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Renewal of Arizona-New Mexico Basketball Series a Win for the West

The series between Arizona and New Mexico basketball was killed — “unequivocally,” former Wildcats head coach and Hall of Famer Lute Olson told the now-defunct Tucson Citizen — in 4.6 seconds.

That’s how much time was on the clock in January 1999, when Arizona and New Mexico last met. The Lobos went the length of the floor to score a game-winner in those 4.6 seconds, though Olson was dubious of that being all the time that elapsed.

Coupled with the overall reputation for visiting teams to get some less-than-favorable whistles in The Pit, Arizona’s only been back for the opening rounds of the 2002 NCAA Tournament.

The Pit has been historically unkind to Arizona. In January 1988, shortly after the Wildcats achieved their first No. 1 ranking in program history, they fell from the ranks of unbeaten in a 61-59 loss there.

It’s in part because of that history, not to mention the bad blood that exists as a result, that the renewal of this once promising rivalry — announced Monday — is a boon for both programs.

The positives for New Mexico are apparent. Arizona began to establish itself as a perennial power in the 1990s, at the same time that New Mexico started to gain momentum. The Lobos appeared in seven NCAA Tournaments during the decade and cultivated a rabid, local fan base.

Coincidentally, New Mexico hit a downturn immediately after the Arizona boycott. Only in the late 2000s and into this decade, under current UCLA head coach Steve Alford, did the Lobos again become nationally relevant.

Maintaining a presence on the national stage, particularly amid a transition in leadership like that which New Mexico underwent last season, is essential for the Lobos to build on their momentum. Playing more high-profile series against established opponents such as Arizona is crucial.

“It’s exciting to add big games like this to our upcoming schedule,” UNM head coach Craig Neal said via an official statement on GoLobos.com. “I am very appreciative of Coach Miller and Arizona Director of Athletics Greg Byrne for scheduling this series and agreeing to come play us on our home court. These will be great games for our fans, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to play a program like Arizona.”

What the nation, including recruits, can expect to see from New Mexico basketball is one of the passionate fan bases in the West, with a home-court atmosphere rivaling the best anywhere in college basketball.

Wildcat fans like to tout that “Tucson, Arizona, is a basketball town.” The same can be said of Albuquerque, New Mexico, what with the routine sellouts at the 15,441-seat Pit. Exposure of that atmosphere to a broader audience in games of national interest should help spread the brand, much in the same way New Mexico’s Mountain West Conference rival San Diego State has parlayed its home-court presence into a regular spot in the Top 25 and NCAA Tournament.

For Arizona, turning the page on past bitterness is a decidedly positive move into the program’s future, and allows head coach Sean Miller to continue carving his own legacy, separate from that of Olson but still respecting the Hall of Famer’s legacy.

In a fashion befitting Miller’s tenure at Arizona, the deviation from an old policy included a nod to the program’s past. Athletic director Greg Byrne explained via Twitter:

Surely it took the two programs longer than 4.6 seconds to reach this agreement, but the wait will be worth it.

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