After a controversial loss to New Mexico in 1999, Lute Olson insisted he would never play at The Pit again.
“If anyone wants to know about the series,” the former Arizona coach said after the game, “the home game next year (in Tucson), that will be the end of it.”
Down by one with 4.6 seconds left, the Lobos went the length of the court and scored at the buzzer to win 79-78 in Albuquerque.
The then-No. 7 Arizona Wildcats had been victims of what Olson thought was a “very inept or very dishonest” timekeeper, who did not start the clock immediately when the ball was inbounded, giving No. 16 New Mexico just enough time to get its game-winning shot off.
“Now you know why people don’t want to play here,” Olson said afterward.
Olson’s vow to never return held true, and Arizona has not faced New Mexico in Albuquerque since that infamous day in January 1999.
But enough time has passed, and the longtime rivalry, which dates back to 1917, will return to The Pit this Saturday at 6 p.m. MST.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller doesn’t expect any shenanigans.
“If I were Coach Olson I’d probably feel the same way if that happened, but that was then, this is now,” he said. “It’s a whole new dynamic now with the monitor where you can check and double check. It’s made our game better so that if a situation like that occurs it’s correct."
Plus, New Mexico would be extremely fortunate just to have an opportunity at a last-second shot anyway.
Under first-year head coach Paul Weir — who UNM nabbed from New Mexico State this offseason — the Lobos enter Saturday’s game with a 3-7 record, and have lost three straight and seven of their last eight. The only teams they have beaten this year are Northern New Mexico, Nebraska Omaha, and Evansville.
KenPom ranks New Mexico as the No. 173 team in the country, and its leading scorer and rebounder, Sam Logwood, briefly quit the team and might not play Saturday.
The Wildcats routed New Mexico 77-46 in Tucson last year, but not wanting to downplay the rematch, Miller highlighted three areas the Lobos are dangerous in — their 3-point shooting, pace, and ability to force turnovers.
The Lobos attempt 31.3 3-pointers a game, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all their shots. They only shoot 33.9 percent from that range, but they have four players who have taken 50 or more 3s this year, and even their undersized frontcourt players take them from time to time.
“Anytime you shoot 31 times a game it’s very dangerous, especially at home, especially with a big crowd,” Miller said. “They have a lot of guys shooting them. They’re capable and their coach is a good coach. He’s not going to let anybody shoot them that can’t make them. So sometimes you go through stretch where you’re not shooting a percentage that you’re capable of, but we’re well-aware of how much they depend on that 3-point shot.”
UNM ranks 29th in the country in adjusted tempo per KenPom.
“They depend on transition. They’re a really good transition team,” said Millers, whose team has struggled to defend in transition this year. “They thrive in the open court. They want to play that fast pace."
New Mexico forces 20.3 turnovers a game, and has the 11th-highest opponent turnover percentage in the country (25.2).
“Because they have a very unique defense,” Miller explained. “They press and they switch every screen. Very few teams we play against switch every screen and press, so it’s a style we’re not familiar with. I’m hoping our NC State experience, playing against a pressing team like that, can help us a little bit, but we’re really going to have to take care of the ball and be efficient on offense, try to take advantage of our size, second shots, drives, post-ups.”
New Mexico will also have its home crowd behind it. Over 12,000 fans are expected to be in attendance Saturday, the largest draw UNM has gotten all season. And they will all be decked out in white.
“When you play against crowd like that, a team like that in a non-conference setting on a true away court, those are really rough games,” Miller said. “Those are the games that make you better. And if you’re ever fortunate to escape with a win, those are the wins you really hang your hat on.”
Winners of four straight, the 23rd-ranked Wildcats (7-3) opened as 16-point favorites, but know they enter The Pit, and every road venue, with a target on their backs.
“We’re Arizona,” said UA forward Ira Lee. “Everyone’s going to give us their best shot. It’s going to be a packed house, but at the same time those are the games we look for.”
- Rawle Alkins is expected to see an uptick in playing time after playing 22 minutes in his season debut last Saturday against Alabama. He might even start.
- Saturday’s game is the 127th all-time meeting between the two schools who first met in 1917. The Lobos are UA’s second-oldest rival behind Arizona State who first faced the Wildcats in 1913. The two teams have split their last 16 meetings of the series.
- UNM senior Connor MacDougall may make his season debut Saturday. The 6-foot-9 forward has missed the first 10 games with an ankle sprain. He practiced fully Thursday, according to the Albuquerque Journal. The ASU transfer averaged 4.0 points per game last season.
- Logwood has returned to New Mexico after taking a “personal leave” but even though he has practiced twice, he has not officially re-joined the team yet. It is a weird situation, and it is not clear if he will play Saturday.
- Deandre Ayton (20.5 ppg) and Allonzo Trier (22.3 ppg) are the fourth highest scoring duo in the nation at 42.8 points per game.
- The Lobos are 3-1 when shooting over 40 percent this season, but 0-6 when when shooting below the mark.
- Alex Barcello will see one familiar face on the New Mexico roster. UNM junior Dane Kuiper was a teammate of Barcello’s at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe where the duo helped guide the Aztecs to a pair of state titles in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
How to watch
Game time: 6 p.m. MST
TV channel: CBS Sports Network
Live stream: CBS Sports Live Stream
Announcers: Dave Ryan and Steve Lappas
Overall: Arizona leads 84-42
In Tucson: Arizona leads 55-9
In Albuquerque: New Mexico leads 33-28
At neutral sites: Arizona leads 1-0
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire