Despite being just a four-hour drive away, Arizona has played New Mexico State only five times in the past 48 years.
Just one of those games was in Las Cruces, with the Wildcats normally preferring to pay its old Border Conference rival to make a one-time visit to McKale Center instead.
You know, just a warm-up for the bigger games ahead.
But when the Wildcats invite the Aggies over in November, it could be one of the toughest tests of UA’s nonconference season.
Finishing this season at 30-5 after losing to fifth-seeded Auburn 78-77 on Thursday in the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies will join Gonzaga and Illinois as marquee opponents at McKale Center next season.
The Wildcats’ nonconference schedule will also be highlighted with a road game at Baylor, a neutral-site high-major game to be announced, and a possible shot at UCF in the Orange County-based Wooden Legacy event.
New Mexico State clobbered Grand Canyon 89-57 to capture its third straight WAC Tournament this season, winning 19 games in a row overall before losing to Auburn. The Aggies are scheduled to return all but one impact player from this season barring unexpected spring departures.
“That’s a scary game,” said Ryan Reynolds, who arranges UA’s schedule as its director of basketball operations.
Overall, the Wildcats’ nonconference schedule should be comparable to this season’s, which was rated No. 87 by Kenpom thanks to three highly rated opponents in the Maui Invitational: Iowa State (No. 21 in the NCAA’s NET ratings), Gonzaga (2) and Auburn (18).
Other than the Maui Invitational teams, the Wildcats’ 2018-19 nonconference opponents rated an average NET of just 169, with games against Houston Baptist (290), Cal Poly (332) and UTEP (288) bringing the average down considerably.
The Wildcats’ 2019-20 nonconference opponents, outside of the Wooden Legacy, are rated higher as of now, although the Wooden field is weaker than the Maui Invitational was, making the schedule comparable overall.
Arizona’s nonconference opponents next season have an average NET rating of 148, while the Wooden Legacy teams average a rating of 143. UA’s neutral site game is likely to feature a sub-100 opponent that will help its overall rating, too.
“It’s pretty much in line with how we’ve always done it,” Reynolds said. “We’ve always played in an MTE (multi-team event) and if you compare that with Maui and the Atlantis (in 2017-18 it’s not as strong, but we also signed up for that five years ago and at that time, it’s hard to know what the field is going to be.”
UA’s game with Gonzaga is the start of another home-and-home series against the Pacific Northwest power, with the Wildcats playing in Spokane, Washington, in 2020-21.
UA and Gonzaga played at McKale Center in 2014-15, and in Spokane in 2015-16, to complete an earlier two-year series while they also met in Los Angeles in a 2016-17 Hall of Fame event and in Maui this season.
Baylor will get a chance at hosting Arizona after snapping the Wildcats’ 52-game home nonconference win streak this season in a 58-49 victory at McKale Center. The Bears finished 20-14 after losing to Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.
UA’s two-year series with Illinois evolved after the Illini scheduled a Nov. 8 game with GCU and were looking for a second game nearby. Illinois agreed to show up at McKale Center on Nov. 10, while UA will visit Champaign, Illinois, on Dec. 12, 2020.
“These are the types of games that players want to play in, recruits want to be part of, and fans want to watch and attend,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said in a statement when the series was announced last October. “Arizona is a tremendous team, and there is a shared history between our two programs that will create quite a bit of excitement as the next two chapters of this series unfold in Tucson and Champaign.”
The Illini went just 12-21 this season, but could return six of their top seven players if freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu doesn’t leave for the NBA Draft.
Arizona 2019-20 opponent South Dakota State will lose three senior starters, including star Mike Daum, but has been a consistently strong mid-major program; while Nebraska-Omaha finished second behind the Jackrabbits in the Summit League this season with a 13-3 mark and went 21-11 overall.
Arizona will host Long Beach State in a non-bracketed Wooden Legacy add-on game, allowing both the Wildcats and 49ers to play four Wooden games while only three count toward the NCAA scheduling maximum. UA did the same with Boise State before playing in the 2015-16 Wooden event.
Two of the lowest-rated teams in Division I, NAU and San Jose State, will be a part of UA’s six-game homestand to begin the season. The Wildcats are also expected to play one home exhibition and a closed scrimmage.
Led by former Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, UCF is the top-rated team (30th in the NET this season) in next season’s Wooden Legacy. However, the Knights will lose at least two starters off the team that will face Duke on Sunday after beating VCU in a first-round NCAA Tournament game.
• Named the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year, Arizona commit Zeke Nnaji led Hopkins High School to the Minnesota Class 4A title. He had 14 points and 12 rebounds in the championship game Saturday.
• Arizona is among the schools reaching out to grad transfer wings Rayjon Tucker of Arkansas-Little Rock and Justin Pierce of William and Mary, according to Twitter reports. The Wildcats had no scholarships available as of Saturday, but are expected to lose at least one or two players early this spring.
• Former UA walk-on Jacob Hazzard took his pride to Twitter after his younger brother, Max, led UC Irvine over Kansas State on Friday in the NCAA Tournament. “I been in the tourney with zona 4 years in a row,” Jacob tweeted. “Today compares with none of those years. I was a Walk on at zona and got no minutes. Max is the leading scorer on a team with 31 wins. Man! Couldn’t be happier or more proud!”