced, and I would say the same thing for Williams inside.”
As a team, the Lobos are ranked as the No. 82 team on offense and No. 172 on defense in college basketball. The Wildcats are No. 30 and No. 29, respectively.
New Mexico is shooting 49.1 percent from the field, but just 31 percent from 3-point range.
The Lobos are the best team in the country at getting to the free-throw line, with a free-throw rate — the number of free-throw attempts per field goal attempt — of .557.
“I think New Mexico is the best team we’ve played this year at home,” Miller said. “I would put them in a category with a lot of the other top-flight programs that we have. They have Williams and Brown an inside-out combination that I think is about as good as an inside-out combination of any team we’ve played.”
This is the first time Arizona and New Mexico have faced each other since 1999. It used to be a yearly rivalry, and Miller is hoping to reignite that relationship — but not necessarily because of the tradition involved.
“I’m sure New Mexico is really excited about the opportunity to play us but…we’re really excited about the opportunity to play them too,” Miller said. “This isn’t a one-way street. We’re not the high-and-mighty and they’re the little guys trying to climb the hill. They have stature in their program, they’re good, we know they’re good. That’s why we scheduled them. We didn’t schedule them to renew something that once was. We scheduled them because it makes a lot of sense for our current team. I don’t think I can give New Mexico more respect than what I just said, and that is we’re playing them because we think they’re a really good program.”
Arizona is 83-42 all-time against New Mexico, and it’s the UA’s second-oldest rivalry behind ASU. The two schools matched up against each other nearly every year from the 1920s to the 1980s and then sparsely in the 1990s before Lute Olson started a boycott of the series.
Why did that happen?
In 1997, New Mexico beat Arizona on a buzzer beater in Albuquerque, and Olson insists the clock was mismanaged, so he “vowed to never play there again.” It’s safe to say he is not well-liked in that town.
The Wildcats completed their home-and-home obligations with the Lobos in 1999 and haven’t played New Mexico since. That changes this season and next season, as the two schools start a home-and-home series. Arizona will travel to Albuquerque next season.
“If you look at the last five years of who they are, they represent high major basketball,” Miller said of the Lobos. “They’re well-coached, they do things the right way. They have one of the most phenomenal home courts in the country. They draw a passionate fanbase. They’re a perennial postseason team, they play high majors in non-conference, they compete for their regular season championship. They have players on their roster who leave and become NBA players.
“I think it’s going to be a great two-game series and hopefully we’ll be ready here (Tuesday) night.”
How to watch Tuesday’s game
Time: 7 p.m. MST
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Live Stream: Pac-12 Live
Announcers: Ted Robinson & Bill Walton (!)
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire